Hooked To The Silver Screen: Bowie On Film

❉ Bowie’s queer sensibility is most closely associated with his music, but how did it manifest in his film career?

“Bowie, who has always promised the end of gender… amplifies in his films the lithe androgynous beauty… The end of gender isn’t the abolition of masculine/feminine. Rather, it is the abolition of the gender tyranny that would divide us into armed camps.” – Anne Rice

David Bowie’s extraordinary musical career, to coin a phrase, contained multitudes. No mere entertainer, his creative restlessness and appetite for reinvention saw him adopt a number of guises and fusions of genres. He was also, for a period in the 1970s, a refreshing alternative to the heteronormative, denim-clad face of rock and roll, offering escapism and sexual liberation for the youth of Britain at a time of industrial action and constant social and political turmoil.

After a number of false starts, once he first established himself as a cultural force to be reckoned with, it was under the guise of pansexual, androgynous alien rock God ‘Ziggy Stardust’, a character borne partly of rock casualties Vince Taylor and Syd Barrett, Bowie’s time as a member of the puckish Lindsay Kemp’s mime troupe, his fascination with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, and fraternising with members of Andy Warhol’s Factory who later joined his entourage.

Bowie’s (or was it Ziggy?) admission of bisexuality in Melody Maker, was a ground-breaking and controversial revelation at the time; in the UK, same-sex activity between men had only been recently decriminalised and was still something of a taboo.  Gay and lesbian characters in drama were invariably painted as tragic figures (The City and the Pillar, The Killing of Sister George, The Boys In the Band), and bisexual characters mentally unstable and duplicitous (The Leather Boys, Petunia), although new wave British films such as A Kind of Loving and The Pleasure Girls offered more sympathetic portrayals in the wake of the Wolfenden Report’s findings which directly informed the 1967 Sexual Offences Act where same-sex adult male couples were permitted to make love “in private”.

“Tell your readers that they can make up their minds about me when I begin getting adverse publicity: when I’m found in bed with Raquel Welch’s husband.”

To his new audience, Bowie’s provocative press statements (“Tell your readers that they can make up their minds about me when I begin getting adverse publicity: when I’m found in bed with Raquel Welch’s husband”), androgynous glamour, and the homoerotic nature of songs such as Lady Stardust, Moonage Daydream and the glorious John I’m Only Dancing presented homo- and bisexual attraction as something attractive, alluring and exotic even, rather than a hotbed of hang-ups, liberating many a  young fan wrestling with their sexuality. His wife Angie was openly bisexual and encouraged Bowie to cast off his hippy threads and be bolder, developing a sci fi-flavoured, androgynous alter ego that would appeal to men and women.

Two of Bowie’s previous managers were gay men, and Bowie was no stranger to gay culture from Christopher Isherwood to Jean Genet, via his time as a protégé of Lindsay Kemp, and this filtered through into his lyrics alongside myriad other sources. At a time when homosexuality was the ‘other’, Bowie’s allying with sexually fluid themes and rejection of the clichéd macho ‘rock God’ stereotype of tight denim jeans and bare hairy chest, presented an attractive appealing alternative to traditional pop concerns of boy meets girl, and resonated with his identification with the outsider in society and themes of alienation; genuinely-held and sincere concerns that run through his entire canon like a stick of rock. There was also an element of baton-passing, as rock and roll had been ‘queering’ its innate conservatism since the days of Little Richard’s fierce fabulousness.

Bowie was not the first star to shake things up by ‘queering’ rock’s innate heteronormative conservatism, but it was an act of perfect timing he did so at a time when Britain’s youth were growing restless of the staid attitudes of the establishment as lampooned by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, looking for a colourful alternative to the dour climate of political and social turmoil in mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, and – with the rise of gay, feminist and civil rights movements – a growing self-awareness of same-sex attraction and gender identity still felt to this day.

Ziggy was the androgene – masculine and feminine, ambisexual, “A Clockwork Orange in Liberty silks” in his creator’s words; flawed Earthling, leper messiah, and untouchable extra-terrestrial.

