…Thinking About the Last Films of 10 Great Actors / Directors
I started off wanting to make a list of the 10 greatest last roles of famous actors but since there were a couple of not-so-famous actors I wanted to include – and a director and some not-so-great movies – I had to compromise a bit. Still, I did try to limit the list specifically to those who only left behind finished films and died not long after the film was completed, but reality dictated that I make some exceptions, as did the fact that it would mean I would have to omit some great actors or great films.
This list is in chronological order only and, as always, if there’s any you think I missed, go ahead and say so.
Last Films: Rebel Without a Cause (1955); Giant (1956)
Unlike many others here, James Dean didn’t live long enough to see himself become a real, bona fide, star. Before his death in a tragic traffic accident – his last words were “That guy’s gotta stop… He’ll see us” – he made but three films, only one of which, East of Eden, was released while he was alive. Though he never tasted real stardom, he’s since become an icon.
Picked out of a stage play by Elia Kazan, Dean proved himself at once a talent to be reckoned with. In East of Eden, he doesn’t merely play Cal Trask, the sensitive misguided son who only wants his father’s love and approval, he is Cal Trask. He inhabits the part so well that it is almost as if his vulnerability and pain were real. Helping to solidify the illusion is that his father in the film was played by Raymond Massey, best known and stereotyped from his work in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. That Abe Lincoln himself would reject his son’s love makes it all the more crushing.
His next film, Rebel Without A Cause, was not a great leap from East of Eden. Rather, his role there was almost an extension of Cal Trask, only this time it was played to its absolute perfection. From these two movies alone one is witnessing the birth of something special. It’s too bad, then, that Dean died no more than a month before it opened, just after he finished work on Giant.
Giant, sadly, is not the kind of movie one wishes that Dean didn’t go out on. Even though he earned a second Oscar nod – the first being for East of Eden, both posthumous nominations – his performance is a bit shallow and one note and while the movie is enjoyable, the essence of Dean is hardly there. I’d like to believe this was due to his dying before he was through filming his scenes, and that his best scenes were yet to come, but the truth is he’d finished filming and this is the way his part was always supposed to be.
Sometimes I wonder if, given the choice between a long life of poverty and professional failure and complete anonymity through the rest of time, or meteoric success and quick death, what would the choice be? Life or immortality? Dean did not have a choice. Instead his number was called for him but somebody who lived as he did, driving fast and pushing himself to the limit, one can imagine that he might have had it no other way.
Last Film: The Misfits (1961)
When he died, Clark Gable was one of the last of the old-style movie-stars left. Chiseled, gruff and tough looking, he specialized in playing swarthy, slightly amoral men who were nevertheless tender at heart. Curiously, he almost didn’t make it. Daryl F. Zanuck, the head of Warner Bros., thought he looked like an ape and it’s not surprising that when he first made his name it was in tough-guy roles.
He didn’t transition out of tough-guy roles until Thalberg loaned him to Columbia, where he promptly starred in It Happened One Night, winning an academy award and doing damage to undershirt sales everywhere. From there it was another nomination for Mutiny On The Bounty and then the role that would assure him long-lasting fame, as Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. It’s a role you can’t imagine anyone else playing.
After GWTW he continued to make films of varying quality, joined the Air Force for World War II and flew combat missions in Europe, then returned to form his own production company.
His last film was John Huston’s The Misfits, opposite Eli Wallach – a real treat in anything he’s in – and the doomed pair of Marilyn Monroe Montgomery Clift. Playing the aging, jaded cowboy Gay, Gable seemed to shrug off the two decades of mediocrity that followed him since GWTW and he returned to peak form, using he reputation to good effect. In a role that could have easily called for overplaying and scenery-chewing, he brought sudtelty and warmth and many people believe he was at his finest here. It’s said that even Gable agreed.
Sadly, Gable would have a heart attack just after the end of filming and would die inside of two weeks. That he was only 59 years makes it obvious just what the true toll of all his hard-living was. Still, his work in The Misfits is a fitting monument to a great career.
Last Film: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
When I think of Spencer Tracy, Father of the Bride is the first thing in mind and it seems that he specialized in playing a certain sort of grumpy, befuddled, yet ultimately sweet, father-figure. But really, he excelled in everything. He was wonderful as Father Flanagan in Boy’s Town – which won him his second Oscar – brought real gravitas to his role as the judge overseeing the Nazi war crimes trials in Judgment at Nuremberg and was magnificent going toe-to-toe with Fredrick March in Inherit the Wind.
A devout catholic who refused to divorce his wife even though he was the longtime companion of Katharine Hepburn, it’s somewhat fitting that his last role in Guess Who’s Come to Dinner, after a four-year hiatus from movies, paired him with Ms. Hepburn. It was also the last film he would make, dying of a heart attack three weeks after filming ended.
