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Alter ego: Bowie as Ziggy Stardust
Around this time every year, the Hollywood trade press begins to fill with full-page advertisements from the major studios, rather quaintly 'recommending' or, if they are already successful at the box office, 'congratulating' a particular film or actor.
• See more pictures of David Bowie's career here
The campaign is less of a public service and more a timely reminder to the voting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures, before that mysterious body announces its annual Oscar nominations.
This year, among the leading contenders in the category of Best Supporting Actor is David Bowie, for his role in the critically acclaimed thriller The Prestige.
Playing a portly-looking character in an Edwardian frock coat is just the latest in a seemingly endless series of reincarnations for the artist formerly known as Ziggy Stardust and, later, the Thin White Duke.
Already a veteran of 15 films, countless albums, soundtracks and record-breaking concert tours, he's in no danger of slowing down as he celebrates his 60th birthday today.
As one close friend told me, the word 'frenetic' can't begin to describe Bowie's lifestyle. 'He'll typically have six jobs going at once, and he's a master at blocking out the outside world. Phones ring and messages aren't returned. Texts only occasionally receive replies.
"He'll get around to dealing with what he feels is most important in the pile and he'll always show up for a mate, but basically you join the queue. His energy level is off the scale."
It is this energy and drive which has kept him at the top in rock music for more than 30 years - and it has allowed him to carry off the most remarkable series of character changes and leave many of his contemporaries behind.
But have these changes simply been good examples of astute marketing and showbiz flamboyance, or is there a darker side to Bowie's ever-changing personality, rooted in the history of mental illness which blighted his family?
Born in Brixton, south London, on January 8, 1947, Bowie was christened David Robert Jones. It was another 18 years before he adopted his better known alias, partly in homage to the Texan hero who popularised the double-edged knife, and partly to avoid being confused with Davy Jones of the Monkees.
David's father, John Jones, had a raffish side, and once disastrously owned a London piano bar named The Boop-ADoop, but he seems to have settled down with age, becoming a promotions officer for the charity Barnardo's.
David's mother, Peggy, a former cinema usher, was more colourful. According to several reliable witnesses and institutional records, there was more than a streak of mental instability in her family. Bowie's Aunt Una suffered from clinical depression and schizophrenia, underwent electric shock treatment and died in her late 30s.
A second aunt, Vivienne, suffered a schizophrenic attack, and a third, Nora, was lobotomised in an effort to cure what her mother described as 'bad nerves'.
Of Peggy's two remaining siblings, a brother won a Military Medal for heroism in which he showed 'utter disregard for his own life' in the North African desert, and a fourth sister, Pat (described by Bowie as a 'frightful aunt) was cast as the family rabble-rouser.
In 1937, after a brief affair with a bartender before she was married, Peggy gave birth to a son, Terry Burns. Some ten years later, Terry moved into the Jones household in Stansfield Road, Brixton, where he slept in the bed next to the newborn David.
He became his half-brother's role model, introducing him to the world of modern jazz and Beat authors such as Jack Kerouac. Peggy's sister, Pat, said: "David worshipped Terry, and Terry idolised him."
Unfortunately, the family "condition", as it was known, was again at work. In his mid-20s, Terry was diagnosed as a manic depressive and schizophrenic, and was eventually institutionalised.
One snowy morning in January 1985, he climbed over the wall of a psychiatric hospital in Surrey and walked to the nearby station, where he lay down on the track directly in the path of the oncoming London express train.
Terry was 47. David didn't attend the funeral but sent a wreath of roses and a card which read: "You've seen more things than we could imagine but all these moments will be lost, like tears washed away by the rain. God bless you - David."
Eight years later Bowie admitted: "It scared me. I felt my own mind was in question. I often wondered how near the line I was going - how far I should push myself."
Ziggy and the other characters, he explained, had been "alternative egos", a form of madness through which he had meant to preserve his sanity.
David Bowie never crossed the divide into mental illness. But he shared a number of the quirks shown by his maternal family. He would suddenly burst into tears, for example, and was said to have had a particularly active imagination.
One family friend told me that, as a four or five-year-old, David had phoned to summon the local ambulance one night, and successfully persuaded the operator that he was "dying".
That Bowie was conscious of his heritage seems obvious from the number of songs he wrote touching on lunacy or schizophrenia. Of the Oh! You Pretty Things lyrics, Bowie said: "I hadn't been to an analyst - my parents went, my brothers and sisters and my aunts and uncles and cousins, they did that. They ended up in a much worse state. I thought I'd write my problems out."
Bowie released his first single at the age of 17, as part of a group called The King Bees, in June 1964. In the late Sixties he was a regular performer at the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham, south London.
