Throwback to David Bowie’s first acting role in ‘The Image’
When David Jones rose from the ashes of a failed music career, David Bowie became one of the most electrifying figures the industry had ever seen. Known for his pioneering approach to music, fashion, personality and performance, Bowie was an artist who constantly reinvented himself in various characters, from the glamorous Ziggy Stardust to the suave Thin White Duke.
In Bowie’s performing career, he attempted various outlandish feats such as attempting to fly on stage or walking on audience hands. Inspired by the bizarre drug-fuelled antics of Iggy Pop, who he soon became good friends with, Bowie saw his opportunities to perform in front of an audience as a way of portraying someone other than himself – a form of acting. He once said Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone, “I’ve always had a repulsive need to be more than human. I felt very, very puny as a person. I thought, ‘Fuck that. I want to be a superman.’”
The musician has made it his mission to become more than a man standing in front of a crowd, just reciting songs and playing instruments. Instead, he would dress in brightly colored fabrics, or sometimes just a few pieces of clothing, adorned his face with bright makeup, and put on a theatrical show.
He created personas as a form of protection and as a means to express his multifaceted nature, impersonating characters that looked like they might fall from another planet. So it was only natural for Bowie to pursue an acting career alongside his music, starring in several cult classics such as The man who fell to earth, where he appropriately played the alien protagonist. Released in 1976 and directed by Nicolas Roeg, the film further cemented Bowie as an iconic character and closely linked him to his otherworldly image.
Subsequently, the artist starred in many films in the 1980s and 1990s, including Tony Scott’s The hungerMartin Scorsese The Last Temptation of ChristDavid Lynchs Twin Peaks: Firewalk With Me and Jim Henson’s labyrinth, in which he appeared as the goblin king. However, Bowie’s acting career actually dates back further than his successful music career.
Bowie started making music as a teenager and released his debut single “Liza Jane” as David Jones with the King Bees at the age of 17. Under Leslie Conn’s management, Bowie did not find success, leading to his abandoning the contract. He did not gain critical acclaim with the release of his subsequent singles and self-titled debut album, prompting him to study pantomime under the tutelage of Lindsay Kemp, who later coached Kate Bush.
As a drama student, Bowie’s exposure to theater and the idea of creating diverse personalities prepared him for his future as an actor and performer. During this time, Bowie toured with T. rex and opened their shows with his bizarre pantomime. In the book Ziggyology: A Brief History of Ziggy Stardust of Simon Goddard, he explained that the pantomime performance was “ruined by heckling from left-wing students and hippies who were angry at his scathing portrayal of China’s Red Guard”.
After starring in Kemp’s theatrical production Pierrot in turquoise In 1967, Bowie landed a role in a short horror film, The picture, two years later. His performance in the Michael Armstrong-directed play marked his first acting role on screen. The black and white film, which comes at 14 minutes, stars Michael Byrne as a painter creating a portrait of a man who resembles Bowie. Soon the man himself appears ghostly, stalking the artist as he steps through the window.
A summary on Armstrong’s website reads: “A study of the illusionary world of reality in the schizophrenic mind of the artist at his point of creativity.” Although Byrne’s character repeatedly attempts to kill Bowie’s apparition, Byrne’s character continues to haunt him.
Speaking of Wall Street Journal, Armstrong explained how the film was originally shown between two porn sets in a cinema in Piccadilly Circus. He said: “I don’t know if David went in alone, but he said he felt really weird sitting there alone, in that cinema with all these guys in their raincoats.”
The picture became one of the first and only short films to receive an X rating. “For his violence, which in itself was extraordinary,” Armstrong claimed. The director, who described Bowie as “very handsome” and “flirty,” chose the young musician to star in his film because he was a fan of his early work. Armstrong recalled anecdotes from filming, explaining that in one scene his assistant used a hose to recreate rain, although they “inadvertently” showed[ed] put the hose on David and hit him right in the back with water from the hose. And he moves it around. So David is soaked.”
According to the director, “We actually said, ‘David, come in, come in, warm up,’ and he said, ‘No, no, I’m fine.’ I think he was afraid of moving. When we got the shot he came in and was literally blue. It was light blue. We had to undress him and put him in front of the light to warm him up.” Apparently Bowie and Byrne couldn’t hide their laughter as they filmed the scenes in which the former was killed. “It was all the awkwardness of it – the two of them trying to keep a straight face at that dramatic moment was just too much.”
The film remains a fascinating summary of the early career of David Bowie, who would soon become an international superstar and rock ‘n’ roll icon. Watch the movie below.