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Cracked Actor

The film career of David Bowie.

In the summer of 1983, a man calling himself David Bowie appeared on the cover of Time magazine. With his blond coif and portfolio of smooth platinum hits, this tanned and tailored crooner of what he dubbed “positive music” seemed a man apart from the shape-shifting, gender-melding ’70s pop mutant also known as David Bowie, whose spookier guises had included the Lost Spaceman, the Alien Sex Machine, and the Funky Disinterred Corpse. It was as if Lady Gaga had suddenly morphed into Michael Bublé.

But later that same year, this clean-cut, mainstream Bowie did something reassuringly, Bowie-ishly bizarre: He played a lead role in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. To invest one’s peak pop-star capital in a bleak homoerotic drama, set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and directed by the provocateur behind the art-porn shocker In the Realm of the Senses—well, that’s the kind of loopy career choice you’d expect from the fellow who brought us the Anorexic Centaur Centerfold, the Stewardess as Rock God, and the Human Lightning Bolt.

In Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (newly available in excellent DVD and Blu-ray editions from Criterion), Bowie portrays the soldier Celliers, a beautiful Brit with a slippery charisma and a potent rebellious streak. He is an enigmatic born leader, a delicate object of myriad desires and revenges, a picker of flowers and performer of mime. Which is all to say, he is a close variation on David Bowie—and thus a representative role for the singer-thespian. Bowie always excelled at playing the magic freak: the world-weary, otherworldly outsider who is both adored and condemned for his destabilizing mojo. And because Bowie’s insuperable Bowie-ness glitters too brightly for him to vanish into any one part, a close look at his film and theater roles is a case study in the merits of stunt casting.

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