David Bowie is… The Englishman Who Fell to Earth
75 years ago today, David Robert Jones was born in Brixton, London. This average little boy from an average family, who grew up in the average English suburbs of Bromley, would go on to redefine the 20th century, challenging social and cultural norms, all while wearing platform boots.
That little boy would become David Bowie, one of the greatest musicians and artists of his generation. His career spanned over 50 decades, fluctuating between genres and mediums, constantly evolving and shifting to reflect the world around him. But Bowie’s evolutions were more than just his musical stylings; his changes often coincided with a new persona, using performance art and acting to develop a personality that he would embody for each new era he entered. He had the character identities that he created himself (Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Major Tom, Pierrot…) and those he played as a working actor (Thomas Newton, Jareth, Jack Celliers, Philip Jefferies…). But, regardless of their origins, the characters have influenced our understanding and perception of the musician, allowing us to see Bowie (who, in fact, was just another character played by David Jones) as a fresh, new person every time he appeared in public.
Bowie’s work had a special ability to capture the zeitgeist of a moment, turning each performance into social commentary. And this is especially prevalent in his representation of his English identity, using his characters to challenge media and cultural stereotypes associated with Englishness in post-War World II society.
Much like Ziggy Stardust, Thomas Newton from Bowie’s first film role, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), became an iconic character identified with Bowie’s artistic and personal personas. Throughout his career, Bowie returned to Newton in his music and art, even more so than Ziggy. Newton most famously appeared on two of Bowie’s album covers and as the main character in Bowie’s penultimate work of art, the musical Lazarus (2016), proving the importance of the character within Bowie’s artistic narrative and self-identity.
The characterisation of the cinematic representation of Thomas Newton is engrained in the consciousness of Bowie’s persona: director Nicolas Roeg first encountered Bowie in Alan Yentob’s documentary, “Cracked Actor” (1975), which follows the star during his Diamond Dogs (1974) tour and in the depths of his cocaine addiction. Roeg was so taken by Bowie’s presence and his alienness to the people and places around him that he cast Bowie on the assumption that the star wouldn’t have to act, but rather he would just play himself (Compo 2017: 40). Thus, it’s suggested that the cinematic representation of Walter Tevis’s alien character is formed from Bowie’s own alien identity, mixing the character’s and the star’s identity into one. So, although Newton is the first fictional character Bowie played that wasn’t bred from the star’s subconscious, he is still a character that has just as much of a psychological connection to him as his other characters. Roeg designed his character and his actor to have a personal connection, allowing us to read Newton as having the same relationship with Bowie as his predecessors.
In his article “Transition transmission: media, seriality and the Bowie-Newton matrix” (2019), Dene October explores how Bowie and Newton become inseparable, with Bowie’s star identity overshadowing the character, and equally with the character branded with the star’s identity. He notes that the “serial” reoccurrence of Newton (or more so, the alien/spaceman figure) throughout different mediums of Bowie’s art, links the character with the star’s public narrative, making Newton an “agent in his own serial continuation,” as if the character himself is forming Bowie’s identity as much as the star is creating the character (October 2019: 106). I want to expand on October’s findings, exploring how the “Bowie-Newton matrix” impacts not just the star’s artistic intentions, but also how Bowie’s identity and nationality become associated with alienness and foreignness because of the character.
The Alien Englishman
Newton is identified as alien in both a literal and metaphorical context throughout The Man Who Fell to Earth. In fact, we can view Newton as two different types of alien: as an extraterrestrial from a different planet and as an immigrant from a different country. The film bases its narrative around Newton’s extraterrestrial identity, as the plot focuses on him coming to Earth to retrieve water for his drought-stricken planet. We also see Newton in his alien form multiple times throughout the film; the most notable being when he exposes his alien self to Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) in an attempt to connect with her on a deeper level. But the alien identity I would most like to explore is Newton’s foreign identity and his place as an English immigrant within the American landscape.
Throughout the film, there are many references to Newton being English. It’s important to note that Newton and the other characters don’t refer to him as being ‘British’ (we only get this reference when he shows the pawnshop women (Lilybelle Crawford) his passport and a quick statement by one of the newscasters before his flight, noting that he is “the bearer of a British passport,” both referencing his passport, which would be British due to England’s colonisation of the British isle). Rather, they specifically identify him as ‘English’: when he and Mary-Lou go to church, the pastor programmes an “old English hymn” for “a friend of ours,” associating Newton with England; while in the spaceship together, Dr Bryce (Rip Torn) asks Newton if he is a Lithuanian, with Newton responding “I come from England”; and, of course, Bowie’s English accent naturally links Newton with England (when speaking with Farnsworth (Buck Henry), Newton corrects himself when says “patient” with a long “A” sound rather than the American pronunciation of a short “A”). The film makes a conscious effort to remind the audience that Newton is English, a different sort of alien than what he is literally shown to be.
