Thursday 14 January 2016

Paul Harris posits an alternate cinephiliac history of David Bowie and the movies

                             The projects that never saw the light of day
On at least on two occasions Bowie nearly played Egon Schiele.

Circa 1979 he was approached to play the title role in a biography of Schiele , the Viennese Expressionist artist to be directed by the Austrian Herbert Vesely. By the time the film's financing fell into place Bowie was nowhere to be seen (Matthieu Carriere played the role). I seem to remember that this film played a very limited season at the Trak Cinema in Melbourne before disappearing from view.

Bowie's personal interest in the artist's work dates back to the 70's when he was based in Berlin (The album cover for Lodger in 1979 with its physical contortions clearly shows his influence,see below).

Earlier, in 1977 plans were announced for Wally, a completely separate Schiele project which director Clive Donner pitched to him, to co-star Charlotte Rampling. (The title Wally refers to one of the artist's girlfriends). But nothing came of that either which is probably a stroke of good luck when looking at Donner's other latter-day work (Vampira ,Charlie Chan And The Curse Of The Dragon Queen)

 Bowie was mentioned by several sources as a candidate to play a major role in The Eagle Has Landed (1976), a WWII drama set in 1943 about a plot by the Germans to kidnap Churchill and the Allies to assassinate Hitler .The same reports stated that due to scheduling conflicts he was forced to step down. Actually Bowie underwent an unsuccessful screen test and hard-nosed ' old school ' director John Sturges was not at all impressed with him . With only one starring role behind him (the sci-fi allegory The Man Who Fell To Earth ) it was also felt that he was a rocker dilettante, leading to the unfortunate nickname ,The Ego Has Landed .

Michael Armstrong

Bowie's first screen role was in an experimental short film The Image (1967), directed by Michael Armstrong. The 20-year-old Bowie plays a ghostly presence who steps out of a painting and wreaks havoc with the artist. Shot in a derelict house the film, which contains no dialogue, was slapped with an X certificate for its violent content. In 1969 Armstrong got his break with The Haunted House Of Horror ( originally called The Dark) , an AIP 'haunted house' flick, a British-American coproduction aimed at an international market, starring AIP's contract players Frankie Avalon and Jill Haworth.The initial plan was to cast Bowie as a closeted gay character but AIP objected to this strategy , insisting that Avalon and Bowie would not be a good match. What this meant when translated into everyday English was that they didn't want Avalon's Philadelphia pop crooner being overshadowed by a Space Oddity. The resultant film was compromised by poor casting, reshoots and post-production tampering. It is, nevertheless, a Quentin Tarantino favourite.

Bowie expressed embarrassment in later years about The Image. Prior to its production, Armstrong had proposed to Bowie that he play a modern-day Orpheus in ‘A Floral Tale’, a proposed feature based upon Orpheus Of The Underworld , the role that of a rock idol literally torn to pieces by his frenzied fans. When the screenplay was vetoed by the British Board Of Film Censors for its 'explicit homosexuality’, that was the end of that enterprise.

In 2012 Armstrong detailed his working history with Bowie:
David and I first met after I had heard his debut album and felt both his wit and his musical talent ideal for my intended film about mythological Greece, “A Floral Tale”. I had approached him with the idea that he would play the role of Orpheus in the film plus write songs and additional music as part of the overall score. He was extremely enthusiastic about the project and we spent a couple of most enjoyable meetings at his manager, Ken Pitt’s flat in London, discussing it.
At the time, it was a far more modest screenplay than the epic three hour comedy that would eventually result by the time it reached a final draft. David was not contracted to start work on writing any songs or music as the film was not fully financed at that point so, I’m sorry to tell you, no songs were actually written for it. While completion funds were being found, the production company concerned asked me to put it to one side, temporarily, and make them a short film I had written, “The Image”. This I did and cast David as the boy.

I then returned to “A Floral Tale” but in writing a second draft found it developed into a film of epic proportions. The hugely increased budget together with incredibly ambitious special effects for the time, meant that the film proved impossible to fund. Consequently. it meant that David was never required to put pen to paper and so no songs were ever written for it.
Again the project was put to one side as I embarked upon my first feature, “The Dark” which later became re-titled as “The Haunted House of Horror”, a film for which, again, I wanted David to play a lead role and which I adapted in order for him to be able to write and perform a couple of his own songs. This was, alas, not made possible when the American producers objected to his being in a film as they felt he would clash with their already contracted singing star, Frankie Avalon and that should any songs be performed at all in the film, he should be the one to perform them. The result was that I was forced to cast another actor in the role I had rewritten specially for David.

My last attempt to work with him came with a screenplay I wrote specially for him, “Mutants”. Although I would have wanted David to write the score and perform a couple of songs on the soundtrack, the role was purely for David as an actor and not as a performer. The project never progressed further than a screenplay and was put to one side when I was contracted to write and direct “Mark of the Devil”.

Upon completing “Mark of the Devil”, I returned to London and set about working on a comedy revue I had written and which I was to direct at the Arts Theatre in the West End. I was also acting in the show alongside David who I had invited to be a member of the small company. Unfortunately, rehearsals had barely got under way before the producer ran into financial difficulties and disappeared which meant me having to take on the role as producer of the show as well and find the necessary funding to continue. During the resultant delay in production, the company broke up and by the time it was re-formed and ready to go back into rehearsal with a largely different cast, David was one of those original members no longer available.

This is just a partial list of films that Bowie unsuccessfully auditioned for
1968 : The Touchables (Robert Freeman, UK)
1969 : Oh! What A Lovely War (Richard Attenborough, UK)
1971 : Sunday,Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, UK, the role went to Murray Head)
1972 : The Triple Echo (Michael Apted, UK)
(any further suggestions ???)

