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A black and white image of Elvis Presley dressed in cowboy gear holding a rifle, juxtaposed with David Bowie topless holding a revolver from the man who fell to earth
  • Bowie vs Elvis: the Thin White Duke in the court of the King

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    Posted on: 20/08/2015

    They're both rock stars, but do Elivs and Bowie's similarities extend to the silver screen? Phillipa Berry compares the two icons.

    Shortly after the release of Just a Gigolo (1978), Bowie referred to the movie in an interview with Angus McKinnon in the New Musical Express as “my thirty-two Elvis movies rolled into one”. Though it makes for a witty one-liner, Bowie’s pejorative appraisal of all Elvis’ movies is not entirely accurate and it can be argued that Bowie had a few more “Elvis movies” to come.

    So his remark invites a comparison of both men’s movies, particularly when they had so much in common. Coincidentally they shared a birthday, a record company, and the single name recognition status of the famous. But most importantly, both men challenged conventions, not just in their music but also their performances by breaking taboos of race, sexuality and gender.

    There was, however, a crucial difference between their stage personas. Bowie “could make a transformation as a rock and roll star” as his song “Star” goes. As Ziggy the glam rock god, Bowie was acting a role on stage akin to musical theatre, whereas it could be said that Elvis was more of a natural performer – his moves instinctive and not the product of a mime school as Bowie’s were.

    Elvis Bowie NunsMary Tyler Moore and Elvis in Change of Habit. Marianne Faithful and David Bowie performing "I Got You Babe"

    So who would make a better movie actor? When artists famous in one field crossover to another, charges of dilettantism are inevitable and sometimes justified. It helps to consider their motivations – or their management.  

    While Elvis wanted to follow in his actor idol James Dean’s footsteps, his manager Colonel Tom Parker simply saw movies as a way of broadening Elvis’ appeal so he could cash in. It’s important to note that for the best part of a decade Elvis would not perform live and these movies and related soundtrack albums were his only contact with his fans. Even though Elvis gave a good account of himself in his first few ‘50s films, throughout the ‘60s his movies more or less became formulaic musical comedies. It’s testament to Elvis’ charisma that the Colonel’s plan didn’t sink his movie career faster than it did. As in old Hollywood, a true star will always shine brighter than his material.

    By contrast Bowie wasn’t bound contractually to make movies like Elvis, and he said he’d “like to be known as a generalist rather than a singer … or an actor.” To this end he made it known he was interested in acting and by virtue of his appearance in a BBC documentary Cracked Actor, the lead in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) was offered to him by Nic Roeg. At the time the frail Bowie was a perfect fit in the role of an extra-terrestrial whose surreptitious mission to earth ended in despair and dissolution. The film was a critical success. But as an Earthling in Just a Gigolo he received a lukewarm response. 

    Elvis Bowie HawaiiHawaiian shirts - who wore it bettter?

    Then Bowie bounced back with a series of outsider roles: a TV adaptation of Bertholt Brecht’s play Baal (1981), a successful run on Broadway as The Elephant Man, and a couple of cult hits, The Hunger and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (both 1983). It seemed as if his career as an actor was gaining momentum. Bowie even stated at a Cannes press conference: “I’ve tried very hard to stay away from any music in any films that I’m supposed to be an actor in.”

    Nonetheless he relented with the musical Absolute Beginners (1986). Yet after only a handful of leading roles in features, Bowie’s involvement in movies from the mid-80s would be measured in mere minutes – sometimes seconds. Now after a dozen or more bit parts, and with no new projects outside of some music videos, Bowie may have finally run down the curtain on his acting career.

    So while Presley’s pictures were built around Elvis as the humble everyman - albeit a two fisted, singing swinger - he remained trapped by his music stardom, whereas Bowie was able to be more adventurous in his screen career because he was able to play more outsiders and character roles. Nonetheless there are some curious similarities in their work. 

    For fun consider this list:

    Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973/82) / Cracked Actor (1985) / Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970) / Elvis On Tour (1973)
    In concert Ziggy Bowie and Vegas Elvis look like they might share the same tailor and even hairdresser, but probably not the same diet. 

    Just a Gigolo (1978) / G.I.Blues (1960)                      
    As ex-servicemen adrift in Germany’s nightclub scene Elvis had the advantage of having lived it.

    The Hunger (1983) / King Creole (1958)
    Both Bowie and Elvis after dark in stylish nightclub scenarios with older women.

    Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) / Flaming Star (1960)
    Both Bowie and Elvis caught up in violent culture clashes.

    Absolute Beginners (1986) / Double Trouble (1967) 
    This is truly Bowie’s “Elvis movie” with its soundstage sets not much more convincing than the King’s Hollywood version of Swinging London.

    Labyrinth (1986) / Harum Scarum (1965)
    Strange fantasy lands with young girls, little people and odd costumes. Elvis in baggy pants and Bowie in tights so snug that there are web pages devoted to them! 

    Last Temptation of Christ (1988) / Change of Habit (1969)
    Religious diversions find Bowie as Pontius Pilate continuing the Hollywood tradition of Brits playing Romans and Elvis following Bing Crosby’s lead “in the ghetto”.

    Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) / Blue Hawaii (1961)
    Bowie’s brief walk-on is notable for his yelling his lines in a cod–southern US accent. But he can barely be heard over his shirt which is so loud that it brings to mind the first in Elvis’ Hawaiian trilogy.

    Basquiat (1998) / Easy Come Easy Go (1967)
    Bowie imitates Warhol while Elvis finances an arts centre for beatniks and sings “Yoga Is as Yoga Does” with Elsa Lanchester!

    My West (aka Gunslinger’s Revenge) (1998) / Charro (1969)
    Both Bowie and Elvis as bearded outlaws. But Bowie’s a little slower on the drawl. 

    Everybody Loves Sunshine (aka Busted) (1999) / Jailhouse Rock (1957) 
    As Manchester gangsters Goldie and Bowie are no match for ex-con Elvis who sings up a storm in the cellblock.

    The Prestige (2006) / Frankie and Johnny (1965)       
    Bowie’s turn as the enigmatic Serbian physicist in is one of his best, while Frankie and Johnny is one of Elvis’ weakest vehicles, but both films share end of the 19th century period settings and a “bullet catch” stage show.

    - Phillipa Berry is a regular contributor of content to fanzines, TV and radio on off-beat movies, music, and other pursuits.

    Bowie Elvis Mugshots

    Bowie on Film features some of the Thin White Duke's most iconic films and the movies that inspired him. Screens from 20 August to 20 September. 

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