EXCLUSIVE: Producer Stephen Woolley (Carol) worked with David Bowie, the actor as well as the musician, 30 years ago on Julien Temple’s ill-fated Absolute Beginners. Massively hyped in its day as an example of the bold, new confident face of British cinema (remember Colin Welland’s “the British are coming”?), the film was a day-glo imagining of London’s 1950s Soho replete with mods, prostitutes and the Notting Hill race riots. While the film was a commercial disappointment on its release in 1986, one of the highlights remains Bowie’s performance as Vendice Partners, a shady property developer.
Stephen Woolley found time between his transatlantic awards-season globe-trotting — Todd Haynes’ raved-about Carol is an awards-season staple this year — to give an appreciation of Bowie the actor across classic performances in the likes of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth and Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence:
The thing with David Bowie was, by the time he started acting, he had already achieved incredible fame amongst certain people, certainly all music fans in the world. His most iconic part, The Man Who Fell To Earth, was such a beautiful part, it was almost crafted for David. Another role like Maj. Celliers in Merry Christmas. Mr Lawrence, he was the absolute centre of that film. When we were lucky enough to bring him on to Absolute Beginners, he brought such charisma and such intelligence. And, of course, he wrote three of the songs in the film.
He needed to be the heart of things. He was too big to be a character actor. He could never have become a character actor without devoting his life to it. You would have seen him in a scene and just said, “that’s David Bowie.” But he was a brilliant actor. In The Elephant Man, he was incredible on stage in America. He would have to transform. The whole movie would become about him. He really was a renaissance man. He was a huge fan of Lyndsey Kemp and dance. I think David Bowie could only have pursued a career as an actor if he had lost his career as a musician, a composer, a producer and as a performer, which he would never have done. That was obviously the thing he was in love with. But those few films he did where he was the centre, where it was about him and where his character dominated, particularly The Man Who Fell To Earth, or the fragile beauty to his performance in Merry Christmas. Mr Lawrence, you just feel that’s what should remain. I don’t think it would have been possible in his era and at his age to pursue both careers. It’s rare that anyone can do that. I know Lady Gaga won an award last night at the Golden Globes but it’s rare that performers, actors and musicians can leave their first love. It’s fitting that David has left behind a legacy of very few performances as an actor but they’re all very telling. If you look at the films he starred in, even smaller parts like The Hunger, they were always about him. The parts had to be tailor-made for him. Don’t forget he was a boy from Brixton. He was always playing someone else. David Bowie himself was somebody else. Before Ziggy Stardust, before there was David Bowie, he was David Jones (Bowie’s real name). He was always playing something. Theatre and theatricality were his first love. That is what made him a huge, charismatic star over and above the incredible amounts of beautiful music he produced.
In terms of Absolute Beginners, he was the most charming, gifted person I ever worked with. I was such a fan back in 1986 and I’m still such a fan today. He was just brilliant, eloquent, never complaining, the loveliest person to work with. He took credit for nothing. He was always giving credit to everyone else: Tony Visconti, Iggy Pop. Whenever you talked about music with him it was never about him, it was always about other people. “Brian Eno did this, that was nothing to do with me, it was Lou Reed.” He was so magnanimous.
In Absolute Beginners, the part he played was of a scheming, duplicitous businessman who was buying bits of West London in order to develop them. He was mercurial. The film was a musical so everyone was playing themselves in a slightly musical way. It wasn’t Pinter or Beckett. His performance was great, perfect for the film. It was never about depth. As an actor what he bought was that subtlety of wit. His close-ups and manner were incredibly seductive. He played the seducer incredibly well. I think that’s what David was so brilliant at. Understanding seduction and what it takes to take the right step and the wrong step. He also understood youth culture more than anyone else in the world and reflected it throughout his career and throughout his dual roles. He was ahead of the game in so many ways. I loved him. I didn’t think he was ever going to die. I am quite shocked about what happened today. I always thought he was immortal.
It’s actually good David Bowie didn’t make too many movies. Otherwise we would have lost the music and, in the end, that’s what everyone remembers him for and everyone loves him for.