David Bowie: Bowie at the Bijou
The phone rings and Bowie crosses the room to answer it. He speaks very briefly in a soft voice to his publicist, who is asking how things are going and letting him know the schedule for getting to his performance by evening in another city. It’s all very calm, very ’90s. “I had a very strange offer the other night I must tell you about,” he says as he sits back down and refocuses. Because of a much discussed peculiarity of his eyes–one of his irises is paralyzed from a childhood fight–Bowie tends to focus your attention when he’s focusing his. “Someone sent me a Mormon Bible and $500 in cash to have a couple of hours to spend with me.” He laughs lightly at this, marveling. “Of course, I returned both. I think a straightforward presentation of the Mormon Bible and a request to maybe have a chat about it might have produced a different result. It was the inclusion of the $500 I felt was particularly weird. Buying my time. Really odd.”
Since Bowie has struck so many poses throughout his professional life, quite a few of them overtly borrowed from some of the great pose-strikers of all time, one assumes he carried out a study of past masters at some point. He bristles at the suggestion: “I never was consumed by star stuff, even slightly. If ever there was anything I would redirect about how people have thought about me it’s that I must have had an obsession or deep empathy with people like Garbo or Dietrich–that star element, that mystique. It never at any time had anything to do with what I was trying to do. It was inadvertent. My main preoccupation throughout everything I’ve ever done has been the concept of what I was writing about. And the problem of how it should be presented was the priority. It was never ‘I want to be alone,’ or any of that shit.”
As far as, say, the obvious Garbo/Dietrich look on the cover of the Changesonebowie album, “It was just a matter of trying to get an interesting album cover. I never lived up to that look. I was never like that.” Nevertheless, in past interviews Bowie himself used to talk about James Dean being an influence. “I wonder if he was,” he says to me now, as if we are discussing someone else’s life. “There were aspects of him… I wasn’t crazy about his acting. I thought he was an interesting actor, but not brilliant. I’m much more persuaded by the acting of Montgomery Clift, truly one of the most brilliant presences on celluloid. I thought Dean had some great gimmicks. He knew how to eat up a camera, but I don’t think it had much to do with acting. He was over-greedy in his performances. What I had empathy with were the simple things. His alleged bisexuality interested me at the time. The ways he conducted himself with people were probably very much like I was, in an Anglo fashion. The same kind of dysfunctional behavior I recognized and was drawn to.”
And speaking of dysfunctional behavior, Bowie once described the movie he made after The Man Who Fell to Earth as “all of Elvis’s 32 movies rolled into one.” Actually, it’s not quite that good. Directed by David Hemmings, Just a Gigolo was the project that Bowie, having departed from the insanity of Los Angeles without totally regaining his senses in Berlin, where he’d gone to live, signed on to do with the following cast: Marlene Dietrich, Kim Novak, Maria Schell, Curt Jurgens, Hemmings and one Sydne Rome. Regrettably, Ms. Rome, unknown then and destined to remain so, had the largest role opposite Bowie’s gigolo. Dietrich, looking a lot like Myrna Loy did on the Oscars last year, had only a cameo. Novak, looking a little like Myrna Loy on the Oscars, had a somewhat larger role, dancing a tango in a ghastly raspberry dress with her nipples highly visible. Bowie, who, this film proves conclusively, cannot embarrass himself on film, is merely badly lit. “I’m such a control freak that I would like to buy Gigolo back–this is a pipe dream of mine–and redo the entire thing. It actually read very well. If only Hemmings had applied himself. But David was too fond, like myself at the time, of having a good time. The second day, we looked at each other and said, ‘God, this is a piece of shit. Let’s have a good time.’ We were just having a lark for seven weeks.”
