David Bowie, who left our planet this week, appeared in some 20 movies, but his appearances on movie posters are restricted to just a handful of films. Many of his roles, especially in later years, were cameos or small, but significant, character parts. He memorably played Pontius Pilate in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), and Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006); he appeared as himself in films as varied as Christiane F. (1981), Zoolander (2001) and Bandslam (2009); and he was endearingly strange as an FBI agent in the opening section of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992).
His most important and iconic film role by far is his starring role as the titular alien in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)—a role you can’t imagine any other actor playing even though it has been said that Mick Jagger, Robert Redford and author Michael Crichton (who was an unworldly 6 foot 10) were considered for the part. The UK poster (above) designed and illustrated by the great British poster artist Vic Fair is the best known. In a terrific interview with Fair on the poster blog Film on Paper, which calls the poster “an absolute classic and...arguably one of the greatest British posters of all time,” Fair says:
"I wasn’t given a brief for that one, but I remember working away on it and Eddie Paul, a designer friend who worked at FEREF, saw it and told me that he was working on something very similar – rival agencies would often be asked to work on ideas for the same film – so that made me double my efforts and I actually completed the design in one night! The composition of the shapes was important to me. The only thing I don’t really like about it is the figure that’s dropping down at the bottom and I should have improved on that, really."
Sidenote: The typeface that Fair created for the poster was used a few years later in the logo for Iron Maiden.
Bowie’s first major film was D.A. Pennebaker’s 1973 concert film of Bowie’s final concert as Ziggy Stardust.
The US poster for The Man Who Fell to Earth was eventually used as the cover art for Bowie’s 1977 album Low (an album which incorporated much of the unused music that Bowie had composed for the soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth). As I posted last fall, the poster can be spotted on a New York subway platform in Chantal Akerman’s film News from Home which was filmed in the summer of 1976.
Bowie’s follow-up to The Man Who Fell to Earth was the German production Just a Gigolo (1978) an oddity directed by Blow-Up star David Hemmings, and starring not only Bowie but also Kim Novak and, in her final film appearance, Marlene Dietrich. Though the film was a disaster (Bowie referred to it as “my 32 Elvis Presley films rolled into one”) the distributors, needless to say, made much of Bowie’s second starring role.
After Just a Gigolo there was a five year break from the movies—during which time he appeared on Broadway as The Elephant Man—before the 1983 double-whammy of Tony Scott's vampire movie The Hunger and his unforgettable role in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.
In 1986 Bowie had iconic roles in two now-cult films: as singing and dancing ad man Vendice Partners in the musical Absolute Beginners and as Jareth, the Goblin king, in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.
There are few movie poster appearances for Bowie after Labyrinth, but there is this one.
And, as a final aside, I just wanted to include this poster spotted on a
London Sydney street this week. The poster for Bowie’s final album Black Star is reminiscent, in its profile image of Bowie, of the US Man Who Fell to Earth poster but it has here been aptly graffitied.
Float in Peace Starman.