David Bowie has been making music for 50 years, and is still going strong with his brand new album, Blackstar. Along the way, he’s reinvented himself about a million times, dabbled in all different sorts of music, and has been one of the most influential and fantastic musicians of modern times. He’s also been, decidedly, a bit of a weirdo, always willing to push boundaries or try something new. That includes his foray into the world of moving pictures.
He hasn’t been in a ton of films, and many of his appearances have only been cameos, but, on occasion, he’s taken on a starring role. Here are some of the acting appearances by the man known, at times, as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, or The Thin White Duke.
The Man Who Fell To Earth
Bowie had a few minor roles early on, but the first time he really had an acting role, he didn’t merely dip his toe into the water. He starred in the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth, as the titular man who fell to Earth, Thomas Jerome Newton. By this point, 1976, he had already done the whole Ziggy Stardust thing, so it made total sense for him to play an alien who came to our planet. It’s a weird movie and it has Rip Torn in it, but Bowie’s natural offbeat vibe made him a serviceable performer in what was, essentially, his first real acting role.
In fact, Bowie even won the Saturn Award for Best Actor. However, the Saturn Awards, an awards event for “science fiction, fantasy, and horror films,” has a somewhat shaky history. After all, they gave the same award they gave Bowie to George Hamilton for Love at First Bite.
Speaking of vampires (Love at First Bite is about vampires), Bowie’s next notable role was in 1983, when he starred in The Hunger. The movie is labeled an “erotic horror” film on Wikipedia, so, naturally, it stars Bowie, Susan Sarandon, and Frenchwoman Catherine Deneuve. It’s another role that asks Bowie to play somebody who isn’t human living among humans, which tracks. Here’s the thing, though. The Hunger is directed by Tony Scott. Now, Scott has his fans and defenders, sure. Nobody gets to make that many movies within his backers. However, if one were to merely state their own opinion, they might say that Tony Scott was a terrible director whose visual style was utterly obnoxious at its best, and maybe they also walked out of this movie during a film class because it was just so bad. You know, hypothetically.
In 1983, Bowie also had an uncredited cameo as “The Shark” in the film Yellowbeard, a Monty Python adjacent project. It has a great cast, and it was co-written by and starred Graham Chapman. Marty Feldman’s last performance was in Yellowbeard. On the other hand, John Cleese called it “one of the six worst films made in the history of the world,” and he may have been being generous.
Somehow, Bowie bounced back from his uncredited cameo in a quickly forgotten bomb of a movie. In 1986, he got the role that is probably still his most iconic — Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth. He gets to sing and dance and hang out with puppets. People of a certain age have a real nostalgia for this movie. For their sake, we will refrain from talking about how it actually isn’t a very good movie. Bowie is fine, though. He seems to be having fun. If only a discerning audience could say as much.
After Labyrinth, Bowie had a couple notable cameos. He played Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and he’s in the Twin Peaks movie. He played Andy Warhol, who is sort of a human, in 1996’s Basquiat, which is actually a fairly well thought of movie, for a change of pace. It has an excellent selection of music in it, as well, including a Bowie song.
Okay, let’s stop messing around and get to Bowie’s best role — playing himself in Zoolander. Zoolander is a great movie. It’s super funny and well-deserving of its belated sequel. Bowie’s cameo as himself is one of the highlights of the movie. It’s a movie about fashion, and the weird world around fashion, and so Bowie, simply playing himself, fits in. He judges Derek and Hansel’s walk off. The one Billy Zane tried to warn Zoolander about. Bowie was nominated for Best Cameo at the MTV Movie Awards, but lost to Snoop Dogg in Training Day. It would have been one thing if he lost to Dustin Diamond for Made, but this is unacceptable.
After that career pinnacle, Bowie had a couple more notable roles. He played eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla in The Prestige, which is Christopher Nolan’s best movie. He also voiced a character called “L.R.H.” (Lord Royal Highness) on SpongeBob SquarePants in 2008. His last role was as himself in a cameo in 2009’s Bandslam. Lisa Kudrow is in it, that is all.
Since then, his acting career has been on hold, but he’s made a bunch of weird music videos in recent years, some of which are truly short films, so he’s still exercising those creative muscles.
In truth, if acting were his primary occupation, David Bowie’s acting career, his body of work would be somewhat underwhelming. But, because he is one of the greatest musicians of all-time who dabbles in the art, it’s actually pretty impressive. He’s managed to headline some films, and he’s had some cool cameos, and done some interesting things. It has been a, fittingly, odd, eclectic acting career for Mr. Bowie. The only thing left for him to do is just play a regular, run-of-the-mill guy. It’d be his greatest acting challenge yet.