“I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human.” David Bowie
1983 was a pretty good year to be a Bowie fan. It was the year Let’s Dance came out and brought Bowie unprecedented levels of commercial success and mainstream acceptance. For those of his fans who worried that he was selling out, his latest movie would show that he was still the same adventurous artist he had been since he encouraged people to “face the strange.” It was called The Hunger, and his performance as a vampire named John would become both his greatest and the most representative of his life.
Bowie had always been fascinated with acting. A good portion of his career as a musical icon found him inventing and playing characters, such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke. The sleeve of his third album, Hunky Dory, refers to him as “the actor.” He had formally launched a movie career with The Man Who Fell to Earth as the alien Thomas Jerome Newton, but had appeared on an episode of Theatre 625 and in a short film called The Image before that. He had a particular talent for playing historical figures or more fantastical people. He gave the same depth of feeling and complexity to Nikola Tesla in The Prestige as he did to the extraterrestrial Newton. The pathos and intelligence that he brought to every performance reached a particularly high expression in The Hunger.
The Hunger is about a vampire named Miriam (Catherine Deneuve), who is thousands of years old. She takes a new lover every couple of centuries or so, and her current one is a cellist named John Blaylock (David Bowie). They prey on young club goers in Manhattan, and the first scenes show Blaylock as cool and in control. Bowie barely gives away any emotion, allowing only a smirk or a hint of a smile to suggest how easy it is for him to seduce his female victim. These scenes show Bowie as the world often saw him in real life, as the chilly yet sexually charismatic figure who might give you the time of your life or steal your soul. But it is his next major scene that really shows Bowie’s range.
It begins with Blaylock and Miriam sharing a shower. He looks at her with a mixture of longing and love. He conveys a sweet vulnerability as he asks her, referring to their relationship, “Forever? And ever and ever?” He may have lived for centuries, but he is still the lovesick young man that he was when he first met Miriam. It’s a small and very touching moment, and shows Bowie’s ability to fully bring to life all of the aspects of his character.
Blaylock soon discovers that Miriam’s promise of eternal youth is a lie, as he begins aging rapidly. It’s in these sequences that Bowie’s performance really shines. He fills a simple line like “I’m a young man” with incredible pathos that gives the audience a greater idea of his character. He uses every single part of his body to portray Blaylock’s increasing fear and disappointment. There’s even an extreme close-up of Blaylock’s left eye as he tries to find an aging specialist that shows the terror that is starting to consume him. His performance becomes so electric in its invocation of the deep and desperate desire to avoid death that entire sequences where Blaylock just calmly waits for an aging specialist and slowly turns into an old man are fascinating just for the slight motions that he makes. It’s reminiscent of a story about how the acting teacher Sanford Meisner was so interesting to watch just moving papers onstage in a minor part that everyone in the audience couldn’t take their eyes off of him.
There are many stories of actors doing incredible things to get into character. A more recent and memorable one is that Leonardo DiCaprio slept in the carcass of a horse for The Revenant. One of my favorite stories of an actor trying to get deeper into character is actually about Bowie and this film. Later on in The Hunger, Blaylock’s strong voice turns into a husky whisper. To achieve that effect, Bowie went to the top of the George Washington bridge and scream-sang all of the punk rock songs that he knew. That story always reminds me how music and all of the different types of media that Bowie loved fed his creative process, such as when photos taken for The Man Who Fell to Earth served as covers for his albums Low and Station to Station. It also reminds me that music was Bowie’s first love, and could always serve him in a pinch. It’s worth noting that even though he was apparently dubbed, Bowie learned to play the cello for this film, making it the 14th or so number of instruments that he knew how to use.
The saddest scenes in the movie, especially after Bowie’s 2016 death, concern Blaylock’s physical decline. Bowie was a master of body language, and his increasingly slow walk conveys that deterioration even better than his surprisingly good old age makeup. His haphazard efforts to drink people’s blood is sadly reminiscent of the music video for his song Lazarus. In that video, the character Bowie plays finds it harder and harder to write something. I will not spoil what happens to his character in The Hunger, but he ends up in a place similar to the one that the Bowie character in the Lazarus video enters in the final frames.
I think that Blaylock reflects Bowie’s life more than his other performances in different films. Both Bowie and Blaylock were brilliant musicians who became somewhat more than human. Bowie did this by being a rock icon, and Blaylock achieved this by becoming a vampire. Both had long, wonderful relationships with beautiful women, though Iman certainly loved Bowie more than Miriam loved Blaylock. I might have somewhat exaggerated Blaylock’s importance, for he is only in the first half of the film. But that just leads me to the final similarity between him and Bowie: they left you wanting more, even though what they gave you was extraordinary.
In 2014 IU Cinema screened two films starring Catherine Deneuve—both directed by Jacques Demy—The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (City Lights Film Series) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (George Chakiris Film Series).
Jesse Pasternack is a junior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed two short films.