Julian Schnabel, Basquiat, 1996, 35 mm, color, sound, 106 minutes. Andy Warhol (David Bowie).

WHEN A NONACTOR appears in a movie role, it is as if a draft rushes in from some door left open backstage, rustling against the conventions of how movie people hold themselves, how professionals look at the camera or throw their voice. When it works, casting a nonactor has a bracing effect, since risk still clings to the best of these performances: Iggy Pop in Dead Man (1995), the double amputee Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, for which he won an Oscar for best supporting actor), the philosopher Brice Parain in Vivre sa Vie (1962), Truffaut’s leading role in The Wild Child (1970), and the entire casts of The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Close-Up (1990). In other cases, the casting of nonactors can feel like a stunt. In Gummo (1997), or in any of Quentin Tarantino’s performances, we never feel that we are looking at a character at all.

David Bowie has appeared in more than two dozen films, but he remains a nonactor. Every time I see David Bowie in a movie, I mentally blurt out, “Oh look, it’s David Bowie.” This is different, I think, from being a bad actor. He simply is a nonactor. His characters should perhaps come with a subtitled tag, like in documentaries or reality TV. This more or less is what happens in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996). Although Bowie’s performance as Andy Warhol is already essentially a long Saturday Night Live impression, the first time he appears, someone onscreen helpfully exclaims, “That’s Andy Warhol.” Lest we forget.

Most of Bowie’s directors have tried to exploit Bowie’s sphinxlike unreadability by having him play nonpersons: vampires, extraterrestrials, goblins, weirdos, ciphers. His first starring role was in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), playing an alien being on a journey to save his dying planet. Bowie becomes first an “inventor” of advanced technology, then declines into an eccentric shut-in addled by television and gin, with his mission half-forgotten by the narrative and character. Although borrowing liberally from the persona of the Ziggy Stardust concept album, the role of alien entrepreneur is actually closer to the Howard Hughes story that Martin Scorsese would make into The Aviator (2004) than to any recognizable science fiction. The film’s cynicism runs deep but is directed at targets I don’t recognize as belonging to reality. Roeg made excellent films about fearful, isolated, and inscrutable characters in the 1970s, Walkabout (1971) and Don’t Look Now (1973), but The Man Who Fell to Earth is not one of them. The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Bowie’s withdrawn, catatonic performance, are iconic, but in a bad way, like Brian De Palma’s equally shallow and unmotivated Scarface (1983).

One solution to Bowie’s nonacting is to have him perform alongside Jim Henson’s Muppets, who are not actors either. In the George Lucas–produced Labyrinth (1986), Bowie plays the Goblin King, a kind of Wicked Witch to Jennifer Connelly’s Dorothy. The towering wig and gauntleted costumes, which would lend any other actor an air of outrageous, pre-Raphaelite camp, instead look oddly comfortable on Bowie. In all his roles, Bowie seems to be doing a waxy impression of Peter O’Toole: fragile, ambiguously wounded, subtle. He is grossly miscast in Labyrinth, which plainly calls for a Tim Curry type who could gleefully hoist a skull-goblet to his Muppet minions.

Martin Scorsese had the right idea in filming Bowie in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Bowie, playing Pontius Pilate, begins speaking in a long shot, so that when we cut to his face, we are already engaged with his character’s cynicism and the dry arrogance of bureaucracy, rather than Bowie’s winking eccentricity. Furthermore, Bowie is playing his scene across from an impossible character, Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe). This must be somewhat like performing with a CGI character like Jar Jar Binks or Gollum. The result is that Bowie’s innate vacancy as an actor translates believably into Pilate’s beleaguered lack of empathy. At the same time, the viewer cannot help but wonder how, say, Willem Dafoe would have played the scene.

Ben Parker

“Watch That Man: David Bowie, Movie Star” runs August 2–8 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.