In many ways it’s tough to judge Tracy’s performance in Guess Who and to decide if it’s really of a kind to stand the test of time. His performance is so much like everything else he did that it’s almost ordinary. The real impact of his performance was the fact that a man of his stature lent himself to what was – at least in the context of the day – such a radical drama. And even if he’s not extraordinary in it in no way takes away from it.
4. Peter Finch (1916-1977)
Last Film: Network (1976)
Peter Finch was never really a star in the United States. In fact, given his resume and that his most prominent American picture prior to Network was the disastrous musical Lost Horizon, it’s safe to assume that he was entirely unknown here. Still, he was a winner of 5 BAFTAs (the British Academy Awards), so it’s not as if he was a nobody.
The only role American’s remember Finch for, though, is his last. In 1976 he played the part of Howard K. Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves– and precursor to all insane daytime talk shows – in Network. He chewed the scenery well, wandered in and out, and was charming in the few moments where he was also not a raving lunatic, and he was a certainty for Oscar recognition. Ironically, it was in the middle of stumping for an Oscar nomination that he had the heart attack that killed him.
Normally, when a person dies they are mourned but legend has it that William Holden, Finch’s costar in Network – and the obvious leading role in the filme – reacted to Finch winning the Oscar over Holden himself with anger, blaming his own loss on Finch’s death. Saying that he lost out of some sympathy to the dead man is a bit tacky and reeks of sour grapes and it may not be true, but watching the film now, it feels like it should be true. After all, Finch has the showy role but it’s mostly one-note and seems better suited for the supporting actor category. Holden, on the other hand, does the real heavy lifting in the film and perhaps if Finch had been nominated there and Holden won, as he assumed he would, Network would have the first film to sweep all four acting awards.
As it was, Beale really couldn’t have been played by anybody else and arguing over who should have won takes nothing away from his work. It’s the people in the academy that screw things up, not the guy in the movie.
Last Film: The Deer Hunter (1978)
The least well known man on this list is John Cazale but pound for pound, his resume is the most impressive. During his life he made five films, everyone a best picture nominee.
From the beginning Cazale really seemed to specialize in weak and weak-willed men easily his most-recognizable, as Fredo Corleone, the overlooked middle-child, in The Godfather. Though something of an afterthought in the Corleone family – and at Oscar time – Fredo, and Cazale, form the heart of Godfather I and II and it is with his death, murdered on the orders of his brother, when the audience truly understands that Michael Corleone has in fact sold his soul to the devil and it’s all going to hell from here.
Cazale may not have burned very brightly or needed the spotlight to succeed, but he also didn’t go in for the scenery-chewing showiness and penchant for overplaying that would plague Al Pacino – comparing Pacino’s early roles to his work today you would almost say that in The Godfather he was catatonic. He simply brought a sense of verisimilitude to the films that few other actors had and was the consummate supporting player.
By the time he made The Deer Hunter with his lover at that time, Meryl Streep, he was already suffering from the cancer that would kill him. Director Michael Cimino rearranged the shooting schedule to accommodate his illness and he died shortly after his work was finished, before the film had even completed production.
Though he was hardly prolific in his short film career – five roles, six years – he was still a young man when he died and one can’t help but imagine what he would have become had he lived and the way movies might have been forever altered.
6. Henry Fonda (1905-1982)
Last Film: On Golden Pond (1981)
Today Henry Fonda remains a very well-known actor, even though he only seems to be remembered for two films: The Grapes of Wrath and Once Upon A Time In The West.
Before coming to Hollywood Fonda was an actor on Broadway and his big break in films came in The Farmer Takes a Wife, repeating a role he’d already played on stage. This role, and others, lead him to play Tom Joad, the ex-con radicalized by the depression. Though he was nominated for an academy award for his portrayal, he lost the award to longtime pal, Jimmy Stewart.
Perhaps the academy overlooked him because they were trying to make it up to Stewart for losing out with Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, or perhaps they thought Fonda would have his chance. Whatever the reason, Fonda went another 40 years before he had another bite at the cherry. (That he was the nominated produce on 12 Angry Men hardly seems to count).
At the 1980 academy awards – presented in 1981 – Fonda was given the honorary Oscar but Fonda clearly didn’t want to go out like that, given his gold watch and shoved out the door. No, he was clearly hanging on until he got a competitive Oscar and with On Golden Pond, it finally happened. Already in fragile health when daughter Jane bought the project for her father to star in, he gave a tough, yet vulnerable performance in what is clearly the best performance in an otherwise gooey and sentimental film that seems more cut out for the movie-of-the-week circuit that the cinema.
