RIP David Bowie: His Greatest Film Roles


David Bowie has died at the age of 69, following an 18-month battle with cancer.

Known best for his wildly prolific and influential career as one of the most gifted musicians of his generation, he also frequently turned his hand to acting.

The results were not always a success, but when the right elements came together, Bowie could find himself being a mesmerising, otherworldly screen presence.

Here are some of his best moments on screen:

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

Nicolas Roeg cast Bowie perfectly in the cult classic ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, playing the humanoid alien Thomas Jerome Newton, arriving on Earth to seek water to take back to his own, drought-ridden planet. On its release in 1976 it received mixed reviews, but reappraisals have found it celebrated. Michael Fassbender revealed that he used Bowie as inspiration for his performance as David, the android in 'Prometheus’.


Baal (1982)

Bowie took the lead in this made-for-TV adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s first play for the BBC, broadcast in March 1982 and directed by the legendary Alan Clarke. It showed he had some serious acting chops taking on such a considerable role, and carrying it off too. He also released an EP of songs recorded for the production.

The Snowman (1982)

An unexpected but nonetheless welcome appearance from Bowie came in a re-released version for the VHS of classic Christmas animation 'The Snowman’, where he introduces the story in the attic of his 'family home’, suggesting that the boy in the film was actually him.

The Hunger (1983)

Another Bowie movie that has since gained a cult following, this erotic horror directed (bizarrely) by the late Tony Scott, found him starring opposite the great Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, playing John Blaylock, the cellist companion to Denueve’s immortal vampire. It’s often cited as a staple text in goth subculture, though it was critically derided on its release.


Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983)

Arguably Bowie’s greatest screen role – and the first he himself considered properly credible – he played the rebellious, mercurial Major Jack Celliers, a prisoner in a Japanese prison camp during the Second World War. Director Nagisa Oshima cast him after seeing him in a production of 'The Elephant Man’ on Broadway, saying that the singer had 'an inner spirit that is indestructible’.

Absolute Beginners (1986)

Julien Temple helmed this rock musical, a paean to the shift in pop culture between the 1950s and the 1960s, based on the influential novel by Colin MacInnes, and starring Bowie as Vendice Partners, an advertising man working in Mayfair.


Labyrinth (1986)

In a role that was supremely odd but also oddly brilliant, Bowie’s turn as the freaky goblin king Jareth in Jim Henson’s 'Labyrinth’ introduced him to a whole new generation of potential fans. In a movie that also bolstered Jennifer Connelly’s early career, Bowie was the likeable – but maniacal – villain who steals away Toby, Connelly’s infant half-brother. With his towering hair, the bizarre outfits and the occasional bursting into song, it was a weird and often wonderful ride, and among his most iconic roles.


Basquiat (1996)

Julian Schnabel’s star-laden biopic of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat saw an icon playing an icon, with Bowie as the post-modern artist’s mentor Andy Warhol, alongside the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Gary Oldman, Parkey Posey, Courtney Love, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper and Willem Dafoe, opposite Jeffrey Wright’s Basquiat.


Zoolander (2001)

A brilliant cameo among many from Bowie (see also his breathlessly funny turn in Ricky Gervais’s 'Extras’, where he slams the ‘chubby little loser’ in song), he plays the adjudicator and judge of the underground 'walk off’ contest between Hansel and Derek Zoolander, in which Ben Stiller’s preening model gives himself the mother of all wedgies. Bowie sensationally disqualifies Zoolander.


The Prestige (2006)

Bowie played the real-life futurist, physicist, pioneering electrical engineer and general genius Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s 'The Prestige’, an all-too-brief role in which he assists Hugh Jackman’s tortured illusionist Robert Angier in creating a teleporting machine, which has an unfortunate side effect. It was inspired casting.

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Image credits: Rex Features/Warner Bros