Some scholars, like John Izod, have referenced that Newton’s English identity is only used as a tactic to allow him to make cultural and social mistakes when first arriving on Earth, as the Americans would likely accept his odd and othered behaviour due to his foreign identity (Izod 1992: 89). Yet, it seems remiss to ignore the plethora of evidence included by Roeg that forces us to acknowledge Newton as English. Moreover, James Leach notes that Roeg purposefully chooses to omit details about Newton’s home planet, his mission and how he actually intends on saving his family (Leach 1978: 372). Instead, Roeg chooses to focus on Newton’s alienness within this American society, leaving the details and descriptions of Newton’s planet and purpose out of the story. As Leach notes, Roeg focuses his film on “the humanization of the alien,” but, more importantly, on the teaching of the alien the American lifestyle (Ibid.: 373). I would remark that perhaps Roeg omitted the details of Newton’s alienness in order to represent him less as an alien and more of a foreigner. I would like to suggest that we read the film not as a story of an extraterrestrial coming from outer space and becoming human, but rather as an alien coming from his home “planet” (England) to “Earth” (America), emphasising how the rise of American cultural imperialism and the movement towards a more global society transforms the idea of a singular national identity.
When we are first introduced to Newton, he is wondering, confused and apprehensive through a fictional New Mexican town, searching for a means of making money to start the process of going home. Roeg simulates for the audience the chaos Newton experiences: we are shocked when Newton is nearly hit by a speeding truck, we witness him being harassed by a drunken man and we become equally unsettled by the ominous presence of the blow-up clown house. We are immediately made aware of how foreign Newton feels in this landscape. Roeg also introduces Newton’s foreignness through his interaction with the local people, the first being the pawnshop woman. Like Julie Lobalzo Wright notes, this scene sets up the otherness through the contrasting behaviours of the two people: the woman, with her natural but withering appearance and rough, husky voice, aggressively confronts Newton about the sale of his ring. While Newton, soft-spoken, delicate and odd in appearance, nervously undertakes the transaction (Wright 2015: 235–236). The two are displayed with drastically different behaviours: the woman appears like a product of her environment, dried and broken like the desert around her. Whereas Newton appears fresh-faced, young and cosmetic, not at all natural or Earthly with his dyed red hair and foreign voice.
But this scene also introduces a recurring motif related to Newton’s cultural transformation: a gun. When the woman goes to price Newton’s ring for payment, she opens her safe to reveal a gun. Roeg cuts to a close-up of an uncomfortable Newton, who brushes the hair out of his face, staring directly at the weapon. In American culture, the gun serves as an important image in American iconography, with the item embedded deeply in American society and consciousness. Newton is clearly fearful of this mass weapon, shying away when he encounters it. But, to the shopkeeper, the gun functions as a figure of safety, security and patriotism. Newton’s fear and instability within the American cultural landscape is highlighted here, as one of America’s most iconic items frightens and unsettles him.
Roeg takes great care in this first scene to emphasise Newton’s alienness. As we continue through the first chapter of Newton’s story, Roeg continues to highlight Newton’s differences, most notably in his emotional relationships with the Americans around him. Before spending a prolonged amount of time on Earth, Newton is emotionless, robotic in his behaviours and distant in his communication. Drawing on representational tropes in English cinema, the Englishman often appears calm and collected, reserved in his emotions, expressing very little feelings or sentiments, with Sarah Street noting many of the most popular stars of British cinema embraced an image of “middle-class respectability, restraint and self-sacrifice” (Street 1997: 124). Excluding the trope of the angry young man (which is predominately seen with working-class men, rather than the middle and upper-class men Bowie plays), this reserved Englishman is a staple in English cinema: this man plays on cultural traditionalism and heritage, forcing his character, and thus his star image, into the mythical narrative of Englishness (Higson 1995: 22). We can see this restrained Englishman in many characters, most prominently in heritage films, which thrive on the imperialistic narrative of Englishness (Spicer 2001: 8–11). We see this performance in the characters of Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Ian McKellen and Ian Richardson, to name a few. The popularity of these actors similarly popularised the robotic, emotionless, suave and respectable Englishman character. With this in mind, we can read Newton as a stereotyped middle-class Englishman arriving in this new world. He is reserved in both emotions and sexual appetite, he isn’t confrontational or aggressive in his business dealings. He’s soft-spoken and calm, a behaviour that counteracts the brash, loud and intense behaviours of the Americans around him.
