Pop music’s premier Proteus, David Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1972, “I feel like an actor when I’m onstage, rather than a rock artist.” The remarks were made during the first U.S. leg of his “Ziggy Stardust” tour, during which the singer summed up his flamboyant multitudes with this line from “Moonage Daydream”: “I’m an alligator/I’m a mama-papa coming for you./I’m the space invader/I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you.” Reptile, androgynous life force, alien, dissolute strumpet: The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s weeklong celebration of Bowie’s magnetic big-screen performances reveals how much his scripted roles grew from the alter egos he created for his recording career.
Even before his breakthrough 1969 single, “Space Oddity,” Bowie, born 66 years ago in Brixton, had shed multiple musical personae. He had also intensely studied mime—theatrical movement that was crucial in the creation of Ziggy Stardust. The singer dramatically runs into an invisible wall during his performance of “The Width of a Circle,” one of 16 numbers captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s concert doc Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), a record of that tour’s terminus at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973. It was also, unknown to the enraptured teen fans, the final appearance of the epicene, eyebrow-less, pomegranate-mulleted messiah from outer space: “Not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do,” Bowie announces, a fitting prelude to the evening’s final song, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.”
A master of rebirth, Bowie is also death-obsessed. In Alan Yentob’s “Cracked Actor” (1975), an installment of the BBC arts-documentary series Omnibus, the singer softly admits to an off-screen interviewer who presses him on the destructive forces of his most notorious creation, “Yes, I had a kind of psychosomatic death wish, I think. But that’s because I was so lost in Ziggy.” Filmed during Bowie’s North American Diamond Dogs tour in 1974, Cracked Actor suggests those self-annihilating impulses shouldn’t have been relegated to the past tense: The singer, in the nascence of his “plastic-soul” phase, which culminated with the release of 1975’s Young Americans, appears at his most cadaverous, his emaciation partly the result of cocaine abuse.
And yet that otherworldly, skeletal frame, accentuated onstage in ’74 by Bowie’s disco-dandy look—red suspenders, high-waisted trousers, broad-brimmed fedoras atop a strawberry-blond pompadour—unleashed all kinds of erotic urges in his fans. “I like people who are AC/DC, you know what I mean?” one concertgoer tells the BBC crew in Cracked Actor. This bulky, coquettish kid, his face slathered in red and blue makeup, is but one of many Me Decade youths—hetero, homo, or other—lured into sexual liberation and experimentation by Bowie’s directive (and reassurance) in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”: “Just turn on with me/and you’re not alone.” (The lyric could serve as a tagline for Todd Haynes’s 1998 glam-rock ode, Velvet Goldmine, which centers around a thinly veiled Bowie figure.)
Bowie’s outré pop-star appeal is deftly exploited in his first major screen role, as Thomas Jerome Newton, the extraterrestrial in search of water for his sere planet in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Capitalizing on the trajectory of Major Tom, the hero of “Space Oddity,” though actually based on a 1963 novel, Roeg’s film pivots around his lead’s gender-tweaking fragility, a delicate decadence that proves irresistible both to the hotel maid who shares his bed and the all-male brain trust working for Newton’s World Enterprises.
The performer’s mastery of combining aberrant desires with death also made him the perfect choice to play John Blaylock, the cello-playing, club-hopping vampire in The Hunger (1983), Tony Scott’s Euro-chic, thrillingly ridiculous ode to bicuriosity. After snacking on some new-wave cuties he and his vampire bride, played by Catherine Deneuve, pick up in a Bauhaus-headlining nightclub, John discovers his undead self is aging rapidly. As the nattily attired bloodsucker waits to speak to Susan Sarandon’s progeria expert in an Upper East Side clinic, we watch in horror as the actor transforms from beguiling thirtysomething to Truman Capote–like creature to Strom Thurmond doppelgänger.
As Bowie has aged and all but left behind extreme reinvention, he has not lost the power to surprise. Though many were convinced the performer had retired from music, earlier this year he released The Next Day, his first album in 10 years, the cover of which features the iconic black-and-white photo of the singer that graced 1977’s “Heroes” obscured by a white square. This penchant for playful, but never sentimental, nods to the past also deepens the texture of Bowie’s memorable bit part as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s late-19th-century–set magician caper, The Prestige (2006). As the Croatian-born inventor emerges, godlike, from a swarm of electrical reactions, we remember where we’ve seen those lightning bolts before: adorning the stage at the Hammersmith Odeon, later boldly slashed across the face of Aladdin Sane himself.