A little less fun and Bowie’s life in the cinema might have gone differently. But after a searing decade of show business that had included speedy transitions from one stage persona to the next, Bowie was in retreat. Though he made great music at that time, he was not up to the next logical step as far as his film career was concerned: following his critically well received performance in The Man Who Fell to Earthwith a film that did well at the box office. Besides Gigolo, he did no film work at all for the next few years. He did, however, star on Broadway in The Elephant Man, and elicited acclaim that respectfully ignored his stature as rock star. Not until 1983 did he appear on-screen again, this time in two films. One, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, directed by the extremely Japanese Nagisa Oshima, had Bowie cast as a prisoner in a Japanese WWII POW camp in Java. “I think Oshima had an enormous problem understanding the Western thought process,” says Bowie, responding to the adjective I say a friend of mine used to describe the film– “dotty.” “With his Japanese actors he was very severe, down to the minutest detail. With Tom Conti and me, he said, ‘Please do whatever it is you people do.’ ”
In a story that could have used a lot more of him and a lot less of everybody else, including the Japanese soldier who commits interminable hara-kiri on-screen, Bowie had one especially remarkable scene where his character, Celliers, thinking he’s about to be executed, performs a mime of shaving, smoking and drinking tea, as if savoring the last precious moments of life. “Yes, well, that’s what I was thinking–I’m not going to waste this precious moment,” Bowie laughs. “Oshima just gave that scene to me with no direction.” Later Celliers dies a martyr’s death, buried up to his neck in sand. “Oshima just said, ‘Now, we going to bury you up to your head!’ I had to cope and find something in me–though, believe me, it was very easy to understand what it felt like to be buried up to my head.”
The other ’83 venture was a film that now enjoys something of a cult status, The Hunger, in which Bowie, playing the vampire consort of Catherine Deneuve, suddenly begins aging rapidly and, unable to be helped by gerontologist Susan Sarandon, ends up a heap of sentient dust–no doubt a bracing acting exercise for a well-over-30 rock star. Directed by British import Tony Scott (only in Hollywood could a guy direct both Bruce Willis and David Bowie in the same decade), the film is actually a snazzily accurate depiction of modern addiction, not the glitzily stupid vampire shtick it was accused of being when it was released. Bowie, who even now looks like he lives on chicken bullion, was fully convincing as a vampire with tragic needs.
“First let me say,” Bowie begins, “that Sarandon is one of the brightest, wittiest, bestest actors I’ve ever worked with. Also, as a person, she’s delightful and intelligent. Let me say that, because I’ve never actually been asked…” I must be looking at him a little blankly, because he leans into the tape recorder, “and I wasn’t asked just now! Anyway, I think she’s fantastic.” Bowie clears his throat. “Tony Scott had one particular vision of this movie. The script Tony, Susan and I talked about was different from the sensibility of the actual film. He had no power at all and had to bow to demands. I have every respect that he kept his cool throughout the whole proceedings and actually got the film finished. Let’s say that it was a case of ‘More blood!!!’ Tony was trying to pull back from such situations and treat things in a more psychological manner. And this is Tony Scott we’re talking about. Believe it or not, it was a very intelligent look at the subject. And now he’s known for having a less than three-dimensional look at life. I don’t think he’s made a Tony Scott film yet. I saw him walk away from The Hunger shattered. I think he came away with a completely different idea of what filmmaking was about in America, or with American money.”
So, perhaps, did Bowie. Apart from his sly turn as a goblin king in Labyrinth, a film children now watch fanatically on video (“Every Christmas,” says Bowie, “a new flock of children comes up to me and says, ‘Oh! you’re the one who’s in Labyrinth!'”), it’s been cameos only since then. In qualitative terms, of course, Bowie has fared better than any other rock star on-screen. Prince, Madonna, Elvis and the rest are cinematic fingernails-on-chalkboard. Bowie alone has been as much an actor as a rock star from the start.
“I think if you didn’t know that Jagger was Jagger,” Bowie tells me, countering my opinion about rockers on-screen, “and of course that baggage comes with us, but if you just looked at Performance objectively, you’d see an extraordinarily interesting actor.”
“But then again, if you looked at Ned Kelly…”
“I didn’t say that film. I wasn’t going to breathe a word about it.”
I suggest that we can just wait and see with Jagger’s Free-jack. “I turned that film down,” says Bowie. When I tell Bowie I bet he’s turned down some awful stuff, he shrugs and goes “Pfffffff” with a mixture of horror and disdain. “You wouldn’t believe it. There’ve been a few where I said, ‘Shit, I wish I could’ve done that.’ But there’ve been more…” Like what, besides the occasional Bond villain? “Like Ford Fairlane. The Wayne Newton part.” Yikes. “I was offered a part in Kafka, a part someone could have done something with. But the script itself made no sense. I thought, why are they making this film? What are you saying about Kafka that makes any sense?”