It’s still a matter of debate, especially among his LGBT fans, as to what extent his ‘coming out’ was a calculated publicity stunt or simply a moment of playful candour, and to what regard his stated bisexuality was merely a ‘pose’. What is undeniable is that (along with Marc Bolan) ‘Ziggy’s rejection of the macho pose in rock provided young fans becoming aware of their own sexuality, along with anyone who felt like a social misfit, a sense of identification and feeling of liberation. It was okay to be arty, freaky, camp or a ‘little bit queer’.

Queer themes are less prevalent in his parallel career as an actor, but just as in many ways, Bowie was an unconventional rock god, with his fragile beauty, mismatched pupils and pre-NHS teeth, as happy to don a flowing pre-Raphaelite gown on an album cover as a £1,000 Armani suit; his choice of film roles were no less left-of-centre for this unlikely filmstar.

In the early years of his career, Bowie’s acting CV amounted to The Image, a dialogue-free short directed by Michael Armstrong (Mark of the Devil, House of Long Shadows), a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it walk-on in The Virgin Soldiers, and performing a minuet in BBC drama The Pistol Shot.

Bowie’s screen debut, The Image was one of the earliest short films to receive the notorious ‘X’ certificate from the BBFC, and was produced and distributed by Negus-Fancey/Border Films of Legend of the Witches infamy. Bowie biographer Dave Thompson reported that, in 1973, The Image received a rare screening at Edinburgh’s Jacey Cinema on 131 Princes Street  “sandwiched between I Am Sexy and Erotic Blue – more ill-fitting bedfellows could scarcely be imagined.”

The Man Who Fell To Earth was his first lead role in a major motion picture. With its visual narrative, sparce dialogue and fluid approach to continuity, The Man Who Fell To Earth was the last gasp of post-‘2001’ intelligent science fiction before Star Wars reinvented the blockbuster. David Bowie was perfectly cast as the cold, detached alien, who uses his home planet’s advanced scientific know-how to become the Steve Jobs of his day, building a booming technological empire, in order to fund a secretive space travel project.

His downfall is brought about by a sexual but loveless relationship with his helpmate Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), alcohol dependency, and shadowy government spooks who clip his Icarus-like wings.

At the time, due to his nocturnal lifestyle and a diet that consisted exclusively of milk, peppers, and weapons-grade Colombian marching powder, Bowie cut an anorexic, vampiric figure, with his alabaster-white skin and thatched crown of vermillion hair.

Bowie’s feminity and vulnerability as the spaced-out spaceman caused The Journal’s David Wheatstone to compare Bowie to the androgynous Katherine Hepburn in the cross-dressing romantic comedy Sylvia Scarlett:

“To modern eyes, the ‘still’ of Hepburn as Scarlett will kindle memories of David Bowie, who helped to make androgyny cool.”

As Newton, Bowie cuts a pensive, passive, vulnerable figure; a coldly efficient businessman in his crisp suits, but susceptible to Earth’s gravity, such as when he passes out in an elevator and, in a reversal of roles, his spindly form is carried by hotel maid Mary-Lou like a limp rag doll.

The film’s sex scenes are explicit, yet emotionally sterile, filmed with a detached, voyeuristic eye, and soundtracked by the glacial, disquieting music of Stomu Yamash’ta.

After a three year hiatus, Bowie returned to the music world in a big way with 1983’s Let’s Dance. A deliberate attempt to reposition himself firmly in the musical mainstream, with a heavily commercial sound (produced by Nile Rodgers) and a matinee idol look streets away from the makeup and elaborate costumes he was known for. His comeback was accompanied by not one but two major film roles.

Based on Laurens Van Der Post’s novel The Seed And The Sower and directed by Nagisa Oshima, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence was the tale of Allied soldiers in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, with Bowie playing Major Jack Celliers, who recalls his schooldays and his betrayal of his deformed younger brother in dreamlike flashbacks. One of the film’s main themes is a repressed homosexual desire, that of Celliers’ captor, Captain Yonoi (Ryuchi Sakamoto) who is obsessed with the resolute, defiant Celliers.

