We were shattered to hear of David Bowie’s death on January 10, 2016. He was an artistic icon, and his music, fashion, and art touched all of us deeply. We hadn’t featured him on Man Candy Monday, thinking that his biggest film roles (such as The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976) were set in contemporary times, but clearly we were mistaken. So, upon his passing, let’s take a retrospective look at those sometimes small, but always, like the artist himself, exquisite and delightful roles with David Bowie in historical costume.
Just a Gigolo (1978) – Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski
At the start of Bowie’s ‘Berlin’ period, he was, appropriately enough, tapped to play this Prussian officer returning home after World War I. As the title implies, he works as a gigolo, and his madam is none other than Marlene Dietrich, in her last film (although the two didn’t meet on set; they were filmed separately because Dietrich didn’t want to travel). Unfortunately, the movie was a flop, and Bowie said later, “Oh well, we’ve all got to do one [bad movie] and hopefully I’ve done mine now.”
The Hunger (1983) – John Blaylock
Quite possibly one of the most perfect vampire films ever (according to Trystan, our resident expert), The Hunger is mostly based on a Whitley Strieber novel of the same name that posits vampires as an ancient race who crave companionship, in addition to blood. The always elegant Catherine Deneuve plays the vampire, and her companion at the outset is David Bowie … then complications ensue. While the film is set during the contemporary era (and begins with an AH-MAY-ZING intro of Deneuve and Bowie at a nightclub picking up victims as the band Bauhaus plays “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”), we get flashbacks to when the couple first met. Bowie’s character was an 18th-century cellist, so we are treated to these delicious images of David Bowie in historical costume. If you’re wondering why this outfit is so perfect, even though it’s just for a brief scene, well, that’s because the film’s costume designer was none other than Milena Canonero, who had already won an Oscar for the 18th-century costumes in Barry Lyndon (hmm, wonder if it’s a recycled costume?). The movie also features a gorgeous lesbian seduction scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, so if you haven’t seen it, look it up and watch ASAP!
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) – Maj. Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers
’83 was a banner year for David Bowie on film and surprisingly, these were all somewhat historical costume movies. One of his most lauded performances was in this World War II Japanese prison camp film. The New York Times review said: “Mr. Bowie’s screen presence here is mercurial and arresting, and he seems to arrive at this effortlessly, though he manages to do something slyly different in every scene. The demands of his role may sometimes be improbable and elaborate, but Mr. Bowie fills them in a remarkably plain and direct way. Little else in the film is so unaffected or clear.”
Yellowbeard (1983) – The Shark
This was a big, silly, pretty dumb movie written by Monty Python alum Graham Chapman and starring all of his friends, including fellow Pythons Eric Idle and John Cleese (both of whom admitted later that the flick was one of the worst they’d ever done), plus Marty Feldman, Cheech & Chong, Madeline Khan (pictured in decent stays for a pirate flick), and yep, David Bowie made an uncredited cameo. This was costume designer Stephen Miles only full “designer” credit, but he’s been part of the costume and wardrobe staff on everything from The Madness of King George (1994) to Cranford (2007) since then, so hey, something good came out of this.
Labyrinth (1986) – Jareth, the Goblin King
Alright, this isn’t a historical film, but for some of us (ehem, Sarah), this movie came out at a critical point in our development. And really, who can deny that David Bowie is ideally cast as the very-tempting-bad-guy-in-tight-pants? We could make something up about how Jareth’s costume echoes 18th-century and Regency men’s fashion through a 1980s lens, but really, we’re too busy goin’ dance, magic dance!
Absolute Beginners (1986) – Vendice Partners
Now he’s literally the Man Who Sold the World, all slick and selling out in this 1950s musical. As fast-talking, sharp-looking Vendice Partners in this ironic turn, David Bowie plays an ad exec with a great song-and-dance scene. Bowie also contributed excellent tunes to the soundtrack.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – Pontius Pilot
Almost unrecognizable in Martin Scorsese’s controversial Biblical story, David Bowie utters the damning line to Willem Defoe’s Jesus, “Unfortunately for you, we don’t want things changed.”
Basquiat (1996) – Andy Warhol
This was pretty brilliant casting on painter/director Julian Schnabel’s part. Who other than David Bowie could better capture Andy Warhol’s coolness with warmth and humor (and not just because the two artists had met before Warhol’s death in 1987). To add extra realism, Bowie was allowed to borrow Warhol’s wig, glasses, and jacket from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. Warhol’s director Paul Morrissey said of this performance, “Bowie was the best by far. You come away from Basquiat thinking Andy was comical and amusing, not a pretentious, phony piece of shit, which is how others show him.”
The Prestige (2006) – Nikola Tesla
An interesting cameo and another feature with David Bowie playing a historical figure. In this Victorian mystery, an illusionist tries to figure out a rival’s secret, and partway through, is convinced that one of Tesla’s inventions can help. Joan Bergin’s solid costume design transforms David Bowie into a careful resemblance of this portrait of the older scientist.
What’s your favorite role with David Bowie in historical costume? How will you remember the artist?