3 jul 2020

When David Bowie played the Elephant Man

As David Lynch’s newly restored masterpiece is re-released in cinemas, we look back at an unknown moment: when David Bowie played The Elephant Man.  

In 1979, David Bowie was in New York recording the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). The hottest play on Broadway at the time was The Elephant Man, written by Bernard Pomerance, inspired by the memoirs of Joseph Merrick (John Merrick in the play), a man disfigured by a genetic illness, condemned to spend his life perceived as a monster. And Jack Hofsiss, its director, offered Bowie the lead role. “He asked me if I’d think about taking the role at the end of the year”, David Bowie recalled in a TV interview. “I was blown away! I’d never been asked to do anything so – supposedly – legitimate. And I said I’d love to do it.” A few months later, David Bowie became the Elephant Man.


Sometimes I think my head is so big because it’s so full of dreams.” The voice of David Bowie intoned this sentence, recognisable despite the broken accent he adopted for the role. Indeed it was the only thing that revealed his identity, because even though the artist wore no make-up whatsoever, he became the Elephant Man with an unwavering conviction. His abrupt movements gave tempo to the poetry of his words, while his wandering gaze drifted from the frozen grimace his face had become. The glam icon hidden beneath this pared-down role gave a performance that was nothing less than astounding.


Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke… Thus the artist of a thousand faces added a new alter ego to an already extensive list of outsiders. It was no coincidence that David Bowie had slipped into the role of a "monster" so well, having trained under the famous dancer Lindsay Kemp and mime artist Marcel Marceau. Once again, a metamorphosis took place, and the premiere on Broadway happened at just the right time for he who was burying the character that had moved America: "We know Major Tom's a junkie", goes the chorus of the single Ashes to Ashes released on August 8th, 1980. After more than ten years of success and a stint at rehab in Berlin, the break was brutal, and it was an artist in full introspection without artifice that the audiences rediscovered on stage.