After a minor success with the 1969 song Space Oddity, Bowie's big break came with his introduction to a 26-year-old litigation clerk and would-be showbusiness agent named Tony DeFries.
Within a few months, he'd transformed Bowie's finances by renegotiating his publishing contract, transferring it from Essex Music to Chrysalis Music for a £5,000 advance, more than £50,000 today.
DeFries set up a company called Titanic Music, to administer a uniquely generous royalty rate of 75 per cent. After shaking hands in the boardroom with DeFries and the three Chrysalis directors, Bowie walked back to Trident Studios in Soho, where he blurted out to the first person he met (the cleaner) that he was "a star". That night at home in Beckenham he is said to have broken down and cried.
DeFries' entrepreneurial skills were matched by Bowie's astonishing sequence of songs, beginning with the 1971 album Hunky Dory. His genius was to take unpromising themes like sexual confusion and set them to catchy tunes.
His accompanying stage persona remains among the best loved, and most frequently imitated, of all his creations.
The Bowie of 1972-3 typically sported a wardrobe of red plastic boots, eyewateringly tight trousers, see-through blouses and glittering, sequinned jackets. The whole ensemble was topped off by a red cockade that became Ziggy's bestknown symbol, and that regularly led the list of great rock haircuts.
Bowie would later dismiss the look as "a cross between Nijinsky and Woolworths", something cobbled together from whatever was lying about.
The Ziggy character seemed to be genderless, an impression Bowie fuelled in a January 1972 interview in which he announced, "I'm gay, and always have been." However, Mary Finnigan, with whom Bowie had an affair in 1969, would insist that "David was more into women than men. Homosexuality with him was more opportunist and contrived." A number of other partners similarly agree that, while physically androgynous, Bowie was as 'straight' as they came.
In March 1970, Bowie married Angela Barnett, who described having met him through a mutual boyfriend whom "we were both f***ing". A year later, she gave birth to a son, whom they named Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones.
Having killed off the Ziggy character, Bowie produced his first No 1 album with the punning title Aladdin Sane. He reinvented himself as a soul singer, then as an unlikely duettist with Bing Crosby.
In 1976, he starred in the critically acclaimed sci-fi film The Man Who Fell To Earth. But another personality reinvention was looming.
Commenting on Britain's latest economic crisis, Bowie told a reporter: "I believe very strongly in Fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that's hanging foul in the air at the moment is to speed up the progress of a Right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over as fast as possible."
Bowie subsequently explained his remarks were "a joke", although days later he treated his fans to a surprising spectacle on his arrival by the Orient Express at Victoria station in London. After the train pulled to a stop, Bowie walked to a waiting opentopped Mercedes, got in, stood up and thrust out his right arm in an apparent Nazi salute.
The Eighties were a quieter, but highly lucrative time for Bowie, who spent much of the decade in tax exile in Switzerland. He divorced Angela, and in 1983, reemerged with his chart-topping album Let's Dance and an accompanying tour, which was seen by three million fans around the world. This netted him £8m.
In 1992, Bowie married the Somalian model and actress Iman Abdul Majid. The couple, who have a young daughter, spend most of their time in New York.
In 1997 Bowie became the first major artist to turn himself into a Wall Street share issue. The so-called 'Bowie bond', which gave investors the chance to own a part of songs such as Rebel Rebel, was an instant sell-out, and reportedly put some £30m in Bowie's bank account.
Despite a personal wealth which is put at more than £100m, Bowie dismisses talk of his retirement.The only thing that could effect his future plans is his health.
There were warning signs in July 2004, when he pulled out of a European concert tour in Germany after complaining of shoulder pain. He underwent emergency surgery for an acutely blocked artery. He blamed the problem - which he later described as a minor heart attack - on years of heavy smoking and touring. He returned to New York to recuperate.
Now recovered, Bowie told friends he might revive his Ziggy Stardust persona. He will be selecting artists and performing at the High Line Festival in New York in May. And although he has made guest appearances with other artists such as David Gilmour and Arcade Fire, it will be his first proper show since his cancelled European tour.
His acting career, however, continues with his role in The Prestige and a guest appearance on Ricky Gervais's comedy series, Extras.
It's curiously tempting to bet on him surprising us all with at least one more of his classic reinventions, particularly as Tony Blair, a known fan, prepares to leave office.
In 2000, he was reported to have turned down the offer of a CBE in the Queen's birthday honours list. But now perhaps, after giving us Ziggy and other characters over the years, could this pop-music chameleon emerge as Sir David Bowie?
• Christopher Sandford's biography Bowie: Loving The Alien, is available in paperback published by Warner Books at £7.99.