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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 3 – Golden Years – 1980-1983

The Elephant Man

In 1980, director Jack Hofsiss was seeking a new cast for his Broadway production of The Elephant Man, to enable the original cast to take the play on tour, and sought out Bowie for the central role as the severely handicapped John Merrick. Hofsiss was a fan of Bowie’s performance in The Man Who Fell To Earth, but also made no bones about his commercial reasoning: “I wanted someone who would generate more interest in the play”.

There seemingly exists no complete filming of the play, but snippets on YouTube suggest something of a curate’s egg. Hofsiss stipulated that the part was to be performed without resorting to prosthetics or make up; instead, in an early scene, as a doctor detailed each of Merrick’s abnormalities, the actor was contort gradually into a twisted form they would then maintain for the remainder of the play.

Viewing clips now out of context, it’s hard to see beyond Bowie talking a bit funny and standing like he really needs to use the bathroom. But critics at the time were near unanimous in their praise. Theatre magazine praised his “exquisite stillness” and the Times described his performance as “one of the events of New York’s theatrical season”.

Bowie’s run with the play coincided with the release of his ‘Ashes to Ashes’ single with its ground-breaking video, and his stock as a serious artist in multiple fields has never been higher. However, mid-way through the show’s run came the assassination of John Lennon, which spooked pretty much every high profile rock star. Bowie saw out his contractual commitments, but chose not to renew his contract, and withdrew from both the theatrical and musical stages (cancelling a planned tour to support the Scary Monsters LP) for around a year.

Baal

It was during this hiatus that Bowie turned in what is, in this writer’s opinion, probably the strongest case for the Bowie-really-can-act hypothesis, in a BBC production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal

Baal was Brecht’s first full-length work, written in 1918 when Brecht was twenty. Like most of his plays, it incorporates both spoken and sung passages, but pre-dates his collaborations with composer Kurt Weill. Brecht’s solo compositions are far rawer and starker than his work with Weill, and Bowie and arranger Dominic Muldowney add little in the way of adornment (Bowie’s Baal EP does not use these versions, and employs much more florid arrangements).

As with much of Brecht’s output, the play is a response to another work, in this case Der Einsame (The Lonely One) by the soon-to-be Nazi playwright Hanns Johst. This is a dramatisation-as-canonisation of the life of anti-Semitic playwright and poet Christian Dietrich Grabbe, and Baal is best read as a hearty schnapps-drenched belch in Johst and Grabbe’s direction.

Baal is an ancient Hebrew name for any number of gods, later adopted in Christian demonology as the name of one of the kings of Hell, second only in rank to Satan. The anti-Semitic subtext of this etymological shift is obvious, and Brecht is blatantly baiting Johst with his choice of nomenclature. However, his primary target is Johst’s view of the poet as a rightfully privileged recipient of divine inspiration and grace, a piece of aggrandisement that the Marxist Brecht found insufferable.

Brecht’s Baal is also a widely-admired poet and songsmith, but one who exploits his talent solely in order to indulge himself, singing to alternately seduce and humiliate, and choosing to be paid primarily in alcohol. Baal declares that artistic brilliance and moral character have no causal link, and correlate purely by accident if at all. This was certainly a concept familiar to Bowie; it’s right at the heart of several of his own creations, most notably the “leper messiah” Ziggy Stardust and Station To Station’s rock star-as-dictator The Thin White Duke.

As a character, Baal is hideous both in appearance and personality, and Bowie plays him with magnificent, baleful relish. Made up with rotting teeth, matted hair and wispy beard, the performance is a long way from the introverted feyness of his Thomas Newton or the timorous innocence of his John Merrick. Bowie’s Baal is a strutting, sneering, relentlessly cruel womaniser, with utter disregard for others’ sensitivities and possessing none of his own. At one point Baal abandons a pregnant former lover by the roadside, responding to her accusation that he “won’t like it one day when you have to die, without another soul being there” with a sardonic gaze and a slurred, definitive “Oh yes I shall”.

The different acts are interspersed with verses of Baal’s Hymn, delivered by an unblinking, malevolent Bowie straight to camera, backing himself with brutal sparseness on a battered banjo. ‘Let’s Dance’ this is not.

The play ultimately confounds the audience’s expectation that Baal will get his come-uppance; Baal gets away with everything, including the murder of his closest friend and driving his female conquests to, variously, drink, despair and suicide, while continuing to draw fanatical audiences, even as his performances become progressively baser (another theme echoed in Ziggy).

