The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Film Features

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

Extras_1245080318_resize_460x400


Act 4 – Hooked to the Silver Screen – 1986-1996

1986 is where it all started to go wrong. Post-Mr. Lawrence, Bowie coasted on hey-look-it’s-Bowie cameo roles for a couple of years while becoming a mainstream rock star with the Let’s Dance LP and its blockbusting tour, and his next starring roles were eyebrow-raising to say the least.

Absolute Beginners

Directed by Sex Pistols acolyte Julien Temple, Absolute Beginners deserves every rough swipe of the critical mauling it received on release. Adapted from Colin MacInnes’s novel – something of a sacred text for Mods of a literary bent – the narrative explores the post-war birth of the teenager against the backdrop of the London race riots in 1958.

Temple inexplicably chose to re-work this sharply observed slice of social realism as a Busby Berkley-style musical, complete with cringe-worthy West Side Story knife fights portrayed through the medium of dance. It’s hard to fault his ambition – the film looks absolutely wonderful – but his judgement is another matter. MacInnes’s central point – that the newly economically empowered working class young were defining the future, and that future was multi-racial – is completely lost, with the then-radically multi-ethnic Notting Hill night-life reduced to little more than a stylish backdrop to a conventional love story.

Bowie’s plays Vendice Partners, a venal advertising executive who bluffs The Kids with a conspicuously fake American accent. There is, of course, a huge risk in getting a limited actor to play a character whose shtick is to act badly, and the resulting mess looks like nothing so much as, well, straightforward bad acting.

Bowie also gets a song-and-dance number, as do most of the other Brit pop stars involved. And while only Ray Davis’s “Quiet Life” is of any real merit, it’s painful to note that Bowie’s “That’s Motivation” isn’t even as good as Patsy Kensit’s song, and the generally forgettable Sade pretty much blows him out of the water too. Luckily for Bowie, history is far more likely to remember his superb theme song than anything else about the film. Avoid with extreme prejudice.

Labyrinth

1986 also brought us Muppets mastermind Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. In fairness, Labyrinth is a children’s film, and as such is a rare old bit of fun in which Bowie deliciously hams it up. But if you didn’t see it by the time you were about twelve, you can probably skip it.

After this, Bowie’s film career is largely made up of forgettable cameos, neither terrible nor brilliant; his few minutes as Pontius Pilate in Scorcese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ are okay, but he is out of his depth amongst an otherwise incredible cast. The same goes for his brief appearance in the David Lynch’s Twin Peaks movie Fire Walk With Me which is agreeably strange, but very much Just Be Bowie And Cash The Cheque:

There are, however, two more big roles in Bowie’s acting canon, one making a strenuous case for keeping him as far away from the movies as possible, and the other tantalisingly hinting that he can still do great things when he can be bothered.

The Linguini Incident

Mercifully forgotten 1991 rom-com The Linguini Incident is misconceived on all levels. Rosanna Arquette stars as a wannabee escapologist who agrees to marry down-on-his-luck gambler and bartender Monte (Bowie) so he can get a green card as long as he agrees to help her rob the restaurant where they both work.

The most generous thing you can say about Bowie in this wretched movie is that he is not quite the worst thing about it (that would be the Lethal Cleavage Bandit; really, don’t ask), but he is hopelessly miscast in a knockabout romantic lead role, and turns in a horrifically stiff performance. If you really must see it, it’s available on DVD re-titled as Shag-O-Rama, which alone tells you most of what you need to know.

Basquiat

Bowie’s next starring role, and to date last notable movie performance, was as his occasional muse and inspiration Andy Warhol, in painter / director Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat.

As a biopic of the eponymous Jean-Michel Basquiat, who along with Keith Haring rose from the New York graffiti art world of the late 70s to become a darling of the art art world before his death from an overdose at the age of 28, the film is not without flaws. Schnabel (portrayed in the film as the fictionalised Albert Milo) was criticised for creating an inaccurate portrait that overstated and flattered his own significance, not least by the film’s star Jeffery Wright, who later said, “Julian made him [Basquiat] out to be too docile and too much of a victim and too passive and not as dangerous as he really was. It's about containing Basquiat. It's about aggrandizing himself through Basquiat's memory.” The San Francisco Examiner’s art (not movie) critic David Bonneti echoed this in a brutally harsh review, saying Schnabel had “used the film as an excuse to tell his own story” and deeming the result “a fiasco”.

