David Bowie's Life on Film: An Unpredictable and Arresting Presence

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David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton in 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth.

For proof of how David Bowie's roiling creativity flowed between music and movies, one doesn't have to look further than his first film, Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, from 1976: "He put much more of himself in it than we had been able to get into the script," Roeg said later. "Toward the end I realized a big change had happened in his life."

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Bowie didn't appear on the film's soundtrack, but he used images of himself as the alien Thomas Jerome Newton as covers for his next two albums, Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977). The Starman's gravitational pull couldn't help but warp any film he touched -- sometimes to his advantage, and often not. Many of Bowie's screen performances -- a vampiric stud in The Hunger, the Berlin gigolo of Just a Gigolo -- inflated with theatrical pretense until they popped. The so-1986 musical fantasia Absolute Beginners may be best viewed on a muted TV above the bar, but his throwback soft-shoe number is a delight for any fan who has ever wanted to see Bowie tap-dance in the sky. Likewise, his lascivious, coke-addled mugging as the Goblin King in Jim Henson's Labyrinth was almost hyperactively perverse: "A spoiled child, vain and ­temperamental," said Bowie, "kind of like a rock'n'roll star."

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In Nagisa Oshima's 1983 drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Bowie was brilliant as a British POW thrust into a psychosexual duel with his Japanese captor, and the iconic image from that film -- Bowie, buried in sand up to his neck -- is an exaggeration of his most committed and constricted film performance: The trained mime trapped in an invisible box of British reserve and, every once in a while, cracking the lid to reveal lip-curled hate, wry disdain or daring sexual menace.

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All actors make flops; Bowie was no different. But he turned down Bond villains and easy paychecks to take risks with David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Julian Schnabel, Tony Scott and, yes, Ben Stiller (Zoolander). Usually, actors flip out over working with Martin Scorsese; instead, the director said, "I was a little taken aback when I met Bowie" on the set of The Last Temptation of Christ.

As Bowie's legend grew, he was best when he could wield his weird aura in the service of another timeless peer. As Andy Warhol in Basquiat and Nikola Tesla in The Prestige, Bowie made these men strange and curdled, coiled up and twisted outsiders. Onscreen and off, he always understood the strength of the strange.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of Billboard.