David Bowie: Bowie at the Bijou

Impressed by the great performances, David Bowie has given in a handful of movies that almost no one has seen. One of our editors talks to the ex-rock god about the films he's made, the films he almost made, and the film he's making.

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Gee honey, how 'bout if we go see the new David Bowie movie? If you've never uttered these words, you might not be the only one. It's possible nobody has. Maybe back in 1976, when Bowie, still cresting with the triumph of his album Young Americans, made his film debut in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, some platform-shoed hipster laid out an extra line for his significant other and they raced together to the nearest theater.

But Roeg's unusual film so thoroughly confounded this groundswell that Bowie did not instantly become a Sinatra-like music-to-film crossover, which is what he himself said at the time that he intended to do. Nor did he correct his trajectory with his next film project, Just a Gigolo, which crawled belatedly on and quickly off screens in 1979. He had two big projects in 1983, Tony Scott's The Hunger and Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and both failed at the box office. By the time the Muppet epic Labyrinth, in which he starred as a goblin king, disappointed in 1986, Bowie was limiting his screen ambitions to cameos--in John Landis's Into the Night in 1985, in Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners in 1986, and in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.

Why, then, you might ask, is David Bowie on the cover of Movieline? Reasons could be cited. The long-delayed "quirky comedy" The Linguini Incident, in which Bowie stars opposite Rosanna Arquette and Buck Henry, is due out any day now. Also, Bowie has just done a cameo in David Lynch's upcoming Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and he is now in production on his directorial debut, a small, European-financed, as-yet-untitled film he wrote the script for. But those are pretexts. The truth is this: We like David Bowie. We like his movies. We don't care that none of his films has ever made any money. We think his work is at least as interesting as that of most of the dozen or so movie stars who might have been on our cover this month. And as a person, he's much more interesting.

Ziggy Stardust taught the Spiders from Mars to play 20 years ago. That's when David Bowie's daring, self-absorbed walk on the wild side really began to pick up speed. As Ziggy, he stylishly trampled such sacred notions of the day as "all you need is love." Ziggy didn't like hippies. He (correctly) thought they'd gotten boring with their lazy, stoned out embrace of the great amorphous values like peace, love and understanding. All that "genuine" feeling was lousy showbiz. What about ungenuine feeling, the kind that made up most of everyone's internal life? The whole scene needed spiffing up, and Bowie was a one-man spiff-up squad. A little makeup, some orange hair dye, a taste of bisexuality and--this was the important part--a jolt of rock and roll so good and various and un-mellow it made the '70s bearable. Against the stupefying '60s ethos of "just be yourself," Bowie's music and behavior raised the useful question, "which self?" He had quite a few. So did everybody else. It all got pretty crazy.

Looking back none too fondly on Bowie's heyday, music critic Stephen Fried wrote a couple of years ago that "Bowie was the first to recklessly fuck with the free world's head in a big theatrical way, not just focusing all kinds of adolescent cross-lust, but also mass marketing alienation and sexual weirdness." Well, for one thing, what's the free world good for if not to get its head fucked with once in a while? For another, Fried must have had some dull friends back then if they needed any help from David Bowie in getting alienated and weird.

But that is not to underestimate the extreme, authentic strangeness of David Bowie. There are reasons his stage and film roles have not included George in Our Town and have included: a space visitor, a gigolo, a vampire, a martyr, the Elephant Man, an evil advertising man, the guy who killed Christ, etc. These reasons go beyond his Boy Dietrich look and Daliesque anorexia. Bowie has always had a lot of theater going on behind the curtain of his earthy, unearthly flesh. The life of excess he so egregiously pursued in the '70s pumped up the volume. How insane was the lad? Of all the facts and fantasies I read about Bowie--and there are some sleazy, mean-spirited, badly researched, fascinating books out there--my single favorite outrageous, scarcely believable pseudo-factoid about his bad days was that during a stint in L.A. in 1975, he was so flipped out and paranoid on cocaine that he allegedly had a witch exorcize his house of demons (that's not the weird part) and then (this is the weird part) took to preserving his bodily fluids in jars in the refrigerator. The ultimate discouragement to midnight snacking. This I've got to ask him about. He probably won't even remember if he ever did such a thing--it was long ago, he's proper these days--but I've got to ask.

