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Bowie had roles in a number of films over the last four decades from starring roles in dramas like The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) to cameos in comedies like Zoolander. Perhaps best know in film for his memorable performance as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986), he was also well-cast as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006).
In 1996, Bowie took the role of Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s biographical drama Basquiat, about a 19-year-old graffiti artist whose sudden rise to international fame proved too much for the talented artist. The film was critically-acclaimed and earned high praise for both Jeffrey Wright in the title role and a number of supporting actors, but it is Bowie as the eccentric Warhol that proved to be the real star. His powerful performance is a tender portrait of an already famous icon, a figure so well-known that attempting to portray him could easily cross into parody. Instead, Bowie becomes so absorbed in the role, it’s nearly impossible to see Bowie and not Warhol. An openly gay man, Warhol’s work has been some of the most expensive art ever sold and his public character was a show in itself and his peculiar style was much discussed and admired. Bowie encapsulates all of this with tremendous weight and affection, creating a role that both honors and educates.
The magic of Bowie’s performance isn’t that it’s an imitation. This isn’t Bowie doing an impression of the famous pop artist, known for his unique contributions to the medium and his interaction with intellectuals, artists and Bohemian types. It’s a revelation. Bowie captures not only the physical appearance and mannerisms but the essence of the man behind such works as Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marilyn Diptych. The most memorable character in the film, Bowie’s Warhol is not a caricature but a surprisingly insightful glimpse into the world few of us could ever know. Bowie holds our attention with every word and never once crosses the line into farce. It’s a remarkable performance.
Of course, one of Bowie’s more well-known songs is the 1971 hit Andy Warhol from his Honky Dory album, a song that was about as unconventional a radio tune as could be heard in those days and yet still became popular, mostly because of how unusual it is. In the song, Bowie sings:
I’d like to be a gallery
Put you all inside my show
In every way, David Bowie lived up to this words and for anyone touched by his music and work in film, the show will go on.