David Bowie: Bowie at the Bijou
Last year, we lost a rock and roll legend. I am ill-equipped to discuss David Bowie’s musical legacy except to say that Bowie was so big that his influence spilled over into other media including movies. In the April 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, one of the magazine’s editors interviewed Bowie about his side job as a movie star.
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.”
Bowie is friendly enough with Scorsese to have been given a copy of Marty’s storyboards from the big Raging Bull fight sequence (“The picture is, of course, in black and white, but in the storyboards the blood is painted in red”), but as a man who has himself put out good and bad product, he calls a spade a spade: “I hated Cape Fear. I was so disappointed. It felt like he was bored, like he was playing with the camera instead of getting into the thing. The story is sublimely silly. It was all making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. There was one series of shots I couldn’t believe, five zoom-ins in a row, and thought, I don’t know whether he’s saying, ‘You’ll buy this, sucker,’ or ‘I don’t like what I’m doing.’ It was a message in a lens.”
Bowie’s part in Temptation was exactly one scene, in keeping with his apparent strategy of doing cameos for directors who interest him instead of doing possibly grander roles for directors who don’t. With the exception of first-time director Richard Shepard’s The Linguini Incident, which, Bowie explains, he did because the starring role as a bartender was one in which “I could just be me,” Bowie says that “on any project, I take into consideration first, foremost, above the storyline, above the role, who is directing. Is it somebody I’d like to observe firsthand?” In the case of David Lynch, yes. Bowie spent two days on Lynch’s Fire Walk with Me (the movie prequel to the TV “Twin Peaks”) last year, playing an FBI agent who reappears, after long being presumed dead, to drop some clues about Laura Palmer’s predicament. I ask Bowie what his favorite Lynch movie is. “Oh, I’m afraid it would be Eraserhead. I think it’s an adorable film, quite lovely. It’s such a pure form of his enthusiasm for making films. I think he’s veered off now, but I saw him initially as much more of a painterly filmmaker.”
“A lot of people seem to think Lynch has gone off the deep end,” I remark.
“If you put his work alongside what Europe’s been producing for the last 50 years, it’s not so wacky. It’s all relative. People would think Lynch has gone nuts if they’ve been brought up on Tony Scott, yes. But crikey. One good sharp dose of Un Chien Andalou would set them straight.”
“I’m talking about people who know Un Chien Andalou. They just think Lynch has lost control.”
“They want that. They’d love that, wouldn’t they? People are always looking for chinks in the armor in this business.” Realizing he has just uttered a cliche, a sin he does not easily allow himself, Bowie leans forward and adopts the tone of a cigar-chomping showbiz know-it-all. “Ya know, in this business, Virginia …”
“I read the synopsis of Fire Walk with Me and I couldn’t tell what the hell it was about.”
“You wait,” says Bowie, now shifting into mock hype mode. “You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, baby. I read his script to Ronnie Rocket [a long-planned Lynch project]. I have never, in my entire life–wait, how can I be really glib–” He gathers himself up and pronounces with TV movie critic blurb relish that “Ronnie Rocket makes Eraserhead look like ‘Dallas.’
“I wanted to see if Lynch was quite as cerebral as everybody had always told me he was,” Bowie continues. “He is. But he’s quite scattered. On the set he’s quite alarmingly nuts. He was super. Working with him was probably very much what it was like working with Nic Roeg–if I remembered.”
The key year in Bowie’s film karma was 1975, when wild rock and roll success was finally his. He was living in L.A., showbiz Mission Control, where offers of every kind were being hurled his way. And so a rough year it was. Cameron Crowe, now a film director but then an intrepid journalist, caught the spirit of these fast times in a now justly famous Playboy interview based on his travels with a uniquely unleashed Bowie, a Bowie who had given up conventional sleep patterns and, one surmises, was fueling his revelations about such things as his bisexuality (which he has since disavowed) and his taste for fascism (which he has since disavowed) with large quantities of cocaine. (“It’s kind of good, isn’t it?” Bowie says with a low, clenched-jaw laugh at the mention of this past bit of public relations.)
