Looking Back On The Film Role Only David Bowie Could Play

“1975 and 1976… and a bit of 1974… and the first few weeks of 1977, were singularly the darkest days of my life,” David Bowie told a small crowd gathered for an episode of of VH1’s Storytellers in 1999. “It was so steeped in awfulness that recall is nigh on impossible, certainly painful. I was concerned with questions like ‘Do the dead interest themselves in the affairs of the living?’… ‘Can I change the channel on my TV without using the clicker?'”

That last line earned a laugh from the crowd, one Bowie intended. Not that he was joking: Those years coincided with a kind of bottoming-out for Bowie. He wasn’t dealing well with fame, his personal life was in tatters, and he was in the depths of cocaine addiction. They also coincided with the production and release of the Nicolas Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie starred as a doomed, genius space alien. It was a role nobody else could have played.

Directed by Nicolas Roeg, The Man Who Fell to Earth gave Bowie his first film role, though it was hardly his first experience as an actor. Before becoming a star, he studied dance and mime under Lindsay Kemp, an influential avant-garde actor whose work would have a strong influence on Bowie’s adaptation of different personas. (Kemp would later appear on stage with Bowie and, later still, instruct Kate Bush, another musician whose work draws on influences throughout the performing arts.) Yet the beauty of Bowie’s performance comes from how little he seems to be acting at all.

He’d taken on the persona of a space alien a few years earlier for the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and the arc of that concept alien — insofar as it’s comprehensible — mirrors that of the film: An alien comes to Earth and achieves fame and fortune, then is betrayed and undone. Yet the film is hardly Ziggy Stardust Redux. It’s eerie and muted in ways far removed from Bowie’s high-glam period and intimate in ways that the Ziggy roleplaying would never have allowed. He delivers a raw, pained performance in which the alien skin and cat eyes create no sense of distance.

In all likelihood, The Man Who Fell to Earth would have been a memorable film even without Bowie. Coming off Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout, and Don’t Look Now, Roeg was working at the height of his powers, and at the height of his powers few directors understood how sound, vision and, especially, editing could affect viewers on an almost subliminal level.

He had rich material, too. Written by Walter Tevis, author of The Hustler, the source novel doubles as a gripping science fiction tale and a remarkable allegory about how life — with its messy affairs, its earthly pleasures, its intoxicating substances, and its ceaseless progression of time — undoes youth and genius. Born in England, Roeg filmed it in America and brought an outsider’s view of the country to the film, from its back roads to its gleaming towers to its oversaturated media — a point of view an American filmmaker almost certainly couldn’t provide.

But it’s Bowie as faraway visitor Thomas Jerome Newton who holds the film together, even if he barely seems to be holding himself together. He’s playing a character who’s fragile and appears perpetually to be on the verge of breaking. His interactions with others are tentative and guarded. When he reveals himself, his true alien self, to his lover Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), her first reaction is horror. He looks on impassively, knowing this is the only way she, or anyone, could respond.

Bowie’s work here has its big moments: In a memorable scene after which both Newton and Mary-Lou have descended into alcoholism, the two engage in sadomasochistic mock gunplay that seems on the verge of turning real. Captured by government scientists, Newton howls in pain and anger. But it’s the quiet moments that define the character, the ones in which he recalls the alien family he’ll never see again and the haunting final scene in which, after years in exile, he’s found by his friend-turned-betrayer Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) after recording an album he hopes will be broadcast to the stars and back to his home planet.

“Did you like it?” Newton asks. When Bryce says no, he replies, “I didn’t make it for you anyway.”

That one line says a lot about Bowie’s art. He was the Elvis of outsiders, his work calling out to all those who felt themselves misfits, be it for their sexual orientation — his early work especially was unapologetically queer in every sense — or other reasons, maybe even reasons they could never articulate. And though The Man Who Fell to Earth traces outsiderdom down a path of tragic inevitability, Bowie’s own work, and life, suggested other alternatives.

“Unwittingly this next song was therefore a signal of distress. I’m sure it was a call for help,” Bowie continues in that Storytellers introduction, before launching into “Word on a Wing,” a hopeful, almost hymn-like track from the 1976 album Station to Station. The album bears an image from The Man Who Fell to Earth on the cover, as would its successor, the 1977 album Low. Like Major Tom, Bowie held onto Newton and returned to him from time to time, almost as if to challenge the inescapability of his downfall. (Lazarus, a stage sequel co-written by Bowie and starring Michael C. Hall, is currently playing in New York.)

However deep into despair Bowie might have fallen in those ’70s years, he used art to work his way back from it. An album filled with new sounds and images of starting over, Low resulted from a move to Berlin and the beginning of a collaboration with Brian Eno. The next phase awaited. Thomas Jerome Newton may have been doomed to a life of boozy obscurity, his music unheard by its intended audience light years away. But, for as deeply as Bowie inhabited the role, Bowie himself was another story. He sang to us and we heard him. And he kept singing to the end.

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