Hello, Goodbye is a series in which we take a look at films that feature big name stars who only appear briefly, and are never seen again.
The news of David Bowie’s death on January 10, 2016 let loose an outpouring of shock and grief across the world. Bowie, an artist who seemed to transcend the limitations of mere mortality, surely would live forever, not shuffle off this mortal coil at the age of 69. One of the most remarkable aspects of his passing was the proclamation from so many different voices (via social media) that Bowie managed to be so many different things to so many different people, all while somehow staying true to himself. David Bowie was more than just an amazing musician and artist; he was a driving, fluid force that helped shaped the world around him. He was iconic.
He was also a fairly remarkable actor. Throughout his career, Bowie gave one remarkable performance after another, delivering memorable turns in Labyrinth, Absolute Beginners, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hunger, The Prestige and more. It would’ve been easy enough for Bowie to show up in these films and just be Bowie — but the truth was there really wasn’t a David Bowie. “David Bowie” was a character created by David Jones, a young man who was “shy and fairly awkward in social situations,” as Bowie said in a 1996 Telegraph Magazine interview. “I would use bravado and device,” Bowie said, “costume and flamboyant behaviour… in a desperate attempt to not be iced out of everything.” A side effect of David Jones becoming David Bowie was that when it came time to appear in films, Bowie was already something of an established, and quite good, actor.
Bowie’s screentime in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ takes up approximately three minutes and thirty seconds of a 162 minute film. It’s a brief footnote in a sprawling journey, yet it packs a remarkable punch. Scorsese’s film, adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial 1953 novel, paints a very human portrait of Jesus. As played by Willem Dafoe, Jesus is an angry, confused, suffering man warring with his divine nature. The film was mired in controversy both for its less-than-sacred portrayal of Jesus and for a lengthy fantasy sequence that occupies most of the third act of the film, in which Jesus imagines getting off the cross and living as a man.
Bowie appears as Pontius Pilate, the high-ranking Roman official who, the Gospels claim, condemned Jesus to die on the cross. In the four Gospels of the New Testament — Matthew, Mark, Luke & John — Pilate is portrayed as a bit of a push-over. Despite his position of power, the Pilate in the Bible is subservient enough to let his Jewish subjects more or less bully him into condemning Jesus to death. Media portrayals of Pilate have followed this lead: in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate is a tormented soul who has nightmares about the role he’ll play in Jesus’ demise. Later, when Jesus is brought to him to stand trial, Pilate begs Jesus to give him some sort of escape from the entire scenario. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ follows suit, with that film’s Pilate even offering to set Jesus free and to kill a notorious murderer in his place instead — an option Pilate’s crowd angrily rejects, so blood-thirsty they are for Jesus’ death.
History, however, reveals a less-than-noble Pontius Pilate. In his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, author Reza Aslan states that during Pilate’s “tenure in Jerusalem he so eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands upon thousands of Jews to the cross that the people of Jerusalem felt obliged to lodge a formal complaint with the Roman emperor.” Aslan also claims that Pilate “was renowned for sending his troops onto the streets of Jerusalem to slaughter Jews whenever they disagreed with even the slightest of his decisions.”
Scorsese’s film, which is filled with spirituality but also concerned with historical elements (despite featuring a predominantly white cast, of course), has no interest in the benevolent, tortured, mythical Pilate. The likelihood that Jesus would even have stood trial before his execution is slim, and Scorsese compromises by reducing the meeting between Pilate and Jesus as a short, almost droll interrogation. After his arrest for sedition against Rome, Jesus is not brought to some large outdoor arena to stand trial — instead, Scorsese has Dafoe’s Jesus brought to Pilate’s stables. Introduced in a wide shot, Jesus sits bound on a bench while Bowie, as Pilate, inspects a horse. Shafts of bluish light streak down from lofty ceilings as torches mounted to the stone walls flicker. In his casting of the film, Scorsese borrowed a technique from William Wyler’s biblical epic Ben-Hur, where all the Jewish characters have American accents while all the Romans speak in British accents. It has the effect of both differentiating the characters and establishing a class system — the lower class, boorish American-accented Jews, some of which sound like they’re from Brooklyn, against the upper class, eloquent, proper-speaking, British-sounding Romans. In his commentary for the Criterion release, Scorsese reveals he wanted Pilate to be “young, imperious and have charisma,” which Bowie has in spades here.
The remarkable thing about Bowie’s performance is that for a performer who was known for pushing boundaries and embracing his freakier side, Bowie’s performance as Pilate is incredibly down to earth. His Pilate is weary, because he’s seen hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people like Jesus before. When he asks Jesus to perform some sort of miracle, or trick, to prove his divinity, Jesus replies, “I’m not a trained animal and I’m not a magician.” Swathed in a brown leather toga, his hands clasped together in front of him, Bowie’s Pilate replies, “That’s disappointing. That means you’re just another Jewish politician.” Pilate presses Jesus further for some sort of explanation, and Jesus spins him a tale about a vision of the prophet Daniel about a statue with clay feet. “A stone was thrown, the clay feet broke, and the statue collapsed,” Jesus says, a glimmer of pride in his voice. “Yes?” Pilate asks, sounding as if he’s barely paying attention. God threw the stone, Jesus explains, and the stone itself represents Jesus. “The statue–,” Jesus begins to say before Pilate cuts him off, “–is Rome.” Bowie remains perfectly still while Jesus tells his parable, but the minute Pilate finishes Jesus’ story for him, he begins to move — crossing towards the seated Dafoe, looming over him and always keeping his hands clasped together. Eventually Pilate loosens up a bit, and takes a seat next to Jesus. Scorsese keeps his camera behind the two men, a medium shot on both of their backs before moving closer for over-the-shoulder shots for the rest of the exchange. “Change will happen with love, not with killing,” Jesus tells Pilate. “Either way, it’s dangerous,” Pilate replies, going on to proclaim, “It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things — we don’t want them changed.”
There’s no mocking in Bowie’s tone here, nor anger. But there isn’t sympathy either. Instead, Bowie plays the man as both blasé and slightly mystified at Jesus’ predicament. He’s practical in his death sentence: “You do know what has to happen, don’t you?” He condemns Jesus to be crucified at Golgotha — a place of execution that is now home to 3000 skulls, “probably more.” The only time Bowie’s Pilate shows a tinge of emotion is right before his exit, from both the scene and the film. “I do wish you people would go up there and count them (the skulls) sometime,” Pilate tells Jesus, stressing the word count for impact. “You might learn a lesson…” But so lackadaisical and practical is Bowie’s Pilate that mere seconds after almost raising his voice, he simply turns and mutters, “…probably not…” before vanishing from the film.
On the Criterion commentary, Scorsese mentions that when The Last Temptation of Christ was in early development back in 1983, musician Sting was originally cast as Pilate. When it came time to film in 1988 Sting was not available, however, Bowie was cast. Nothing against Sting, but thank heavens things worked out the way they did. Bowie’s portrayal is so layered and memorable that the thought of anyone else in the role might seem like blasphemy. Here is a part that was even described by the film’s director as a “throwaway,” and yet Bowie — who only worked on the film for three days total — makes the brief appearance into something only David Bowie could: iconic.