I didn't think it was possible for David Bowie to die. I mean, I knew it would happen someday, but David Bowie never seemed like he would be subject to the same kind of human mortality as us. David Bowie has never been of this world. And yet here we are, mourning the death of a true genius, who lost an 18-month battle to cancer at age 69—though it's much easier to think about his passing as a return to his home, to some planet in a galaxy far away.
David Bowie's death hits harder than most; it feels personal, and I don't think I'm alone in this gutted feeling. Perhaps it's because there's never been anyone quite like Bowie—truly an original and an outcast we could collectively revere—or perhaps it's because it happened so soon (just two days) after his birthday and latest album release, Blackstar, proof that there was still so much more to be created. Bowie's influence on music is transcendent, but having always been a visual artist as well, Bowie has been just as big of a force in the art, fashion, and, importantly underrated, the film world.
Perhaps the most David Bowie of David Bowie's film work is his acting debut in Nicolas Roeg's 1976 cult film The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which he played an alien who visits earth looking for water for his dying planet. It was a role made for Bowie—who was tall and lean, androgynous, with striking red hair, and so extraterrestrial in nature. And yet there was a sexuality to him, which of course leads to a human woman, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), to fall madly in love with him. For Bowie, always a musician first before an actor, his role as Thomas Jerome Newton felt like an extension of his "Space Oddity" narrative, the first of his musical space saga about Major Tom, an astronaut character he created. (His later songs "Ashes to Ashes" and "Hallo Spaceboy" also mentioned the character.)
It was no surprise that Bowie would electrify on screen, especially as an alien character tailored to his musical—if not real-life—persona. Just three years before that, Bowie showed his onscreen potential in Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, a captivating documentary by legendary cinéma vérité director D.A. Pennebaker (of the Bob Dylan doc, Don't Look Back, fame). Pennebaker accidentally captured Bowie's final show as his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, a celebration and commemoration of the icon's persona death. It's the best example of a concert film, as Bowie costume-changes, makes love to a screaming audience, and jokes in his makeup chair backstage ("You're just a girl, what do you know about make-up?"). It's a must-watch for any fan of Bowie's, and the first of several other docs that tries to unpack and gaze at this other-worldly rock star (see also David Bowie: Five Years, Sound and Vision, David Bowie Is).
After making his debut as an actor, Bowie would go on to star in numerous other films. He played an army officer turned gigolo in 1978's Just a Gigolo (alongside Marlene Dietrich) and then appeared in the 1983 film The Hunger, another Bowie-perfect film in which he plays a 200-year-old vampire, tragically aging yet undying, next to Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. That same year, he also appeared in Nagisa Ôshima's war film, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
His most remembered film work, though, would come in 1986, in Jim Henson's Labyrinth. Bowie's fanged smile and natural snarl brought his Jareth the Goblin King to life, as he taunted teen girl Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly) on her mission to solve a labyrinth and bring her kidnapped infant brother back home. Jim Henson really wanted Bowie in his film, and he had it reworked multiple times to not only include Bowie but make his role bigger, better, and more to his liking. To this day, Bowie probably plays a large role in why the film, a flop then, has found new life as a cult favorite.
Bowie has never really had acting expertise, but he has the kind of onscreen presence that's inherent, not learned by trade. It's impossible to take your eyes off him. And while not the best example of the craft, his roles were always truly Bowie, whether he graced films as Warhol in Basquiat, as Pontius Pilate in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, played himself as a small cameo in Zoolander, or gave a surprisingly electrifying (pun intended) performance as Tesla in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige (2006).
The use of Bowie's music in film, outside of his acting, has also made memorable cinematic scenes. Take Ewan McGregor singing "Heroes" in the Moulin Rouge medley or Melanie Laurent's Shoshanna preparing her revenge in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds to "Cat People", or Frances Ha running and dancing in the street to "Modern Love", a tribute to Leos Carax's use of it in Mauvais Sang (the second of his "Alex Trilogy," released in 1986). Carax also used Bowie in the bookends of that trilogy—both Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Lovers on the Bridge (1991).
His influence in film could be felt even when David Bowie wasn't even in it—Todd Hayne's 1998 musical drama, Velvet Goldmine, for instance. The title not only takes from Bowie's 1975 track, but the entire film, taking place in the glam rock era, based its aesthetic on Bowie, as can be seen in Jonathan Rhys-Meyer's glitzed and glittered Brian Slade, who even sings in a Bowie inflection. The rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch could also be credited to Bowie's influence (unsurprisingly Bowie co-produced the L.A. production of the rock opera). He inspired and made friends in film over the years, most notably his spirit twin Tilda Swinton, who appeared in his music video ("The Stars (Are Out Tonight)") as his complementary alien self, and spoke at Bowie's exhibition opening.
Needless to say, David Bowie's death is an inestimable loss. But his work—and even bigger, his influences—lie in so many corners of pop culture, from music to art to film. Bowie will always be with us. And I'm certain he's watching from some planet up above.