As Newton continues to interact with humans, his cultural identity begins to mix with the Americans’; he begins to mimic the cultural and social behaviours of those in this new land. The American lifestyle shifts Newton’s identity drastically from how we originally met him: he becomes emotionally unstable, sexually driven, addicted to alcohol and influenced by the capitalist lifestyle. Not only is Newton influenced by his interaction with Americans (particularly his relationship with Mary-Lou and his budding friendship with Dr Bryce), but also by his copious consumption of American films and television while on Earth. In the narrative, Newton becomes obsessed with the television, as he hopes he will be able to see glimpses of his family back on his planet. Yet, we can read Newton’s neurotic consumption of American media as a commentary on the influence media has on identity and cultural understanding. British film and media have influenced how the English identity is perceived in society, and culture is often shaped by images we see on screen. Newton’s media consumption is the metaphorical manifestation of this theory.
Before Newton even arrives on Earth, his entire concept and understanding of human behaviours are dictated by the images he and his family see on the television. He tells Bryce that he chose to come to Earth because the images on television showed Earth’s copious supply of water. Newton’s entire understanding of Earth and America has been dictated by the media he has seen. As Newton’s mental state begins to decline, his consumption of media begins to overtake him; the most dramatic of this being Newton’s moment of insanity, while he’s perched in front of twelve television sets, all playing different content with the sound blending in with that of the American singer on the radio. Roeg clearly emphasises Newton’s media obsession, as, from the middle of the film onwards, we rarely see Newton on-screen without him watching or being in the proximity of a television set.
Much of Newton’s understanding of humanity, Earth and America are based on the media he has seen. The images on the screens seep into his mind, possessing him, forcing American culture and behaviours onto him. At one point, the possession becomes too much, and Newton screams, “get out of my mind. All of you!” Newton becomes consumed by American life, losing the social and cultural identity he brought with him from his home planet. His mind begins to mimic the Americanisms forced upon him by the television, making him lose aspects of his English identity. Yet, Newton can’t ever become fully American through his media consumption, as the images of American life are reflective of stereotypical representation. During an argument, Mary-Lou shouts at Newton, telling him, “you’re an alien! You know what would happen if they found out your visa had expired? You don’t know? How could you? You’re simple. You don’t understand how we live here.” At this moment, Mary-Lou highlights that, despite Newton’s attempts, or perhaps obsession, to develop an American identity, he will still always be an other: other because of his origins as an Englishman, but also because of his true lack of understanding about what the real American identity is and not the fiction crafted in the media.
By the end of the film, Newton has completely transformed his mental and emotional identity. He has become mentally unhinged, as his addiction to alcohol and desire for sex dictates his behaviour; as his pettiness forces him into a temper tantrum when he is given the wrong colour suit to wear and as his sexual relationship with Mary-Lou becomes far more aggressive and violent compared to the romantic and sensual sex the couple had earlier in the film. Newton no longer embodies the stereotypical Englishman reoccurring throughout cinema; rather, he becomes a hybrid: a man with English origins and tendencies that are influenced and reshaped by the Americanism of the 20th century. We can see a shift in Newton’s identity, no longer identifying purely with his home planet/country, but more with this new land. He is becoming a foreigner to his Englishness, as he begins to adapt to the American lifestyle. And this is most evident with the reemergence of the gun in the finale of the film.
After Newton’s origins as an extraterrestrial are discovered, he is locked up in a hotel room to be tested by doctors and scientists. In this room, Newton becomes trapped in his own insanity, living in a state of constant intoxication, with nothing for company except for a television screen and the occasional doctor or servant. After years of imprisonment, Newton’s mental stability has completely collapsed, with the Newton from the beginning of the film completely gone. In an attempt to clear her guilty conscience and for him to have some companionship, Mary-Lou is brought to see Newton for the first time since he showed her his alien form. When the two are drinking together while attempting to rekindle their relationship, we see Newton stirring his drink with a gun before playfully pointing it at Mary-Lou, who becomes aroused by the action. When Mary-Lou starts to beg Newton to have sex with her again, he begins to threaten her with the gun, saying he’s going to kill her. Instead of being aroused by this symbol of American empowerment, Mary-Lou becomes fearful and scared as Newton points the gun at her and shoots.
