Before he even stepped in front of a camera, David Bowie carried the mantle of a matinee idol. His cubist bone structure, the well-coiffed locks and wide-legged trousers of his early years recalled Katharine Hepburn. The camera loved his feline grace and sulky hauteur. One of his earliest onscreen appearances, ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS, could double as a screen test, both for its shoddy film quality and for the versatility of his talents and personae.
In the decades since Bowie recorded his iconic albums, he has taken on a side career as a movie star. Though he has graced a wide array of features with his presence – from his portrayal of the polymorphously perverse Goblin King in the children’s classic LABYRINTH to the daft, vulnerable Andy Warhol in BASQUIAT– his depictions draw from facets of the characters he has brought to life through his music. In less highfalutin terms, you could say that in his onscreen appearances he’s playing himself.
Bowie’s most recent onscreen excursion comes via THE PRESTIGE, Christopher Nolan’s sleek, stylish adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel. In it, the polymathic rock star plays Nikolai Tesla, the legendary inventor and futurist responsible for the alternating current. While the character’s technical innovations complement Bowie’s reputation as a groundbreaking figure, his world-weary interpretation of the role presages some elements of the person he’d portray on his album, The Next Day.
A shot before the opening titles alludes to Tesla’s experiments, but the character himself does not appear until halfway through the film. As the rivalry between magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) intensifies, Angier journeys to Colorado to speak with Tesla about creating an illusion for him. Tesla’s entrance in the film is worthy of a rock star: he materializes from seemingly out of nowhere, shrugging off small bolts of electricity with a witty introduction. Within seconds he demonstrates how the human body can create energy by pressing an oversized light bulb into Angier’s palm.
Bowie has made his artistic career on ambiguity – a silky androgyny, yes, but also a coldly alien quality that played with his very humanity. THE PRESTIGE rejects both aspects of his onstage characters. His previous onscreen roles carried with them a fey extravagance, but his depiction of Nikolai Tesla does away with those mannerisms and presents us with an unambiguously masculine persona. His performance pares the character down to an almost minimalist depiction, doing away with any unnecessary gestures and creating a menacing, eerie character through the use of negative space. His close-cropped hair, broom mustache, and unextravagant wool suits made in sober grays and blacks grant him the very model of a modern mad scientist. The Eastern European accent he adopted for the character weighs down the purr of his normal speaking voice, which makes Tesla sound as though he’s carefully considering every syllable that passes through his lips.
At the time THE PRESTIGE was in production, Bowie had taken an indefinite leave from music. He suffered a heart attack onstage at a show in Germany in 2004, which prompted him to scale back his commitments. Physically, he appears older – his skin is porous and wrinkled, his jawline a little softer, and he moves with careful deliberation. In a brief scene with Angier, his advice to the magician – “when I made the first change, I was hailed as a genius; when I made the second, I was asked politely to retire” – almost sounds like David Bowie himself reflecting on his earlier career. His inquiry to Angier, “have you considered the cost [of this illusion]?” acknowledges the mortality involved with the magician’s obsession.
The sense of reflection and mortality that Tesla reflects on are explored in greater detail on The Next Day, David Bowie’s most recent studio album. The release date of its first single – 8 January 2013, Bowie’s 66th birthday – carried with it the portent of Bowie’s own mortality. As compared with the over-the-top sensibility that marks much of Bowie’s catalog, The Next Day was marked by its minimal production. Throughout the album, the singer looks back at his youthful work (just take a gander at the album cover) and reflects upon the changes that age has brought upon him.
Doubtless these reflective qualities would have come up on his forthcoming records. When he made THE PRESTIGE in 2006, there were no guarantees that he would ever return to the recording studio. However, the parallels between Tesla’s philosophical approach to illusions and Bowie’s third-act musings are strong. Whether you choose to see a connection between THE PRESTIGE and The Next Day, the film contains a witty and poignant late-period performance by an iconic figure. Miss it at your peril.