It’s important not to overstate the case; Baal is a juvenile work in many ways; Brecht himself later described it as “lacking in wisdom”, and if you’re not in on the (by 1982, very obscure) joke, its protagonist’s relentless awfulness can be perplexing. Watching this production today, however, with all it’s rawness and unswerving nastiness, it’s hard not to pine for an age when the BBC would spend sizeable budgets on such unusual projects, and also attempt such bravura casting as to seek out the likes of Bowie (who, being a long-time Brecht fanatic, reportedly worked for the standard BBC fee). Imagine a modern remake by modern TV’s literary serial killer Andrew Davis and weep.

Broadcast on a Saturday evening opposite Thames TV’s grand production of John Mortimer’s A Voyage Around My Father starring no less than Lawrence Olivier, Baal predictably sank without trace, the few critics who saw it often choosing to mock the decision to put (in the Daily Mirror’s words) a “professional weirdo” up against Olivier in a ratings battle. The ratings were indeed appalling and the production has never been repeated or commercially released since, making it near-impossible to find other than in the nether reaches of file-sharing networks.

Baal is definitely worth the effort to dig up, and commendably more so for Brecht fans than Bowie fans. This is a raw, powerful production of a seminal work of expressionist theatre, and Bowie acquits himself as a theatrical actor marvellously. The final scene, with Baal crawling from his deathbed for one last look at the sky, gasping with tangible lust for the “leaves… wind… staaaarssss!” is horribly compelling, and tops off one of his most remarkable and unsettling performances.

The Hunger

In 1983, Bowie starred in two feature films. The first, the fetishistic vampire flick The Hunger is less a horror movie than an exercise in titillating goths. Bowie and Catherine Deneuve play a glamorous aristocratic vampire couple whose decadent lifestyle is suddenly threatened when Bowie begins to age rapidly (portrayed with still-remarkable make up effects).

It’s a throwaway and lowbrow film that largely needn’t detain us here, other than to say Bowie does a serviceable job with a terrible script, and that the film’s real hack work comes from, surprisingly, Deneuve, who barely hides how far beneath her this wretched bit of schlock is with a waxily disinterested performance.

Bowie, by contrast has one genuinely excellent scene, opposite Susan Sarandon, bitterly berating her longevity-researching scientist for not believing his claim to have aged decades in days, raging with impotent fury and pulling out clumps of hair. Shortly after this, though, Bowie’s character gets locked in a coffin for most of the last hour, and the film gets on with being the Sarandon / Deneuve soft-core lesbian porn its dubious reputation rests upon.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

The same year, however, saw a mostly remarkable performance, playing guilt-ridden Allied Major Jack Celliers in Nagisa Oshima’s complex and thoughtful WWII movie Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

Set in a Japanese POW camp towards the end of the war, the film focuses on the communication and clashes between eastern and western cultures. Lawrence, a British officer who had lived in Japan before the war, is the only prisoner who can communicate effectively with the Japanese officers, though his attempts at mediation are often seen as betrayal by his British commander Colonel Hicksey.

Bowie as Celliers and Ryuichi Sakamoto as camp commandant Captain Yonoi are not so much characters as they are cultural symbols, and both give accordingly less naturalistic, more Sturm und Drang performances than the rest of the cast.

Much of the film’s tension derives from Yonoi’s discomfort at finding himself homo-erotically attracted to Celliers, and therefore unable to effectively discipline him. Celliers – a manically self-destructive figure – eventually finds redemption through sacrifice; in exercising his power over Yonoi he seals his own fate but saves the other men.

Bowie’s performance starts weakly, with a fairly straight courtroom scene that makes no use of his flamboyant strengths, and calls for a deadpan quality that is beyond his grasp. From there, though, the role mostly requires the kind of glinting-eyed lunacy at which Bowie excels. Highlights are his miming shaving, smoking and other home comforts to the confusion of the prison guards; eating flowers to goad them after the imposition of starvation punishment; and the infamous, point-of-no-return kiss:

For presumably commercial reasons, Bowie gets top billing, but the film really belongs to the superb Tom Conti as the eponymous Lawrence and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano as Sergeant Hara, Yonoi’s second in command. Lawrence and Hara are the human counterpart to Celliers and Yonoi’s elemental forces, and while those forces are shown to be ultimately irreconcilable, Lawrence and Hara eventually form a curious friendship, despite the brutality that defines their relationship.

Mr Lawrence is not without its flaws, and Bowie’s performance is somewhat uneven, but it tops off a run of complex roles in intellectually substantial films with dignity. And if dignity is something you value, you might want to stop reading here.

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