Some of this is undoubtedly internecine New York art clique bitching; Bonneti’s review goes into hilarious meltdown when he starts complaining about Schnabel being fat. And certainly, in the film Schnabel portrays his friends as near saintly and his enemies as ruthless schemers to a comically transparent degree; factual accuracy is nowhere on his agenda. As a denunciation of the financially-driven venality of the art world, though, the film does get some shots on target, most pertinently regarding the patronising and faintly racist way Basquiat was often considered a Black Artist first and an artist second.

Bowie as Warhol wisely avoids straight impersonation and does what Schnabel largely fails to do; his Warhol is less about Warhol as it is about the nature of Warhol and Basquiat’s close relationship, both as friends and artistic collaborators. His and Wright’s scenes together are touching and subtly played, two awkward and introverted eccentrics, rarely making eye contact and speaking to one another in near-constant ellipsis while painting over each other’s work.

Warhol’s death reportedly deeply affected Basquiat, and seemingly precipitated the sudden increase in chaotic drug use that would lead to his death. Whether their private relationship was as portrayed in the film is largely unknowable, but Bowie and Wright certainly make you believe it. Basquiat is one of Bowie’s most overlooked performances, and certainly his finest movie work of the 90s.

DVD Extras

Attempting to cover all Bowie’s acting credits is outside the scope of this article, not least because it involves watching some truly God-awful stuff. There’s some amusing apocrypha scattered hither and thither, such as an appearance in long forgotten TV show Full Stretch, a comedy about a limo driving firm, and the surprisingly agreeable narration for a recording of Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf. But this kind of stuff is what Wikipedia is for.

Post-Basquiat, it’s mostly been cameos and small parts, such as a respectable turn as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige and a brief appearance in the title role Mr Rice’s Secret (more or less the first thing Mr Rice does is die, mind you, so not a big deal for Bowie fans this one). With no truly significant lead roles since, you can stop at Basquiat and give a fair and full assessment.

So… Is Bowie Any Good At Acting? Well, he certainly has his limits; naturalism is not his forte, as straight movies like The Linguini Incident and parts of Mr. Lawrence highlight. On the other hand, as you’d expect from a rock star who has maintained such iconic status for so long, he has a commanding and charismatic presence, and the camera positively adores him. This can be a hindrance for certain roles, but for Mr. Lawrence, Baal and The Man Who Fell To Earth, it’s an essential part of what makes them tick.

Where Bowie finds his meter is mostly in somewhat exaggerated and theatrical roles; perhaps unsurprising given that he spent so much of his career projecting characters in the largely unsubtle medium of the rock show. This is why his panto-like turn in Labyrinth more or less works, and why his low-key Pontius Pilate in Last Temptation doesn’t.

What’s also interesting is how closely Bowie’s acting career maps to the highs and lows of his musical output. The Man Who Fell To Earth and Mr. Lawrence bookend the remarkable period in which he made the albums Station to Station, Low, “Heroes”, Lodger, and Scary Monsters; Labyrinth comes in the midst of his mainstream 80s incarnation; 1996’s remarkable Basquiat comes directly in-between the two LPs that marked his sudden creative renaissance, 1: Outside and Earthling. And his late-period run of self-aware comic cameos (Zoolander, The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch) is entirely of a piece with the reflective older-and-wiser-and-settled-down feel of Heathen and … hours.

It’s as if he suffers an ongoing indecision over whether to just get on and be the star his profile enables, or whether to pursue his more esoteric creative inclinations. And just as his musical sojourns in the former tend to produce a lot of dross, so it is with his acting. The restless impulse that would drive a privileged celebrity to subject themselves to the punishing preparation and sheer daily graft of The Elephant Man is not to be knocked, was surely more rewarding for both him and us than the lazy and shameless Hollywood-whoring of The Hunger.

Then again, such is the lot of the jobbing actor. For every awe-inspiring Silence of the Lambs or Magic, Anthony Hopkins has turned in a phoned-in Meet Joe Black. Robert De Niro may well quietly dominate Goodfellas even from the confines of a supporting role, but he also clearly wants the ground to open up and swallow him as he grimaces through the dreadful Midnight Run.

It’s impossible to know, of course, how Bowie’s acting would have been critically received had he not already been a well-known rock performer; it seems unlikely he would be as famous, but it’s arguable that he would be better regarded. His is a respectable body of work, characterised by a quite real theatrical flair and a commendable willingness to tackle challenging roles, peppered with a more than a few high-profile howlers. To which The Quietus tips its hat and delivers a solid verdict of Pretty Good.


If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.