Rating David Bowie’s Film Roles from Best to Worst

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As you may have noticed, we are a little bit David Bowie-crazy here at Flavorpill. So we are thrilled at the news that New York’s Museum of Art and Design is mounting David Bowie, Artist next month. As part of the show, they’re doing a retrospective of Bowie on film — which gives us a great excuse to rate his acting roles from best to worst. For the sake of our sanity, we’re limiting the list to ten of his best-known, English-language movies and omitting D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, because that’s a whole ‘nother (totally wonderful) thing entirely.

Thomas Jerome Newton, The Man Who Fell to Earth

David Bowie’s first starring film role remains his strongest. Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth finds the man who was, only a few years earlier, Ziggy Stardust playing an alien who has come to Earth to find water to his drought-stricken home. At the height of his mid-’70s drug excess, Bowie appears pale, painfully thin, and often nervous — making him the perfect extraterrestrial.

Pontius Pilate, The Last Temptation of Christ

Bowie is only in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ for a few minutes — but what a few minutes they are! His Pontius Pilate is calm, controlled, and intelligent ruler, a grim realist who doesn’t seem to enjoy punishing Willem Dafoe’s Jesus Christ. “You do understand what has to happen?” he asks, chillingly, before warning Jesus of his fate.

John, The Hunger

Sure, The Hunger was campy. But growing old and dying have always been preoccupations for Bowie, and we imagine that’s what makes his turn as a rapidly aging vampire so memorable. Also, with co-stars like Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, you pretty much can’t go wrong.

Nikola Tesla, The Prestige

When Bowie turned down the small role of Tesla in The Prestige, director Christopher Nolan flew to New York to plead his case, telling the singer that he couldn’t think of anyone else who would do the role justice. “He has to present an extraordinarily charismatic and noticeable presence in the film. I wanted somebody who wasn’t a movie star; somebody’s who’s charismatic and had this sort of star quality in a slightly different way, which I think is perfect for that,” Nolan explained later. The filmmaker’s intuition proved to be right on; Bowie even nailed the Serbian accent.

Jareth the Goblin King, Labyrinth

We have a feeling much of Labyrinth‘s cult following would put this role right at the top of the list. And listen, we love Bowie in the movie, playing an evil goblin king as an oddly maternal (right?) glam rocker who doesn’t mind showing off what he’s packing in the, um, front. (Honestly, of all these movies, this is the one we revisit most often.) We don’t imagine the part required much real acting, but it surely showed us a goofier, more playful side of Bowie.

Andy Warhol, Basquiat

Julian Schnabel’s biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat was somewhat uneven. For us, the main highlight was Bowie as Andy Warhol. (Also entertaining: Courtney Love’s cameo.) In his floppy, white wig and stoned drawl, he never truly disappears into the role. The result feels like David Bowie doing an impression of Andy Warhol. As his 1971 song “Andy Warhol” confirms, he’s had mixed feelings about the pop artist for decades, and it’s fascinating to see that tension play out on film.

Phillip Jeffries, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

David Lynch + David Bowie = Awesome. And that Miami Vice-style outfit? Superb. Unfortunately, this one loses points for Bowie’s terrible Southern accent.

Monte, The Linguini Incident

Bowie does rom-com/heist movie? We have to admit, this one is a guilty pleasure of ours. Although the material doesn’t give Bowie much to work with, his innate charm is an asset to the role, and who doesn’t want to see him share top billing with Rosanna Arquette.

Vendice Partners, Absolute Beginners

Julien Temple’s well-intentioned, brightly colored musical flop is nice to look at, but there’s not much under the surface. And, although Bowie did write the theme song, he was wasted in a fairly small role as ad man Vendice Partners. The performance, like the film itself, is little more than a curiosity?

Bernie, B.U.S.T.E.D.

Even geniuses make terrible mistakes. Here’s one of Bowie’s. This turn-of-the-millennium British gangster film — starring Goldie, the jungle DJ, remember him? — has just about zero redeeming qualities. As for Bowie’s performance therein, Film Threat describes him as “looking like The Old Man Who Fell To Earth in his geek glasses and stubbly grey goatee,” and that’s really all that needs to be said.