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.

By Balthazar Malevolent


David Bowie had recorded the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) in New York in 1979. At the moment, the hottest play on Broadway was The Elephant Man, written by Bernard Pomerance, inspired by Joseph Merrick's memoirs (John Merrick in the play), a man disfigured by a genetic disease, doomed to spend his life seen as a monster. And its director, Jack Hofsiss, offered Bowie the lead role. "He asked me if I would think about taking the role at the end of the year," David Bowie recalled in a television interview. "I was just blown away! I had never been asked to do anything so-supposedly-legitimate. And I said I'd love to do it." David Bowie became the Elephant Man just a few months later.

David Bowie as The Elephant Man in 1980.

"I think my head is so big sometimes because it's so full of dreams." David Bowie's voice intoned this word, which is recognizable despite the distorted accent he adopted for the part. Perhaps it was the only thing that exposed his personality, as he became the Elephant Man with an unwavering conviction, although the artist wore no make-up whatsoever. His sudden movements brought pace to the beauty of his sentences, although his wandering eyes had drifted from his frozen grimace. Hidden beneath this pared-down role, the glam icon gave a performance that was nothing less than amazing.

Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke - thus a thousand-faced artist introduced a new alter ego to an already extensive outsiders list. It was no coincidence that, having studied under the renowned dancer Lindsay Kemp and mime artist Marcel Marceau, David Bowie had fallen so well into the part of a "monster". Then, there was a metamorphosis, and the Broadway premiere came at the right time for him who buried the character that had shaken America: "We know Major Tom's a junkie," the chorus of the single Ashes to Ashes released on August 8, 1980 goes. Despite more than 10 years of success and a stint at rehab in Berlin, the break was brutal, and the fans rediscovered him on stage as an artist in complete introspection without artifice.

Interesting fact:

For many years and for many of its productions the Paris Opera Ballet has called upon talented designers. Yves Saint-Laurent and his collaboration with Roland Petit (Notre Dame de Paris in 1965), Christian Lacroix and Balanchine's Jewels, Karl Lagerfeld or Riccardo Tisci to name but a few. In 2019, for the costumes of At the Hawk's Well, Hiroshi Sugimoto turned to Rick Owens.

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