To describe David Bowie as a sex symbol is to state the obvious but it’s easy to forget that at the early part of his movie career, the Thin White Duke was exploring interesting ways to both court and subvert this persona. From his very first lead as a cool-tempered humanoid in The Man Who Fell to Earth on through his decidedly less detached object-of-obsession in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Bowie often turns down the heat to increase his desirability. How many of the following have you seen?
The man who gave us Ziggy Stardust was destined to play an extraterrestrial. And in Nicolas Roeg’s sci-fi fantasy, he delivers quite an accomplished a performance as an otherworldly visitor who develops a begrudging taste for gin and the use of his newfound human genitalia. Understandably uncomfortable in his own newfound skin, his character is about as sexily untouchable as an alien can get. And yes, he releases a record at the end. Because he is David Bowie.
The angular cheekbones. The proclivity to gender-bend. The unerring fashion sense. That unmistakable voice. Wait! Are we talking about Dietrich or Bowie? Well, both since the two meet up in this odd post-War farce in which the elder icon becomes the pimp of the younger one. “Why is it that the only thing women think about is sex,” Bowie’s “shell-shocked” military veteran wonders. First, he’s a male prostitute. Next, he’s a potential sperm donor. What’s missing is a libido. Once again, everyone desires him but he desires no one.
Any prudishness evidenced in Bowie’s earlier films gets tossed out the window in this made-for-TV movie (with quite a bit of split-screen work). So what does Bowie do when called upon to play the womanizing, boozing title role in Bertolt Brecht’s early masterpiece? He uglies up, with rotten teeth and soiled clothes. And so, in a part for which he could’ve turned up the heat, he throws a bit of cold water on us all by being kind of gross. “Are they naked reveling in their distress,” he asks in one song. The answer, as far as we can see, is yes.
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The sexiest people are also the most dangerous. Dracula exemplified that thought. And in this Tony Scott film, Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon carry on that tradition. But Bowie’s stylish vampire has another lesson to impart. Eternal youth doesn’t last forever. You might think you’re hot stuff eternally but tomorrow all your crimes may catch up and you’ll suddenly become the picture of Dorian Gray. Nothing lasts forever. Even forever.
There’s a homoerotic undercurrent in many Bowie films but the gay gaze intensifies into something akin to the homo-neurotic in this P.O.W. pic in which Bowie’s “soldier’s soldier” becomes the unsettling fixation for his imprisoner played by Ryuichi Sakamoto. It’s a world in which the biggest insult is a kiss on the cheek and the weirdest gesture of respect is to cut off a lock of blond hair. Sadistic at times, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is as doomed a bromance as you can imagine.
Photo Credit: David Bowie on the set of The Hunger, directed by Tony Scott. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)