Casting David Bowie as a space alien was one of Hollywood’s best decisions since marrying sound and image. Okay, that’s more than a touch hyperbolic, but come on. Bowie, and his post-Ziggy specialization in coming off like an otherworldly being, was exactly what Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth needed. Hallucinatory, heartfelt, and wholly bizarre, Bowie’s 1976 cult film turned 40 this year, and its marvelous mystery seems to still reach not just beyond the stars, but deep within the human condition. The Man Who Fell to Earth endures not only as a truly bizarre sci-fi masterpiece, but as a time stamp for one of Bowie’s most fascinating and alluring creations: The Thin White Duke.
Now who is Thomas Jerome Newton?
The Man Who Fell to Earth landed in March of 1976 with its New York premiere. Based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name, the story was about a humanoid alien coming to Earth after suffering the effects of war and drought on his home planet, Anthea. In the spirit of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, The Man Who Fell to Earth was a more humanistic, philosophical sort of science fiction: displacement as a narrative and a state of being. Thomas Jerome Newton is the titular extraterrestrial, arriving to Earth on a space lifeboat to sell patents for his world-changing alien technologies and make an Earthly mint in the process. It’s a clever idea: Any successful entrepreneur must be successful because they have alien secrets.
Newton exists in a very personal space where money and means are no problem. He arrives, not with an Independence Day crash, but a keen understanding of what might make life easiest while on Earth: money. But happiness is out of reach for Newton. When Newton first arrives, the alien meets an owlish attorney (Buck Henry) to start the machinations necessary to share and sell things from Newton’s home world, like self-developing film (so futuristic in 2016…) and spheres that play music, instead of vinyl (if only). The endgame is Newton’s desire to amass enough money to build a ship that can bring water back to his home planet. Newton is beset with a litany of pains, addictions, and is eventually an experiment for governments and corporations. He becomes a human, tragically so. He feels loss through a failed affair with his lover, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). She rescues him, assuming he’s a foreigner when he first arrives in New Mexico. She eventually rejects Newton once he reveals himself as an alien. Newton washes himself in alcohol and television like an end-of-times Elvis Presley, except Newton shows no signs of aging.
Newton’s the only alien on our planet; perhaps not so coincidentally, so was Bowie. While the film may flounder at points due to ‘70s excess – hefty nudity, hallucinatory cinematography, a general lack of focus that may or may not have been brought on by drugs – it endures as a wild trip into the outer limits of what defines a man. If anything, Newton is a classic story of commerce, a rise and fall experienced by an extraterrestrial with a preternatural world-weariness. Newton lacks affect for much of the film, as he casually gazes at our world through a particularly yahoo American landscape. Commerce and cowboys and loud things abound. Why wouldn’t an alien recoil in quiet contemplation of the surrealism of it all? Bowie himself summarized it best: The film is sad.
Bowie captivates, keeps the film together, and makes sure that Roeg’s far-out film has remained in the cultural consciousness. The film found new life with the Criterion Collection in 2005 (the commentary track with Bowie, Roeg, and Buck Henry is to die for), and while the film hasn’t quite left the quotable impression of so many other other cult flicks, its visuals have endured. The key visual is Bowie. As Henry puts it on the Criterion DVD, Bowie exuded “presence” and acted through feeling. His lack of dialogue only adds to the enigmatic allure. Bowie even joked on the Criterion track that the contents of the film are almost unimportant. And that’s not his ego talking! Thin, pasty, nude images of Bowie, with serpentine eyes glazed over with lust for television trump any perceivable plot. It’s about image, about feel.
There are echoes of The Man Who Fell to Earth in Bowie’s music and personae. On the film’s set, Bowie, as part of his character creation for Newton, began devising what would become “The Thin White Duke.” The details are spotty, but the film’s producers, Arlene Sellers and Alex Winitsky, came up with the casting idea for Bowie, and the musician was approached by Roeg and Candy Clark. Paramount acquired rights to the project after their success with Roeg’s gorgeously gothic Don’t Look Now — it was a great fit for the director’s highly visual and expressive techniques. Bowie already looked great on stage and in front of photographers, so why not put him into an obscure poem dressed as a sci-fi film? Bowie hadn’t done a real film yet, with just a few credits on shorts. This was a leap to leading-man status, and pitched as a splashy debut for one of the pre-eminent rockers of the era. At the time, Bowie was allegedly very into thin, white lines, and there were rumors that he agreed to focus on the role for Roeg and that he went cold turkey for the film; it’s a little blurry and totally 1975. In a 1983 Rolling Stone interview, Bowie said of The Man Who Fell to Earth, “I’m so pleased I made that [film], but I didn’t really know what was being made at all.”
There’s a hypnotic frailty in Bowie’s performance, and the withdrawal is felt. For playing an alien, he gives a beautiful and sensitive leading performance. Earlier this year in Variety, co-star Candy Clark recalled Bowie’s preternatural gift for emoting rather than expressing himself. He was apparently as enigmatic to work with on a film as he was in music. Clark nails Bowie’s natural skill as an actor: He would never say how he was feeling, he’d exude enigmatic wonders. The hair, the stares, the all-around aloof nature; he’d beg onlookers to watch this man.
The Station to Station album cover from January 1976 is a still from the film of Bowie’s Newton being asked if he’s Lithuanian by Rip Torn inside a large, orb-centered device surrounded by protruding cylinders. The scene is wildly tongue-in-cheek and aesthetically cool. Bowie’s Low cover from early 1977 was another still — and one of the film’s posters — a shot of Bowie’s Newton from a side view, with his burnt-match hairstyle.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is a fascinating blip from Bowie’s storied career. It understands and possesses the aura, the spirit of Bowie’s eccentricity, while flaunting one of the most captivating screen debuts ever presented by a rocker. Think of this film as Bowie’s surreal and experiential ambient project made between Station to Station and Low. His visual album for 1976, sans Bowie’s actual music due to contractual disputes, an enduring space oddity.