Pop Culture #630
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Pop Culture #630

It’s not exactly a cliché to say that musicians make for bad actors – David Bowie died on the same day that Lady Gaga won a Golden Globe for American Horror Story: Hotel, if anyone considers the Golden Globes a reputable judge of quality – but generally speaking being famous for your musical ability doesn’t always translate into being a good actor.

Fortunately, David Bowie was, on the whole, a memorable screen presence – which isn’t really something you can say about many of his peers (Mick Jagger and Madonna have had more big screen misses than hits). Partly that’s down to skilful use of his on-stage persona(s): when your act is as theatrical as Bowie’s was – just look at the string of personas he ran through in the ’70s and ’80s – there’s plenty for a director to play off. But Bowie worked as more than just a symbol (unlike, say, Eminem, who was good in 8 Mile largely because he was playing a character designed to be a blank slate). The Man Who Fell To Earth was an obvious match for Bowie’s stage persona – he sang about being an alien; why not play one? But if he was simply weird throughout the film it wouldn’t work – what makes him so strange is that just enough of the time he’s plausibly human, seduced by wealth, yearning for the family he left behind on his home planet.

So while many of his best-remembered roles – an ’80s vampire in The Hunger, the Goblin King (wearing startlingly tight pants) in Labyrinth – played into his persona as a strange, not-quite earthly being, he was often just as impressive playing against type as a much more down-to-earth figure in films like Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Absolute Beginners. And he could make fun of himself, which never hurts; his cameo in Zoolander is both perfectly judged and the kind of thing that makes a celebrity all the more loveable. And while a lot of the celebrity stuff in Ricky Gervais’ sitcom Extras could be a little on-the-nose, Bowie’s appearance there was one of the few moments where the show really shone. And on top of all that he was a voice on Spongebob Squarepants, which is the kind of credit anyone should be proud of.

Still, his weirder roles are the ones that tend to linger: a one-scene appearance in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, where he plays a long-lost FBI agent who turns up spouting gibberish (in a not-great American accent) works because he’s built up as this mysterious figure of dread (and some kind of ghost who video cameras can’t quite pick up properly). His last major movie role as Telsa in The Prestige could have come off as stunt casting (he’s built up so much in the film that when he finally appears he couldn’t be played by just any old actor, despite it being a small role), but Bowie is utterly convincing as a world-changing genius whose efforts aren’t quite accepted by those around him. So presumably, only the second part was fiction.

Written by Anthony Morris

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