“Weren’t you considering doing a movie version of Stranger in a Strange Land back in 1975?”
“No, I was offered it many, many times by many, many different producers. I absolutely never had any intention of doing it. It was a staggeringly, awesomely trite book.” The film Bowie did decide to do was based on another science fiction book he describes as “quite a pallid little story,” The Man Who Fell to Earth. Both stories are about space aliens, but the latter project was to be directed by Nicolas Roeg, the man who’d done well by Mick Jagger in Performance and could be counted on to transform the pallid into the perplexing. Roeg, having gotten over his notion of having a too-old Peter O’Toole play The Man, no doubt knew of Bowie’s rock-life self-casting as a non-Earthling, but probably considered that incidental. He may well have seen more in Bowie back then than Bowie did, which is saying something.
“Roeg phoned my office in New York and made an appointment to see me,” Bowie recalls, “and I turned up a day late. He came at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and I went out all night because I was doing my drug of choice and I got back midday the next day and he’d stayed overnight in my kitchen waiting. He won me over just by that. I was being very snobby about making films–you know, ‘I’m not sure I want to do your little movie.’ I had plans of taking over show business. This film really didn’t fit into my scheme of things. I read bits of the script, as much as I was able to at the time, 30 seconds at a go.”
The Man Who Fell to Earth turned out to be an inspired, irreducible piece about an alien who comes to earth to rescue his own planet from drought through an elaborate, doomed plan involving the development of a Howard Hughes-ish empire. Bowie, ethereal almost to the point of transparency, was brilliant casting as the Visitor who, Roeg wanted us to understand, comes as much from metaphorical inner as literal outer space. While Roeg’s achievement flew by most critics (who never do seem to do the right drugs), Bowie caught them all off guard and won their praise. This bizarre-looking rock creature of dubious sexual identity could act.
Bowie claims he wasn’t acting: “I just threw my real self into that movie as I was at that time. It was the first thing I’d ever done. I was virtually ignorant of the established procedure, so I was going a lot on instinct, and my instinct was pretty dissipated. I just learned the lines for that day and did them the way I was feeling. It wasn’t that far off. I actually was feeling as alienated as that character was. It was a pretty natural performance. What you see there is David Bowie.”
“Well, it’s an awfully good performance.”
“It’s a good exhibition–of somebody literally falling apart in front of you. I was totally insecure with about 10 grams a day in me. I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end.”
Ten grams a day?. That’s Hiroshima plus Nagasaki. I’d have been putting my bodily fluids in the refrigerator too. Bowie lights his fifth or sixth Marlboro in the ongoing, theoretically milder assault on his longevity that he allows himself these days and explains, “I was out of my head from ’74 till at least through ’76, in a serious and dangerous manner.”
“Was Roeg ever bothered by your being so out of it on his set?”
“I don’t remember him ever getting angry with me. We got on rather well. I think I was fulfilling what he needed from me for that role. I wasn’t disrupting … I wasn’t disrupted. In fact, I was very eager to please. And amazingly enough, I was able to carry out everything I was asked to do. I was quite willing to stay up as long as anybody. I’d go home and stay up even then, and write and make albums and do all this stuff all the time. Days on end. I’ve got thousands of paintings.”
Oil or acrylic? Bowie laughs. “Acrylic! It’s fast. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Done. Next!” Perhaps because Bowie’s love of the nonlinear is catching, I suddenly want to know what he thinks of Willem de Kooning’s latest work, the paintings done since the maestro got senile and quit talking. Truth is, I can picture Bowie ending up like this at 90 or 100.
“I actually visited de Kooning.”
“What state was he in?”
“Fake catatonic, I think. I went with some friends and I think he just didn’t want visitors. As we walked in, he was painting …” Bowie gets up and stands crouched with an invisible, unmoving brush poised at the surface of an invisible canvas, “very much like that. And then he made a big number of sitting in his rocking chair and we got three words out of him the whole time. He sat there waiting–‘Oh fuck, visitors’– then he wanted us to realize we’d disrupted his day because he didn’t wait for us to go. As we were walking out, he got back up and started painting again. There’s a man who’s aware of the existence of life and death at the same time.”