Think of this iconic 1976 sci-fi movie and the mind becomes inexorably fixed upon a vision of the gaunt, pallid figure with wavy red locks that was David Bowie playing Thomas Jerome Newton, the visitor from another planet come to Earth to find water with which to sate the desperate thirsts of his drought-stricken people.
And yet Nicolas Roeg’s surreal cult movie, based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name, saw Bowie in the first lead acting role of his already colourful career. Sure he had studied mime under the expert tutelage of Lindsey Kemp, an art which he had incorporated with dazzling effect into his Ziggy Stardust stage routine, and had secured a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit-part role in the late sixties comedy romp The Virgin Soldiers, but this was a big leap even for a man of Bowie’s many talents.
Nevertheless, when the accolades were handed out following the movie’s initially modest success it was Bowie who scooped the Saturn Award for Best Actor.
Newton, an alien in more or less human form, arrives on his mission equipped with an advanced knowledge of technology, which he was able to put to good effect on Earth by patenting inventions and making himself wealthy in the process. But he needs his wealth to enable him to build a space vehicle with which to transport water back to his people.
Whilst here amongst our people, however, he not unreasonably finds himself to drawn to earthly pursuits, not least a love interest called Mary-Lou, played by Candy Clark. He also develops rather too keen an enthusiasm for alcohol, upon which he eventually becomes dependent.
Nevertheless he does actually manage to construct his space craft, only to be detained shortly before his planned departure after being betrayed by one he thought he could trust. And so the story descends into anti-climax, with the sad visitor increasingly resigned to the fact that he will never return, and settling in with some difficulty to life on Earth, minus his girl and much of his faculties.
Bowie went on to enjoy a successful acting career in film and on stage alongside his immense musical achievements. In spite of the unspectacular reception that The Man Who Fell To Earth received in 1976, it achieved enduring success as a cult movie through later years and is today one of Roeg’s most celebrated works.
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