Maybe I won't ask. Nobody who at any time in the last 20 years preserved his bodily fluids in jars in the refrigerator would ever set 8:30 a.m. for an interview time. Rock stars across the city are just now shooing away their wasted groupies and passing out in disheveled suites. In the small, elegant living room of the small, elegant Manhattan hotel he is staying in, Bowie is already watching TV, the recap of a boxing match he seems to care about. He savors a few last punches, then turns the sound down to zero but leaves the picture on across the room over my shoulder as he gathers up a cup of coffee. Maneuvering around the period furniture in T-shirt, gym pants and laceless hightops, Bowie is the most aerodynamic person I've ever seen up close. He looks designed to swoop where others have not swooped, and not to show up on radar.

I take out my tape recorder, a few pages of notes, and a book of poems I've brought as a present. "I don't know if you know this poet," I say. "He's wonderful but he's not really that well known, which is kind of amazing--being a well-kept secret for 20 years in the age of celebrity isn't easy." Bowie smiles, thanks me, checks out the book, which he has indeed heard of, and says, "Well, I've been a well-kept secret for 20 years. You've only seen the tip of the iceberg." There is not a trace of irony in his voice. It is the voice of a movie star, a voice John Garfield would have killed for, low, edged with a soft rasp that makes you listen. What I hear is a man who is not kidding, but is not dead serious either. A man who is just being a little playful first thing in the morning. The Diamond Dog is throwing the ball for me.

The night before flying to New York, I watched Bowie's brief performance as a serene, pragmatic Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. "That's a strange movie to watch before going on a plane flight," Bowie laughs. "It's like, shall we find out--is there a God?" Then, as if moving on to the next logical topic, Bowie says, "I can't wait to see the other 10 percent of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They're in fragments, of course, kind of a Bill Burroughs effect..." and he recounts for me a certain conspiracy theory ("a '70s thing") about a secret section of the Dead Sea Scrolls supposedly written by a Jesus who'd escaped from the cross and ended up dying a revolutionary at Masada. This secret stuff is, according to the theory, held in the Vatican and shown only to each new Pope on the day of election. But what on earth, I ask, could the big secret be anyway? "Oh," laughs Bowie, "that there really was a Brian."

And that's about as serious as Bowie seems to want to get about his Scorsese film. "I had a great problem with the idiosyncratic accents. I fell afoul of that right at the beginning. It was kind of hard being there in Morocco with all these Method actors saying"Bowie shifts into Brook-lynese"'If we ged anutha plate o' coozcooz I'm gunna throwwhup! Fuck! Fuck you!!' And then the next day in character saying, 'So whadyaa get when ya look in da eyes uf an ant?' It was unreal. I kept cracking up." However amused by the proceedings, Bowie managed a riveting, low-key scene with the Method Jesus in which, as Pilate, he sends his surreal white horse out of frame to neigh in the distance as he quietly condemns the Savior. "I was always told two things," he says. "Never work with animals and never work with Nicolas Roeg. I was waiting for the horse to take a dump on my big scene. But he was a good horse." And Bowie was a good Pilate.

"It seemed to me that the lower echelon of the bureaucracy of Rome was probably pretty similar to the British colonials who had to govern bits of Africa and India. It's sort of"Bowie shifts precisely into his Pilate voice"'Look, you people are causing too much trouble. I've got far too much work on my hands and I'm having a lot of complaints from Rome. We're going to bring you education, you'll have roads, but it all takes time. Let's just try to keep the system working--I do have the power to come to an ultimate conclusion about you chaps. For God's sake, I could have you crucified.' That's the part of the speech I thought was humorous."

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