A rumor a few years back had Bowie and Jagger as the original stars for Mountains of the Moon. “I was offered Mountains of the Moon separately, before Mick. He and I were interested in doing a film together, though. There was one written for us, but it never got to us and became that Michael Caine-Steve Martin movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. How ’bout them apples! Mick and I were a bit tweezed that we lost out on a script that could have been reasonably good. But Mountains with Mick? It figures slimly in my memory. When we were much younger–and that, my dear, was many years ago, when there were mountains on the moon, when we lived in the mountains on the moon–it was bandied around that we should play Byron and Shelley. I think we were stupid never to have done it. But we weren’t very serious about anything in those days. Maybe as older men we’ll do Pinter, in our seventies”Bowie broadens his accent for effect “on the Broadway stage!”
At least Bowie and Jagger didn’t get involved in Ken Russell’s treatment of the Romantic poets, or in any other Russell film, for that matter. “I wouldn’t even dream of it. I can’t stand his movies. There isn’t even one I like.” One of the films Bowie did dream of doing was At Play in the Fields of the Lord. “I would have given my right arm to play the role of the missionary. But not with that director [Hector Babenco]. Richard Gere and I both wanted to do this film. He wanted to play the Indian pilot and was fighting to get the rights. It was all far too complicated, and, anyway, we lost it. Had it been resolved in a different way, it would have been a glorious film to participate in.”
I ask Bowie how committed he is to film acting at this point. “Not very,” he shoots back. Directing is another matter. Having recently sent up the profession with his very funny portrayal of the vicious, imperious British director Sir Roland Moorcock in a John Landis-directed episode of HBO’s “Dream On,” Bowie is actually going behind the camera in real life. Over the last two years he has written a script and he’s now in production on it. “It’s not going to be a special effects movie.”
“I would never have thought that–”
“Quite. But that’s what people ask me. It’s a performance piece with four actors, basically. There’s a larger cast, but that’s the pivotal plot. I think, immodestly, it would have more to owe to Cassavetes than Spielberg. It’s about personalities, and the destructive effect of one person’s challenge and control over another person’s life. It doesn’t matter what they are–they could be dentists. The story takes place in L.A. I know the good and bad sides of that town, after a period of close on 18 years. I can almost read L.A. like a person, its attributes and characteristics. So, L.A. itself would be the fifth performance.”
I tell Bowie that a friend of mine recently remarked to me that the amazing thing about L.A. is that all the cliches about it are absolutely true. He smiles. “You know, Dame Edith Evans went to Los Angeles in the ’60s, and she was given a tour through Hollywood, and after a week she was asked what was singularly the most interesting thing she’d seen there. And she said, ‘Well, one day I went to Griffith Observatory and the director took me down to the basement, down through a corridor that was very badly lit, at the end of which was a refrigerator. He opened the refrigerator and took out two pieces of glass, and between the two pieces of glass was a snowflake that fell upon Los Angeles in 1935. That was the most interesting thing I saw in Los Angeles.'” Bowie smiles. “Nic Roeg told me that story.”
Writing a screenplay, Bowie says, “is not like writing a song at all. It’s not like writing anything but a screenplay. It’s stunningly hard. The first 35 pages were fun. Then I hit a wall.” The visual part of directing doesn’t bother him. The rest does. “I’m a ball of sweat when I think about what I have to do; it really is terrifying,” he says, simulating self-strangulation. “I’m being secretive about this because I want the film to come out without any expectations whatsoever.”
Directing is a longtime desire of Bowie’s. As early as the fateful 1975, when he either did or did not take to preserving his bodily fluids in the refrigerator, he had a project he was ready to proceed with. “Thank God, I never did. First, I don’t think I would have had the discipline to put it all together properly. I would have been in one of those dreadful situations where money was being poured down the drain. I don’t think I’d have had the psychological stamina to keep it together. Now I feel I can at least accomplish the task, and hopefully with some degree of elegance. But back in ’75 I got near to doing the most alarming piece. Very strange and satanic. Based on the Antichrist. I wrote it myself during about seven of those sleepless nights. Complete with drawings and character studies. There was an unbelievable postapocalyptic nihilism to the kids in it, some of whom I’d borrowed from Diamond Dogs–I remember vast gangs of boys on these huge rollerskates that were rusted and squeaked. There were elements not dissimilar to what would become Mad Max–I later came out of that film thinking they must have seen my project. I was,” Bowie says drolly, “unaware of synchronicity. Anyway, the Jesus figure, which I took from the idea of the Jesus scrolls, was a freedom fighter instead of the King of Mankind. Terence Stamp was cast in my mind as Jesus, and I had a younger kid, who was unbelievably like the kid who would soon become John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, cast as Jesus’s son. It was all very prepunk. The very last scene was Jesus being rowed out to a ship that was like a Fritz Lang Titanic by a hooded figure whose cloak gets pulled up as he’s rowing and Jesus sees the goat hooves. It’s a wonderful read. John Lennon looked over it and said, ‘Why the fuck do you want to make this?? This is so fucking evil!’ And I said, ‘But it’s going to look great!'”