When he won the Oscar he was too feeble to collect it on his own, daughter Jane went instead and finally having that competitive award to put on the shelf, after so long a career, made it clear that there was nothing left in life he had to do. He stuck around for another few months to enjoy the glory and then, that was that.
Last Films: Enter the Dragon (1973) & The Crow (1994)
Like so many others, the father and son Lee’s never had a chance to really taste stardom. Of the two, Bruce came closest, thanks to TV appearances, notably asKato in the Batman and Green Hornet TV shows. But while he came closest, neither father nor son lived long enough to actually see the release of their iconic roles, dying tragically – Bruce from brain swelling just one month prior to his films release, Brandon from a malfunctioning prop gun near the completion of his – before they could enjoy their glory.
Despite the fact that both of their final movies have become iconic, neither are what you could call ‘quality.’ In Enter the Dragon Bruce is sent undercover by an intelligence organization to infiltrate a drug and prostitution ring on an island owned by a man staging a martial arts championship. The Crow is a much simpler story: man rises from the dead to avenge his own murder and once justice is done he returns from whence he came. Despite being largely lowbrow, and not really acted all that well by either Lee, each movie was made with a certain sense of style and even if the stories in each are somewhat lackluster or rote, they are immensely enjoyable. However, given the unrelentingly grim nature of The Crow, I wonder what would have happened to it had Brandon’s death not enhanced its profile with a certain macabre appeal.
It’s worth noting that Enter the Dragon was not technically Bruce’s last film. He was stitched into Game of Death I and II but I think it’s best to ignore such blasphemy and agree that Enter the Dragon is properly his last film.
Last Film: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Stanley Kubrick was never a man who could be accused of working fast. Demanding take after take from his actors, sometimes over the most mundane sequences, it’s no surprise that as his career progressed the gap between films widened from one every other year, to one every few years, to seven years and finally twelve at the end. But to Kubrick, filmmaking wasn’t a race and true quality was bred from absolute precision, not speed. If you doubt this assesment, watching The Making of The Shining, made by his daughter.
Hardly surprising then, that his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, had a gargantuan shoot – in production for over 15 months, including 46 weeks in a row – it predated the birth of my first child and didn’t appear until she was two years old. Also unsurprising was how it was swathed in secrecy, also a Kubrick requirement. With such secrecy surrounding a mammoth project from a man who hadn’t directed anything in years, anticipation was high and details were scarce. What was the movie about? Were Cruise and Kidman playing married psychiatrists having affairs with their patients? Was he finally making that adaptation of Blue Movie that he’d contemplated in the late 60s? Nobody knew and there were rumors enough to fill movie after movie in themselves.
When he delivered EWS to WB in 1999, reportedly his final cut, he promptly dropped dead which, given the mixed and hostile reaction to the film at the time, the weird controversy sparked by R. Lee Ermey’s comments over Stanley’s view of the film, and the ludicrous digital censorship in the orgy sequence, might have been for the best. Even if, ten years on the debate still rages and many of those who hated it, initially, have come around to see it for what it is
I like to think that, given how soon after the film was finished he died, that the film itself was keeping him alive. That somehow he knew that if he could make it last forever, he might live forever and that would explain the monstrously-long shoot. However, for a man like Kubrick, who’s body of work already assured him immortality, this seems unlikely. And even if Eyes Wide Shut might not have been his best film – I’m partial to Barry Lyndon, myself, though I also adore The Shining – but even the lesser works of a genius are something to behold.
10. Heath Ledger (1979-2008)
Last Film: The Dark Knight (2008)
In a sense, Heath Ledger doesn’t really belong on this list because The Dark Knight wasn’t truly his last film, that was The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Even so, given that Dr. P will likely turn out to be another Gilliam’s oddball pieces-of-crap, and given the pure, demented glee that was his Joker, it only seems fitting to bend the rules a tad and include him.
Even if his early films were not great, and many were downright dreadful, Ledger showed promise from the beginning. He was solid The Patriot, rose above both Monster’s Ball and A Knight’s Tale (even though that film had a certain kind of sily fun to it), was very good in the under-looked Ned Kelly and made Ennis Del Mar into the king of the silent, brooding heroes in Brokeback Mountain, almost without having to say a thing.
What makes his turn as the Joker something special is, in some ways, what the audience brings to the film. Crime and criminals are inherently frightening people for the simple fact that they do not act in logical, rational ways and refuse to make sense. Society tends to want to try to understand criminals and criminal behavior because by doing so you can take the real menace out of crime, make it mundane and something that can be cured. But Ledger doesn’t simply sit on audience expectations to give his performance depth. A lazy actor might have, but he did not and it is his performance of the Joker, as a primal animal, doing things for the pure anarchy of it, that makes his villain truly frightening. And while some might say his academy award was an award for dying – the second man to win a posthumous academy award – I defy anybody find a better performance.