Popcorn Love: David Bowie as Tesla in The Prestige (2006)
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 3, 2008
If he says he can do it, he can do it, he don’t make false claims
“Oh yeah, is that the one with Edward Norton?” It’s hard to think of a movie of recent times that has suffered as much for its inextricable association to another movie than The Prestige, which had the bad fortune of being released within months of the similarly titled and similarly themed (magic dudes, took place a while ago) The Illusionist. The differences between the two were many, but most importantly, one was arguably the best movie released in 2006, and the other was a total piece of shit. The Illusionist was a ridiculous mess filled with wooden performances, horrific accents, and such wistfully goldwashed cinematography that you expect fairies and precocious little kids to pop out and take over the story at any point. The Prestige was a movie so badass that it had David Bowie coming off the bench.
Bowie’s acting career is unsurprisingly engimatic, filled with uneasy star vehicles, period oddities, unexpected cameos, and Labyrinth. He’s the kind of musician-turned-actor that you forget even had any sort of film career, until you think about it and realize you’ve seen a half-dozen movies with him in it. The reason is that he’s not a particularly great actor, or at the least, not a very expressive one. It’s not terribly surprising, since you can’t look at him and not see Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, so viewing him attempting basic human emotions would inevitably be a jarring and confusing proposition. It should be unsurprising, then, that Bowie’s best roles are the ones in cool, weird movies where he’s basically just asked to hang back and let his presence just enhance the movie’s cool, weird vibes.
The Prestige, naturally, is such a flick. Bowie doesn’t even come into the movie until about an hour through, at which point you’re already completely absorbed by the movie’s web of intrigue and mystery, and you’ve forgotten that he was ever supposed to be in it at all. When he’s finally introduced, given one of the best film introductions in recent years (walking through a field of cackling electricity, pictured above), you’re just like HOLY SHIT DAVID BOWIE THIS REALLY IS THE BEST MOVIE EVER. Movies based around David Bowie as a lead usually just end up being kind of uncomfortable, but if you’ve got him as an ace in the hole like The Prestige (or, uh, Zoolander) does, there’s not many other actors you could throw out there to take a movie to the next level like Bowie can.
He’s got a pretty amazing role to work with, too. I don’t know much about Nikola Tesla’s actual history, beyond what Jack White explained to Meg in their Coffee & Cigarettes segment, anyway. But The Prestige portrays him as basically the ultimate technological maverick, the sort of Velvet Underground of modern science to Thomas Edison’s Beatles–unspeakably brilliant, but understood by few and reviled by many. His rivlarly with Edison is an obvious parallel to the rivalry of the two magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) at the center of the story, but whereas audience allegiances shift between Bale and Jackman throughout the movie, Edison perpetually looks like a short-sighted, play-it-safe company men compared to Tesla.
And Bowie, well, he just sort of plays it as Bowie. He’s got a bit of an Eastern European accent to work with, as well as a nifty little moustache that comes close to disguising the actor’s true identity, but he leaves the scenery chewing to the rest of the cast. He just shows up, gives a couple Bill Nye-type demonstrations of basic scinetific principles, delivers a couple pithy speeches about the dangers of obsession, and then checks out almost as quickly. He’s not really a scene stealer, but his appearance does what good cameos are supposed to do-puts a big ol’ smile on your face, adds that touch of class to the proceedings, and then gets out of the way to let the rest of the movie do its thing.
Seriously, if you can’t remember which of the two you saw, it was because it was The Illusionist and it was awful. Don’t hold it against The Prestige.