Two major roles that Bowie turned down:
A View To A Kill (John Glen, UK, 1985) as the villainous Zorin (Chris Walken played the role)
Hook (Steven Spielberg, 1991) as Captain Hook

Bowie was fascinated with the silent comic's work and contemplated making a screen biography in the late 70's. In the halfway point of the music video Miracle Goodnight, taken off the 1993 LP Black Tie,White Noise he channels Keaton in a quick collage . The photo below shows him perusing Rudi Blesh's landmark biography of The Great Stone Face, adopting a copycat pose while falling to earth.  See it on Youtube HERE

The closest David Bowie got to making a film in Australia was via actor turned producer-director David (Just A Gigolo) Hemmings. In 1979 the latter was starring in and co-producing Harlequin , a contemporary reworking of the Rasputin story, on Perth locations, for the Antony I. Ginnane assembly line. When writing the screenplay, originally titled ‘The Minister's Magician’, Everett De Roche had Bowie in mind .But when push came to shove this idea was placed in the 'too hard' basket and Hemmings turned to fellow British actor Robert Powell who had previously starred in Hemmings' first film as a director Running Scared (1972) and presumably came at a cheaper rate.

The still and poster art suggest that at least Bowie might have looked the part. It is difficult to believe that he would have even temporarily given up his lucrative career in other parts of the world including an impending Brodway stage debut in ‘The Elephant Man’ for what we now recognise as a routine Ozploitation assignment and possibly a recurrence of the Just A Gigolo debacle a couple of years earlier.

Does anybody remember the Faerie Tale Theatre series, executive produced, hosted and narrated by Altman discovery Shelley Duvall in the 80s? 

FTT was an anthology series, produced for cable on video, dramatising children's fairy stories and directed by industry heavyweights like Coppola and Tim Burton. Duvall claims she got the idea for the concept while shooting Popeye (Robert Altman, USA, 1980) in Malta. Bowie was cast as The Pied Piper in the episode The Pied Piper Of Hamelin (1985) and was replaced by Eric Idle when he dropped out just prior to shooting. At 4 days' notice without having read the screenplay, which was in verse, Idle stepped in .The costume fittings had already been done and he was of a similar physical stature so that was a much needed cost saving. Bowie wanted to make the episode in Canada for tax reasons so the production crew headed off to Toronto for this one occasion. My memory is that Idle acquitted himself well in the part even though the ex-Python was so identified with comedy that it was a shock to see him in a morose, downbeat part like this.

Click here for a news report in the Montreal Gazette (March 13, 1984) which gives detailed background information and above is a photo of Duvall and Bowie, presumably taken before she found out he was decamping at the 11th hour.

Three odd possibilities that may have been real or could have just been idle cocktail conversation to help pass the time.
R W Fassbinder

Bowie met with Rainer Werner Fassbinder during his time in Berlin in the 70's to discuss the possibility of making a film version of "The Threepenny Opera"

Lina Wertmuller suggested a movie together but he didn't like her politics .

Bowie, a bibliophile, is on the record as saying that a film version of "The Delinquents" (based on the 1962 novel)  would be a good idea. The original book by Deirdre Cash, writing under the Irish sounding pseudonym of Criena Rohan, was first published in London where she had moved to. According to several unconfirmed sources Bowie was approached to be music director on what turned out to be a totally misbegotten attempt at promoting

Kylie Minogue's talents on the big screen (Directed by Chris Thompson, Australia, 1989). During this period Bowie was spending much of his spare time in Sydney at an apartment he owned. Make of that what you will.


And so we come to Mandrake The Magician which I referred to recently via the Fellini-Mastroianni connection. In 1980 the English sales agent-production company Goldcrest announced an ambitious Mandrake project to be produced by Eric Rochat, who had produced The Story Of O (Just Jaeckin, France/Germany,1975). Screen rights had been obtained from King Features Syndicate and Julien Temple, with just The Great Rock N Roll Swindle (1980) to his resume,was announced as director .
Eventually it was decided by the suits in front office that as the budget and the attendant financial risk increased that maybe Temple was slightly inexperienced for such a massive logistical undertaking.
So Julien went off back to the world of music videos where he worked with his good friend on music clips and Jazzin' For Blue Jean (1984),the promotional short designed to promote the release of the single " Blue Jean ". Then in 1986 Goldcrest , in a radical change of attitude, bet the house on him by offering Temple the chance to direct a mega-musical Absolute Beginners and who did he cast as the lead? David Bowie played Colin , the young photographer in 1958 London , caught up in his love for Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit) and the Notting Hill Race riots . The result was an expensive and expansive looking,stylish musical with some great showstoppers amidst all the visual clutter , which he intended as an homage to the Fifties Hollywood work of his heroes Minnelli and Tashlin .Castigated by the press and the industry there was a feeding frenzy of bile directed against him as though he was the UK's Michael Cimino.

Temple suffered a breakdown and a temporary career setback but has bounced back in the last decade with an Australian feature project The Eternity Man (2008) a series of excellent music documentaries (Dr.Feelgood,Wilko Johnson,Ray Davies) and his splendid archival history, London : The Modern Babylon (2012).
It's difficult to talk about Temple without bringing in Bowie's name. They were good friends and frequent collaborators. As a teenager Temple first saw Bowie perform at Glastonbury in 1971. Just this week he was quoted as saying about him:" He was the patron saint of misfits's hard to think of him as history because he was always the future - he was also the patron saint of risk".
Above and below the poster art used to sell the Mandrake project at Cannes


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