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Cracked Actor – Hooked To The Silver Screen With Bowie
John Tatlock , January 11th, 2016 10:59

Lifelong Bowie fan John Tatlock decides to get to the bottom of that age-old pub debate – can David Bowie actually act? – and unearths some priceless clips and details from an alternate but no less chameleonic career

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Act 2 – Cracked Actor (1976-1979)

Finally, Bowie’s musical career spluttered into life; his third album, 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World began to pick up substantial airplay in America, and the addition of guitarist Mick Ronson to his band began the transformation from fey singer-songwriter into rock star that would reach its apex with Ziggy.

Around the same time, Bowie fired Pitt, and ditched both mime and acting in general for several years, instead synthesising his various interests into increasingly theatrical rock shows. It was, thus, almost entirely by accident that Bowie returned to acting mid-way through the decade.

The Man Who Fell To Earth

In 1974, the BBC’s Alan Yentob produced Cracked Actor, a documentary following Bowie’s US tour in support of the Diamond Dogs LP, the last of his three glam rock albums. Notoriously, Yentob’s expectations of a colourful romp through the glam subculture were confounded, and the film became a disturbing snapshot of Bowie’s rapid descent into cocaine addiction, coy editing notwithstanding.

Among the TV audience the following January was British director Nicolas Roeg, at the time planning an adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel The Man Who Fell To Earth. Roeg was having difficulty casting the lead role of Thomas Newton, an alien who comes to earth to ferry water back to his drought-stricken homeworld. Peter O’Toole had already turned down the part when Roeg chanced across Yentob’s film to see a paranoid and glassy-eyed Bowie nervously sniffing in the back of a limousine prowling the streets of LA. “My reaction”, recalled Roeg later, “was ‘That’s him all right, all wrapped up and done’”. Bowie largely concurred, saying in 1993 “Just being me as I was was perfectly adequate for the role. I wasn’t of this earth at that particular time”. Watching this clip from around 2:38, it’s hard to disagree:

The film’s plot revolves around Newton exploiting alien technology to build the world’s richest and most powerful corporation, before sinking all its resources into a space-travel programme intended to facilitate his return home. Along the way he recruits dissolute scientist Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) and acquires a hanger-on and later girlfriend, Mary Lou (Candy Clark). Mary Lou introduces Newton to various earthly vices, including alcohol to which he soon succumbs, becoming frequently drunk and robbed of motivation.

Both eventually discover Newton’s alien nature, and Bryce betrays him to the government in an overtly Judas-referencing way; at the very peak of his success, about to launch his spaceship before an adoring crowd, he is apprehended and subjected to a series of procedures that are as much torture as testing, ultimately resulting in his fake eye coverings becoming permanently sealed to his alien eyes; he has finally “fallen to earth”, and all hope of return is lost. Eventually, having found no use for him, the authorities release Newton to live out life as a wealthy alcoholic, debased by privilege, his end intractable from his means.

Roeg’s film has a deliberately disjointed structure, with vast chunks of narrative simply sliced away. While Newton appears to be frozen at around the age of 28, the other characters age dramatically over the course of the movie. Whole years pass in the cuts from one scene to another, and the viewer is deliberately forced to scramble to fill in the blanks, thus directly experiencing Newton’s own sense of alienation and confusion.

Roeg and his screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, aware that casting Bowie meant that audiences would bring some baggage when viewing, had some impish fun inserting dialogue that explicitly refers to Bowie and his public image at the time. The closing scene, where a defeated and drunken Newton reminisces with the now aged Bryce is a knowing nod to Bowie’s glam fanbase. “I listened to your record”, Bryce informs him, referring to the album he has released in the vain hope that his alien wife will somehow hear it via radio waves. “Did you like it?” asks Newton, briefly excited. “Not much” replies Bryce. “Well, I didn’t make it for you, anyway” replies Bowie / Newton with a sneer, slouching back in his seat and pulling on a pair of rock star shades, immaculately wasted perpetual youth next to Bryce’s portly middle age.

However, such winks aside, this is a serious piece of film-making, and Bowie’s performance is mostly mesmerising. Oddly, for a performer who had spent the last few years playing the bombastic Ziggy role onstage, the only really false note he strikes in a scene that calls on him to bellow in fury and anguish at a bank of TV screens showing human behaviour in all its (to Newton) ugliness and stupidity.

Where he really excels is in the subtler moments. His dialogue-heavy scenes opposite Torn, particularly after Bryce has learned his secret, are quietly riveting, with the sense of Newton’s yearning for home beautifully conveyed. And his scenes with the alternately bubbly and histrionic Candy Clark, are both comic and desperately bleak. Bowie plays these attempts at domesticity with an air of puzzlement and deep dismay; a figure desperate for emotional and physical intimacy but unable to achieve either with the people who surround him (in one of the film’s most obvious symbols, we see Newton’s alien form as possessing no normal genitalia; Mary-Lou, initially horrified, attempts to sleep with him but cannot overcome her repulsion at how Newton’s race copulate, and runs screaming from the bed).

In contrast, the flashback shots of Newton and his family on their homeworld call on Bowie’s physical skills from his mime days, with jerky short steps and gestures suggesting high gravity, and the family’s mawkish petting of one another portraying an unabashed affection that Newton cannot find on earth.

The Man Who Fell To Earth certainly revived Bowie’s enthusiasm for acting, but in retrospect was something of a false dawn; his deteriorating mental state seems to have scuppered a real movie career for a few years more. He spent some time obsessively but fruitlessly working on test footage for a Diamond Dogs movie as a daytime distraction from his drinking and drugging social circle at the time (Bowie claims that some of the footage features an impatient John Lennon in the background, berating him with the words “What the bloody hell are you doing, Bowie, all this mutant crap?”, as Bowie tinkers with a clay model of Hunger City, the album’s post-apocalyptic setting).

The Diamond Dogs project petered out as Bowie’s interests shifted to the even bleaker occult fascist milieu of the Station To Station LP, but he began to seek out film roles with renewed vigour, including a screen test for The Eagle Has Landed and rumours of a possible role in Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg, but these too came to nothing.

Just A Gigolo

Finally, at the tail end of the decade, Bowie landed a role in the best-forgotten Just A Gigolo directed by actor-turned-director David Hemmings (most known for his role as a photographer in seminal mod flick Blow Up). With a lot of more worthwhile ground to cover here, I’m not going to argue with Bowie’s own assessment of the film as “A real cack… my 32 Elvis Presley movies contained in one”. Reviews were universally harsh, the Telegraph going so far as to call Bowie a “dead talent”, and Time Out damningly and accurately declaring “it would be kinder to yourself and everybody involved to overlook it”.

Bowie’s next acting role a mere year later was to receive positively ecstatic notices, and he was about to embark on the most diverse and consistently impressive phase of his acting career. But Just A Gigolo briefly cemented the impression that The Man Who Fell To Earth had been nothing but canny casting.

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