This Week We're Channelling: Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth

David Bowie’s character in The Man Who Fell to Earth paired playful tailoring with smouldering androgyny, giving an insight into the state of mind of a genius at a troubled time in his career.
David Bowie's boyish androgyny brought an eerie innocence to his role as Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Photograph by Getty Images.

Conceptually daring, experimental, avant-garde – epithets that could equally well apply to the 1976 sci-fi cult classic The Man Who Fell to Earth, its idiosyncratic director Nicolas Roeg, or its leading man, the Thin White Duke himself, Mr. David Bowie. In his first (unless you count his 1969 promo film Love You Till Tuesday) and arguably best (expecting his masterful turn as Jareth the Goblin King in 1986’s Labyrinth, of course) film role, Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, a Starman of sorts who falls to Earth in order to find the technology to save his dying home planet. Before long, however, Newton is sucked headfirst into the rampantly materialistic whirlpool of 1970s American capitalism, and the pleasures of the flesh (sex and drugs feature heavily in the film) soon distract him from his mission. His hedonism has rendered him a depressed alcoholic by the end of the film – albeit a ravishingly handsome one and with buckets of cash and a Dorian Grey-esque youthfulness. It’s actually not a bad look.

Despite never being intended for a mass market, the film has remained popular for over 40 years for its indisputable artistic merit, its ambient soundtrack, and its surreal cinematography. But if the film deserves to be remembered for anything, it’s for showing that it would take more than a crippling cocaine addiction and an almost anorexic diet of milk and peppers to stop David Bowie looking absolutely fantastic on camera. It’s often forgotten that Bowie dressed himself for the film, no stylists were involved. Roeg chose him specifically for the role and wanted Newton’s appearance to be authentically Bowie, a risky move bearing in mind that this was a man best known for skipping around a stage sporting nothing but a catsuit and red mullet.


    July 2018


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