The refrigerator story is beginning to gain some credibility with me again, but I can’t yet bring myself to ask about it. Instead I ask Bowie how fixated he was on movies as a kid. “Not at all. I quite liked television when I was a kid. Movies not till much later. Then I’d sneak off from being a rock god and watch art movies. I could hire movies from the Met in New York–this was real early in the ’70s–and I had a reel-to-reel video player, one of the first. You could show these movies on a white wall and film them off the wall. So I started this collection of German Expressionist movies. Of course,” Bowie says, leaning in to speak into the tape recorder, “I don’t have them any more. I had everything. Murnau, Pabst, Lang. I went crazy and lived in that world for about a year, and it had a lot to do with what I was doing in rock.”
This reminds Bowie of a Giorgio Moroder story (“You know who he is–the guy who put the fascist marching beat behind Donna Summer?”): “One of the harebrained schemes I had for a long time was to take Metropolis and put a soundtrack on it written by Brian Eno and me. I wanted to get a pristine print and have live parts enacted on stage in front of the screen. I thought it such a novel idea that nobody else was going to buy the rights just now. So I was working with Moroder on the music for Cat People. I love Moroder. This is Moroder: He says to Paul Schrader, ‘I want my apartment to look just like that wonderful apartment in American Gigolo,’ and Schrader says, ‘Yes, of course, I’m sure you can get it done just like Richard’s apartment,’ and Giorgio says, ‘No, not that apartment, the pimp’s apartment!’ So, I’m working with Giorgio and he says, ‘Did you see Napoleon?. I thought it was stunning, and I knew I could do something like that–put some music to an old movie’ And I was going, ‘Yeah …’ And he said, ‘I’ve found the film! Nobody’s ever heard of it! It’s Metropolis, and I’ve bought the rights!'” Bowie groans with deadpan mirth. “I didn’t even tell him. It ruined my week. He played me some of the stuff he’d written, and it was like–” Bowie does a disco beat and sings, “‘I’m the master, you’re the slave.'” He breaks up laughing.
Bowie’s publicist has returned by now, and she tells him he has to finish up. He graciously acknowledges her orders in a beautifully enacted reversal of the actual hierarchy. As I’m gathering my things to leave, Bowie looks across the room at the TV silently flickering with a football game. “Ha! I love it when they bang their helmets together like that–you know, when something good happens–like a high-five sign!” I suddenly realize I haven’t asked the refrigerator question. But how does one begin to ask such an outrageous question, anyway? “You know, people always talk about your manipulation of your image and all of that, much of which is of course true, but no one really talks about how playful you are … ” Bowie, standing up for the goodbye, says, “I do wonder when I see these things that come off as if I’m so Poe-faced or something.” I’m already at the door. It’s too late to ask my question now. I’ll just have to write it off as a disappointing failure of nerve. I thank the man and leave.
Moments later, in the lobby of Bowie’s hotel, I do a mental check to see that I have everything with me. Coat, purse, tape recorder … My notes. I left my notes on the coffee table. Who cares, I tell myself quickly. The maid will throw them away, I don’t need them now. No. I do need them. Not only that, in those notes, carefully scripted to prevent a failure of nerve, is the question about the jars of bodily fluids. The tiniest possibility that Bowie would pick up the notes–to scribble down a phone number, whatever–and read that question, even if I never hear about it, drives me crazy. Masking my unease, I ask the publicist if we can go back up and get the notes. She kindly agrees to call up to the room. When we knock at Bowie’s door, he opens it. In his hand are the notes, neatly folded, just as I left them. He looks at me with a fantastic, diabolical twinkle in his eye, holds them out and says, “You’ll never know.”
Virginia Campbell is one of the executive editors of Movieline.