by Rosalie Lewis
Oh, Bowie. My love for you would break my heart in two. Few faces, few bodies, ever looked better with color lighting them and cameras pointed in their direction. Whether on stage as a bisexual alien rock god or in character as a prisoner of war enduring torture—hell, even when being interviewed by intrepid if ill-prepared MTV reporters—Bowie simply turns those two-colored eyes upward and opens his lips into a sly smile and suddenly you better be holding on to something or you WILL sway and swoon and fall smitten to the ground at his very presence beckoning you from the other side of the screen.
1983 was a pivotal year for David Bowie. After a very visible and prolific creative decade in the '70s, he found himself at a turning point in the early '80s. In the wake of John Lennon’s death, Bowie canceled plans for a tour and instead retreated to Switzerland for solace. He turned to acting as a creative outlet, mounting several productions of The Elephant Man in Europe and the US in which he played the title character. While the play was on Broadway, Japanese director Nagisa Oshima caught a show and invited Bowie to be part of his next movie, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Bowie also caught the eye of Tony Scott, appearing in the iconic director’s debut feature film, The Hunger.confrontation of MTV regarding their seeming reticence to play Black artists. To use the parlance of Grace from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “He’s a righteous dude.”
It happened again, didn’t it? I got pulled into the far reaches of space and time reminiscing about Bowie when I was supposed to be talking about movies. I’m only human, ok?!
Let’s start with a Christmas movie that isn’t really a Christmas movie: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence takes place during World War II and stars Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakomoto, Takeshi Kitano, and of course David Bowie in lead roles. Bowie is Major Jack Celliers, a POW alongside Conti’s Lt. Colonel John Lawrence in a Japanese camp on Java. Sakomoto, probably better known for his music than his acting (a parallel to Bowie), plays the complicated Captain Yonoi. This does not feel like a typical war film—there are soldiers and violent clashes and cultural traditions that must be carried out, but Oshima’s direction brings a softness to a subject usually portrayed with toughness. Bowie’s Celliers introduces an energy that seems new and magnetic to the camp, and not even Captain Yonoi can resist him. The fraught tenderness that might exist between these men in other circumstances comes through in tiny but unmistakable moments and gestures. Tom Conti is reliably great here, and he and Takeshi Kitano get to share some humorous scenes amidst the tense backdrop of violence.
If your primary mental association for David Bowie: Actor is Labyrinth, you definitely need to see him in Lawrence. It’s a very different vibe and a very effective one—not ostentatious but insistent. Bowie himself reflected that this was one of his “stronger” performances, and that Oshima rarely did more than two takes for any scene. According to Bowie, they would be given the script outline, then they’d start rehearsing a scene and feeling out what they might say, and right when they felt they were getting somewhere, the director would start rolling the cameras. Whatever method there was, it worked. And by the way, the (insanely beautiful) music in this film is all Ryuichi Sakomoto. Bowie told interviewers he didn’t want to risk reminding audiences that he was a musician—he wanted them to get lost in the character. You’re still going to know this is Bowie, but it certainly feels like a convincing character all the same.
I mean, in my mind, nothing went wrong really. I have my quibbles (sorry, JB, I know that’s your job), such as “Maybe let David Bowie be in more of the movie” and “maybe don’t disguise David Bowie’s gorgeousness under old man makeup” but mostly I think this movie rules. It’s stylish (something Tony Scott always gave us), it does not apologize for its weirdness, it bathes most scenes in this gorgeous blue light with gauzy curtains blowing around in a fantastic apartment, there’s beautiful music, have I mentioned the romantic and sexy entanglements of first Bowie and Deneuve and then Deneuve and Sarandon? You kind of have to be a hater to hate this. But a lot of people, including my beloved Roger Ebert, did hate this when it first came out. Tony Scott’s reviews on this movie were not ideal. Thankfully, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson gave him a second chance on the basis of a car commercial playing at 3am and we got Top Gun and the rest of Tony’s illustrious career; but for a few years, it wasn’t looking great. In the intervening years, The Hunger has gained a cult following (Anthony, when are we talking about this movie on your show?) and as long as there are queer and/or goth people (as well as open-hearted movie lovers) being born into the world, that following should continue to grow.
I love that Bowie’s two movies of 1983 both dabbled in queer eroticism. Throughout his life, he played coy about his sexuality—often making contradictory claims about whether he was or was not gay, bisexual, or—god forbid—“a closet heterosexual,” as he once confessed. Yet his iconic status as a sex symbol for people across the gender and sexuality spectrum carries on, bidding us all to fall into his arms and tremble like a flower.