It is revealed that the gun is loaded with blanks and that Newton specifically ordered the gun for sexual purposes. The two begin to have erotic sex, using the gun as a sexual object and shooting each other provocatively. Compared to the first instance Newton interacts with a gun, this moment overemphasises the American fetishisation of the gun. We can read Newton’s desire to turn this American symbol into a sexual item as a display of Newton’s lack of understanding of the true American identity: the films, like the Westerns and crime thrillers he watches, glorify the gun, making it a symbol of masculine sexuality (Mitchell 2001: 176–178). But in true America, it was the old woman who used the gun, not to prove her power but to protect her freedom. Newton has become so lost in this new American identity that he loses his sanity completely. There is little left to Newton’s original alien identity, aside from his English accent. His emotions, behaviours, morals and lifestyles have all been corrupted by the American culture that surrounds him. He has given up hope on returning home, opting to stay in America and letting the toxicity of his new life destroy him.
The Bowie-Newton Identity
The youth counterculture in Britain during the 1960 and 70s was influenced by American popular culture. Americanisms dominated the cultural changes in this radical generation; Rock’n’Roll, Warholian aesthetics, Hollywood and sexual liberation were brought from America and implemented into British mainstream culture (Leese 2006: 94). Bowie himself was highly influenced by the likes of Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Little Richard and more, showing how his own identity was shaped by the Americanisms around him (CBC: 01:30–02:05). The rise of globalisation in the latter half of the 20th century saw the deconstruction of pure national identities; no longer were countries isolated to manifest their own culture and society, but they were now adapting new identities through the interconnection of nations around the world (Guay 2014: 48–49). Englishness could no longer remain the fictitious imperialistic identity it was portrayed as in media and films, but rather it adapted into a melting pot of identities, impacted by the spread of people and culture around the globe. Roeg’s Newton embodies this transformation, as the journey of this traveller represents the modern Englishman, influenced by the rise of the American cultural empire by leaving behind his own national identity (Leese 2006: 99).
Newton’s journey throughout The Man Who Fell to Earth can be related to October’s Bowie-Newton matrix, in which Bowie brings the metaphors and themes seen in Newton’s story to life through his own star identity. Alan Yentob’s documentary — which, despite being released before The Man Who Fell to Earth, gained popularity after Bowie’s mainstream success — functions in a similar vein as The Man Who Fell to Earth: Yentob positions Bowie as an alien in the foreign American landscape, highlighting his otherness as a transnational figure attempting to adjust to the American lifestyle (Cooke 2019). Through these two films, we can view Newton and Bowie as one-in-the-same: both “characters” must adapt their identity in order to survive in a global culture, sacrificing their national identity to conform. The relationship between these two films takes the Bowie-Newton matrix even further; not only is Bowie’s identity being dictated by his perceived compatibility with Newton but also Newton is being written through Bowie’s own history.
Richard Dyer notes that stars breakdown the “distinction between the actor’s authenticity and the authentication of the character s/he is playing… what is interesting about them is not the character they have constructed (the traditional role of the actor) but rather the business of constructing/performing/being a character” (Dyer 1979: 24). The business of constructing Newton relies on the audience perceiving the character and the star as having the same identity, as being lost in a new world. What we get from this is “the continuation of its own existence” (Kelleter 2014: 16) by allowing the audience to become “agents of continuation […] directly involved in the formalization, acceleration, and dissemination” (Ibid.: 58) of the character. Newton’s identity lives in tandem with Bowie’s, as the story of Newton’s fall to earth is read equally as Bowie’s. The existential identity crisis that Newton faces throughout the film is reflected back on Bowie, with the audience questioning whether he’s Martian, English or American.
Playing both Ziggy (an alien from Mars, whose aesthetic and performance was influenced by Japanese heritage and art) and Newton created an identity around Bowie that reflected alienness; to this day, this is the identity that he is most remembered for, despite his attempt at other characters and roles (Paglia 2013: 72). And as October finds, this is a constant reminder that the star is alien, foreign to us and to himself. Despite knowing that Bowie was born as David Jones in Brixton, London, we don’t associate him as such. We don’t associate his Englishness to the likes of Olivier or ever Caine. Julian Petley notes that stars like Bowie, who were not stage actors or classically trained, allowed the English identity to flourish on screen, as these stars’ distance from the theatrical traditions of English acting allowed them to explore their identity authentically, rather than relying on the English star persona (Petley 1985: 115). Bowie became a new breed of English, an Englishman of the modern world that challenged the stagnate and imperial portrayal of Englishness that professional English stars traditionally relied on. Bowie’s radical portrayal of himself, both in his queerness as Ziggy and in his alienness as Newton, has left the world reading Bowie as an other because his identity doesn’t conform to the reading most associate with his nationality.
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