Yonoi initially takes an interest in Celliers because he is impressed by his bravery in the face of death. That, and when he takes off his shirt in the courtroom to provide evidence of his torture at the hands of the camp’s soldiers. After a series of rebellions in the camp, Celliers seals his fate when he breaks rank and kisses Yonoi on the cheek in front of his soldiers, an unbearable violation of Yonoi’s code of honour. Conflicted between his loss of honour and his feelings for Celliers, he collapses.

Popmatters’ Terrence Butcher wrote in 2010:

“There are numerous interpretations for Yonoi’s intense fixation with Celliers, but homoerotic desire seems to be at the core.”

In sharp contrast to Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’s arthouse credentials, Bowie’s other cinematic offering of 1983 was The Hunger, a glossy, stylised erotic vampire thriller directed by the late Tony Scott, Ridley Scott’s younger brother.

It’s a horror movie for the MTV generation, packed with such ‘80s flourishes as neon strip lighting, dry ice and billowing silk curtains –  basically a full-length 1980s pop video.

It’s most remembered for its opening scene, featuring Bauhaus performing Bela Lugosi’s Dead in London’s gay nightclub Heaven, while the stars (David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as vampire lovers John and Miriam Blaylock) stalk the crowd for fresh meat; a self-referential moment where the Blaylocks slay their prey (Ann Magnusson and Sophie Ward) in the same high-rise immortalised in a Maxell cassette advert starring Bauhaus’ Pete Murphy, and the sequence in which Bowie proceeds to age 200 years in the space of an afternoon; not to mention a softcore seduction scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, accompanied by the strains of Lakme’s Flower Duet. Pure ‘lesbian chic’ in the vein of such ‘70s arthouse erotica as Bilitis and Laura: Shadows of a Summer, and an influence on retro-chic The Duke of Burgundy.

Writing for Vogue in 1983, Anne Rice discussed the ‘end of gender’ a propos of The Hunger:

“Bowie, who has always promised the end of gender in his elegant and feline guises, not only is fascinating as an actor but amplifies in his films the lithe androgynous beauty underlying his ever-powerful rock-singer appeal… The end of gender isn’t the abolition of masculine/feminine. Rather, it is the abolition of the gender tyranny that would divide us into armed camps.”

As the ageless vampire Miriam, Deneuve’s character is a call-back to Sheridan Le Fanu’s creation, Carmilla. Influenced by the legends of Hungarian noble and ‘blood countess’, Elisabeth Bathory, Carmilla explored lesbianism and female sexuality and inspired Hammer horror films The Vampire Lovers and Countess Dracula, both starring Ingrid Pitt.

The Hunger itself has a legacy of sorts, belonging to a then-small niche of “modern day vampire” films that eschewed the clichés of cloaks and crucifixes in favour of urban contemporary settings and AIDS/drugs metaphors: See also Martin (George Romero, 1977), Vamp (Richard Wenk, 1986), Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987) and The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1989).

Once again, Bowie’s androgynous, vulnerable qualities, unusual in a leading man, bleed into the role, as once again, he finds his prone form carried by his female counterpart, in this case Miriam (Deneuve) wearily carrying his aged corpse down to the cellar where the rest of the ‘family’ are interred.

Anne Rice higlighted certain dualities between Bowie’s roles:

“How can one escape noticing, for example, that in both The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Hunger, Bowie is so physically weak at one point he has to be carried by the female lead… Yet in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, it is Bowie who does the carrying – of the badly beaten British officer (played by Tom Conti) in the very same manner that Bowie himself was carried.” 

Bowie’s most well-loved role was Jareth, King of the Goblins, in Jim Henson’s musical fantasy, Labyrinth (1986). While it was not a huge commercial success, received rather sniffily by critics, it has enjoyed a prolonged cult following. Thanks to its continuous availability on VHS, DVD and now Blu-Ray, and numerous TV airings as a bank holiday staple, it has acted as a gateway drug for countless Generation X and millennial Bowie neophytes over the years.

A film for children of all ages, although there are some dark, complex themes lurking beneath its’ Muppety surface. This places it firmly in the same tradition as European fairy tales and turn of the century fantasy fiction, noted for their darkly moral messages and sexual undertones.  Essentially, the film is about the world’s worst babysitter, Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly), a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood (although it is hard to ascertain Sarah’s age – at times she is mature and perceptive in her reasoning, at others a propensity for childish tantrums – so, a typical teenager, then!).

