(1976) Directed by Nicolas Roeg; Written by Paul Mayersberg; Based on the novel by Walter Tevis; Starring: David Bowie, Buck Henry, Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Bernie Casey; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“I think that probably one of the things that Nick (Roeg) identified with me was that I was definitely living in two separate worlds at the same time. My state of mind was quite fractured and fragmented, but I didn’t really have much emotive force going for me, so it was quite easy for me not to relate to those around me.” – David Bowie (from Criterion DVD commentary)
Thanks to Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews, for inviting me to join the Pop Stars Moonlighting Blogathon, where pop singers try out their acting chops. Today, I’m taking a look at David Bowie’s feature film acting debut in director Nicolas Roeg’s hallucinatory science fiction parable, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Nicolas Roeg’s film roughly follows the plot of Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel, chronicling the exploits of Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), the lone representative of a dying race, bearing the gift of technological advancement. The film traces his rise and subsequent fall, ultimately descending into alcoholism and malaise. As in the book, the film references Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” which serves as an apt metaphor for Newton’s ambitious, albeit doomed mission.
David Bowie is suitably cast as the displaced alien, establishing the singer/songwriter*/** as a unique and magnetic acting presence. Although Bowie doesn’t quite match the description of his character in the novel (described as extremely tall, with curly white hair),*** his slender build, unnaturally orange hair and tentative movements lend him an otherworldly appearance. When Newton looks or reacts to something, he appears to be experiencing it for the first time. Bowie anchors the film, which would have been diminished without him.
* Fun Fact #1: According to Bowie, he mistakenly assumed he was composing the music for the film’s soundtrack. Although his songs were not used in the film, they eventually formed the basis for his “Low” album (the cover art uses a still from the movie).
** Fun Fact #2: According to the DVD commentary, Bowie’s real-life chauffeur appears in the film as Newton’s driver.
*** Fun Fact #3: In the DVD commentary, Roeg commented that he originally considered casting author Michael Crichton for the role of Thomas Newton, due to his height (6’9”).
While filled with many high points, one of the book’s deficits was its lack of diversity, with regard to women or people of color playing significant roles. The filmmakers address this disparity somewhat. Bernie Casey appears (in an underwritten supporting role) as government official Peters, who launches an investigation of Newton and his shadowy business dealings. Compared to her character in the novel, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) is given more to do, but she comes across as whiny and strident. Since this is a Roeg film, you can bet it’s going to be sexually charged, and it doesn’t disappoint on that level. However, consummating the relationship between Mary-Lou and Newton seems to be a misstep. It transforms their union into something very human, significantly changing the meaning in the context of the story. They share a platonic relationship in the novel, which seems more logical, considering Newton’s physical limitations. Keeping their distance sexually makes a powerful statement, reinforcing how isolated and alone he feels, stranded on Earth.
* Fun Fact #4: Watch for Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell, who appears as himself in a scene that reveals Newton’s spaceship project.
Compared to many technology-laden science fiction films, Roeg adopts a minimalist approach. Many details about Newton and his accomplishments are left to your imagination, lending some weight to the interpretation that Newton’s extraterrestrial nature is more a state of mind than a fact. We catch brief glimpses, however, with a revolutionary new spherical music format,* a camera with self-developing film, or a nearly completed spaceship, sitting on a launchpad. The lack of gadgetry could also be attributed to budgetary limitations, which encouraged the audience to indulge in their collective imagination. We never see how Newton arrives on Earth, although there are a few shots of his beleaguered family on his home planet, wandering around a desert wasteland, riding in a weird A-frame monorail vehicle covered in carpet samples.
* Random Thought: Despite the fact that World Enterprises (Newton’s company) produces a superior audio format, why doesn’t it appear in record stores? Then again, perhaps the movie was more prescient than I originally thought, predicting hipsters’ endless obsession with vinyl.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is easy to admire, but hard to love. While the film exhibits moments of visual and thematic brilliance, it’s an overlong, self-indulgent, emotionally distant exercise, which keeps the audience at arm’s length. Too many times, I felt like an alien observing behavior and events from a detached perspective. It’s easy to feel for Newton’s plight, but it’s hard to become too invested in Newton or the other self-absorbed characters. It’s not a bad film, just a tedious one, worth seeing at least once for Bowie’s performance.