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Remembering David Bowie in the movies, most importantly as ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’

David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg's "The Man Who

David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg's "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976). Credit: BFI Photo

“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.”

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