David Bowie was an actor before he ever even appeared in a film.

David Bowie has always been acting. The performance of different identities is central to our understanding of his star persona. From Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke and beyond, Bowie has played with character, image and costume, often blurring the lines between himself and his alter egos so effectively that they no longer seem to exist.

In the years before he crash landed into our consciousness as Ziggy Stardust, Bowie studied acting and mime with Lindsay Kemp. Theatricality became a key component of his career, onstage and off. And yet David Bowie is not an actor. He doesn’t act in the way we understand someone like Greta Garbo or Marlon Brando to be acting. Watching a film with Bowie in it, playing a fictional character, can we really say that David Bowie is acting or is he simply being David Bowie? Or is he just playing some version of himself that we recognise from all the other versions of himself we know, from all the many things that David Bowie is?

Bowie: the chameleon with so many faces; all rawboned and otherworldly; some a little dangerous, sexy, and untouchable. Bowie: endlessly fascinating at every angle, in every medium. Bowie: always on the move, at once the alien and the androgyne; the flesh and blood man who exists as a locus for our anxieties and desires about creativity. A figure at the nexus of music and cinema; the living, breathing expression of the fantasies of escape and transformation each medium contains.

Ziggy Stardust

Bowie entered the cultural imagination as a transgressive figure when he created his first major alter ego, Ziggy Stardust – the humanoid alien who merged science fiction and androgyny into one super-heady performance. Extending across two albums – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) and Aladdin Sane (1973) – Ziggy’s provocations marked Bowie as a shape shifter and contributed to a pervasive sense that he was not quite human. Despite killing Ziggy off at Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973 (the concert was captured with dynamic energy by D.A. Pennebaker in the film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), this was the persona that made him a star and it proved a difficult one to shed.

Bowie/Ziggy as he appeared on the cover of the album Aladdin Sane (1973)

Ziggy was still under Bowie’s skin during his first foray onto the silver screen. As the alien Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bowie consolidates his image as a starman. The film is a character and ideas driven science fiction tale filled with images of meditative beauty. After journeying to earth in search of water for his drought-stricken planet, Bowie’s alien finds himself a stranger in a strange land. Already an outsider, Bowie intensified this view of himself in the public imaginary a year earlier in Cracked Actor (1975), the documentary film that captured him on the Los Angeles leg of the Diamond Dogs tour, alone, strung out, and in a fragile mental state.

Playing an alien who had fallen to earth, Bowie had himself come crashing down into a dirty reality. There is an unnerving continuity between the isolation experienced by David Bowie as we see him in Cracked Actor and the loneliness at the heart of his performance as Thomas Jerome. Both films emerged from a time in Bowie’s career that nearly killed him, where he existed on vast quantities of cocaine and minute quantities of food. He would soon escape Los Angeles and the clichéd excesses of stardom that had left him a snow white, husk of a man, resurrected through a feverish period of creativity in Paris and Berlin. As Bowie reflected more than ten years later: “I’m amazed I came out of that period, honest. When I see that now I cannot believe I survived it. I was so close to really throwing myself away physically, completely.”

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

In The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie’s alien is elegant and enigmatic; it’s not a cliché to say that this is the role he was born to play. Bowie pares down something essential in his public identity so that he seems to simply be; breathing this role in and out of his body. His work in The Man Who Fell to Earth is informed by the years that preceded it, in which Bowie had been developing a presence so sophisticated and evolved that it could only ever come from somewhere else; his otherness, ultimately, the place in which we connect most intensely with him. In this film, character and star are in perfect harmony. Bowie is the alien messiah. The moonage daydream goes on.

But Bowie’s performance as Thomas Jerome owes as much to Ziggy as it does to his other unforgettable 70s persona, the Thin White Duke. Associated primarily with the album Station to Station (1976), which was recorded post-Roeg, he was a creation of the numbing landscape of Los Angeles, although decidedly cabaret and European in flavour. The Thin White Duke’s austere romanticism – his costume, black trousers, white shirt and black waistcoat – a graceful mask for the somewhat fascist nastiness lurking beneath. Explicitly, the covers of both Station to Station and Low (1977), feature stills from The Man Who Fell to Earth, forever linking in mythic time Bowie’s musical and cinematic identities. The Thin White Duke would be exorcised through the creation of the ‘Berlin trilogy’ of albums – Low, Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979) – that closed off the decade and Bowie’s most turbulent times.

The Thin White Duke

And yet, as Ziggy left a mark, so too did the Thin White Duke, whose aesthetic Bowie deploys in performances in Just a Gigolo (1978, David Hemmings) and The Hunger (1983, Tony Scott). Bowie reinterprets this dissolute decadence in his roles as a Prussian officer turned escort and a vampire. Aristocratic and elegant in both films, despite his Bromley roots, Bowie seems plucked directly from the upper class and dropped into these films as a figure signifying desire and refinement (elements of this persona are also evident in his performance in Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence).

By the 1980s, cleaner and brighter, Bowie was beginning to express a new confidence in his status as a cultural icon. And having considerable fun with it too. The energy and creativity evident in the “positive music” (Bowie’s term) of an album like Let’s Dance (1983) transferred into the mien of high-level charisma on display in films like Absolute Beginners (1986, Julien Temple) and Labyrinth (1986, Jim Henson), which have achieved a cult status because of Bowie’s involvement beyond their reputations as films. To watch Bowie acting in a film is to observe first and foremost his status as an agent of escape and an icon of individualism unafraid to stand apart from the masses.

Let’s Dance – Bowie wears a sunnier disposition

In later years, Bowie has settled into his position as an elder statesman of pop and rock. So it’s right that he has simultaneously stepped into film roles with a gravitas that matches his own as a cultural figure. His performance as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006, Christopher Nolan) is one of his finest moments. It’s a convergence of science and magic and performance that seems to speak to Bowie’s own history in the same way that his small role as Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996, Julian Schnabel) does.

Bowie’s many faces are a part of him and apart from him at once. It’s impossible to speak of one, definitive David Bowie; maybe it’s impossible to ever see him fully disappear inside any character he plays in a film. David Bowie repeatedly threatens to leak out. Maybe in the end, just getting to watch that man David Bowie being David Bowie is more than enough.

A version of this essay was first published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in June 2015 for their season of screenings ‘Bowie on Film’ in celebration of the exhibition David Bowie Is