Jareth’s ensnaring of Sarah’s baby is initially the classic fairytale trope of “Be careful what you wish for!”, but over time it becomes clear – or as clear as a PG-rated film can be – that the challenges and pitfalls that Jareth places in Sarah’s path as she crosses the Labyrinth are a ruse to trap Sarah and seduce her as his Queen.

At times, the subtext isn’t particularly sub, such as when, betrayed by her companion Hoggle, Sarah bites into a charmed peach (echoes of the temptation of Eve, and Snow White’s poisoned apple) and, hallucinating, finds herself in a sumptuous masqued ball, surrounded by decadently costumed revellers, and serenaded by Jareth (the single-that-never-was, As The World Falls Down). Here, Jareth represents seduction, temptation and the pleasure principle, with the masquerade her first step into a sensual adult world.

The reverie is shattered when Sarah breaks the spell, and in the climactic confrontation, Sarah rejects Jareth’s dominion, is returned back to the safety of her bedroom, surrounded by her stuffed toys and picture books. Effectively, her sexual awakening has been forestalled, and childhood innocence can continue for another day, uncorrupted.

And this is a kid’s film? In the cold light of day, a fortysomething man stalking a teenage girl could be described, in current argot, as “problematic”, but the film’s fantasy setting offers a level of detachment, it’s a safe fantasy, reinforced by the ending, which reasserts the status quo.

Connelly proves herself an accomplished young actor, at the beginning of a lengthy career, but it’s Bowie, hamming it up theatrically and clearly relishing the role’s pantomime aspects, who steals the show – although it’s arguable that his well-stuffed leggings deserved a joint credit.

In The Feminartsy‘s 2016 piece, Queering Film – The Labyrinth, Hannah McCann wrote:

There’s a lot more that could be said about the queerness of The Labyrinth, not just its feminist overtones. These elements of queerness involve making things strange and fantastical, and most importantly, subverting the normal. For example, there are significant animal-vegetable-human boundaries that are broken down when we learn that even rocks can be friends. Indeed a key message of the film is that things are not always what they seem. We ought to suspend judgment, expect the unexpected, and face the world unafraid of the weird and the wonderful things we might face along the way.

Along these lines, there is a plethora of masculinities we are exposed to in the film that deviate from the standards of hegemonic masculinity. For example, there is the meek and inviting blue worm, the fearful but giant Ludo, the macho but tiny Sir Didymus fox, and of course, the bedazzled goblin king caked with so much glitter, hairspray, and makeup you’d think he walked right out of a Mardi Gras parade. The film teaches us the essential life lessons that: a) character cannot be judged on surface appearance; and b) that David Bowie in tights was one of the great wonders of the twentieth century.

As Bowie grabbed back the reins of his career in the ‘90s and the new millennium, his film roles dwindled down to bit parts and cameos. Notable appearances include John Landis’ Into The Night (1985), Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), David Lynch nut-scratcher Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Brit-flick Everybody Loves Sunshine (1999, as a gay gangster), Zoolander (2001) and The Prestige (2006). His passing in 2016 saw his role in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) taken by a steaming kettle, an absurdist detail that Bowie would surely have approved of.

The film world is littered by good, bad and mediocre performances by “singers who can act a bit”, but Bowie’s intriguing choice of roles and unique visual appeal made his movie career variable, but rarely dull, and offered another medium where his undeniable star quality could be captured for posterity, and his more distinctive choices complement his musical canon, with enough parallels and recurring themes to reward repeated viewings by fans – the perversity and androgyny that denoted his musical back catalogue is equally present in his filmography, and equally worthy of examination.


❉ James Gent has contributed to several acclaimed publications devoted to cult and popular television including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die and is the co-editor of Me and The Starman, coming soon in 2018 from Who Dares Publishing.

❉ An earlier, shorter version of this article was originally published by The Queerness: https://thequeerness.com/2016/08/05/hooked-to-the-silver-screen-david-bowie-on-film/

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