“It was cold and it rained, and I felt like an actor,” David Bowie sang in “Five Years,” a track from his landmark 1972 album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.” Bowie was always an actor, of course, a man who could adopt roles and change character at will. His greatest performances were on the musical stage, but he also left behind a smaller legacy of movies. Many featured him in supporting roles or even self-winking cameos, but at least one became almost as crucial to his persona as Ziggy Stardust himself.
That movie was Nicolas Roeg’s arrestingly strange science-fiction film from 1976, “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” It starred Bowie – in his first major role – as a humanoid alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, who crash-lands on our planet and becomes a wealthy businessman addicted to alcohol, sex and television. It was the perfect role for Bowie, who never seemed completely human despite his total immersion into, and influence on, our world. A still from the film, featuring Bowie in sunset-orange hair, became the cover of his ethereal electronic-music album “Low” (1977).
Bowie’s subsequent film roles were usually extensions (or parodies) of his established persona. He played an aristocrat-turned-prostitute in 1979’s “Just a Gigolo” and a homoerotic martyr-figure in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983). He was a vampire in “The Hunger” (1983) and the shock-haired Goblin King in the 1986 fantasy “Labyrinth.” John Landis cast him against type as a jaunty hitman in his Hollywood meta-comedy “Into the Night” (1985).
One of Bowie’s best but lesser-known roles was Vendice Partners, an American advertising executive, in Julien Temple’s jazz-pop musical “Absolute Beginners” (1986). Dancing atop a spinning Earth, Bowie performs “That’s Motivation,” a song he wrote about self-invention and media manipulation. “Why am I so exciting? What makes me dramatic?” he sings. “You step out of time into life’s every dream / A life of such powerful meaning.”