Hooked to the silver screen: The weird and wonderful acting career of David Bowie

Bowie's cinematic career was much more than just those pants in Labyrinth...

Hooked to the silver screen: The weird and wonderful acting career of David Bowie

Picture by William Conran PA Archive/PA Images

A year after David Bowie's death, you'll likely be hearing plenty of Bowie songs being blasted out today.

One aspect of the Bowie story that doesn't always receive the attention it deserves is his acting career. While nowhere near as prolific or influential as he was in music, his cinematic performances regularly managed to encapsulate his appeal & eccentricities in vivid & memorable fashion. Bowie once sang about the film being 'a saddening bore', but you'd rarely be bored when he was on screen himself.

There was always something almost otherworldly about Bowie - something he embraced wholeheartedly through his Ziggy Stardust alter ego. It was fitting then that, after a few bit parts, his major cinematic debut was playing an alien. 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth was an ideal vehicle for Bowie - Nicholas Roeg's provocative, mysterious sci-fi classic hosting for what is many is the quintessential David Bowie performance.

Following the unsuccessful Just a Gigolo in 1978, it wasn't until 1983 that Bowie made waves in cinema again. Some waves they were, too. He was cast by the then up-and-coming Tony Scott in vampire film The Hunger, a cult classic erotic horror film that is just about as 80s as one could imagine. 

More noteworthy again was his performance in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. Directed by the Japanese enfant terrible Nagisa Oshima, Bowie plays a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. A rather atypical effort for director and actor alike, it was one of Bowie's most substantial dramatic performances - and he managed to completely sell his character's predicament.

For most viewers, there will be one performance that will always represent Bowie's cinematic career. In Jim Henson's 1986 family fantasy Labyrinth, Bowie played Jareth the Goblin King. It was a character and film befitting the man: eccentric, camp and creepy in equal measure. And then there's those pants...

Bowie was cheekily cast as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, and after that his next substantial role came in 1991's mostly forgotten dud The Linguini Incident.

He worked with the great David Lynch in 1992, offering up an unforgettably bizarre cameo in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It only makes marginally more sense in context, but is incredible nonetheless.

The rest of the 90s and early 2000s were a typically unusual mix of roles for Bowie - from playing Andy Warhol in 1996's Basquiat, to cameos in the likes of Zoolander. He even starred in a video game during that period, 1999's Omikron: The Nomad Soul (he also provided the music).

The last years of his acting career were reasonably quiet - a voice role here, a cameo there. Worth noting, however, is his turn in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, in which he played a fictionalised version of the influential, pioneering engineer Nikola Tesla. If anyone was ever suited to play an eccentric genius, it was the eccentric genius David Bowie.

Nolan himself explained to Entertainment Weekly: "Tesla was this other-worldly, ahead-of-his-time figure, and at some point it occurred to me he was the original Man Who Fell to Earth. As someone who was the biggest Bowie fan in the world, once I made that connection, he seemed to be the only actor capable of playing the part."

Over thirty-odd years, David Bowie's cinematic performances were a mix of the weird and the wonderful, the subtle and the outrageous. He will always rightly be remembered as a musician first and foremost, but to neglect his acting achievements is to neglect a wonderful and substantial component of his peerless career.