When looking at the past, we always remember the bright bits. When speaking about our favourite actors, it’s the Oscar winners, the blockbusters or the indie gems we recall. It’s rare that the focus shifts upon their curtain calls. For our latest Top 10, we’re placing the spotlight on these performances – whether for their quality or to shed light on the sometimes sad finales of these glittery stars.
10. Gene Hackman – Welcome to Mooseport (2004)
Don’t worry, Gene Hackman isn’t dead, but his film career sadly is. It has been 11 years since the actor last appeared, in the critically mauled Welcome to Mooseport. Hackman plays former US president Monroe “Eagle” Cole, who moves to the small Northeastern coastal town to retire, yet eventually runs for mayor. His opposition is a seemingly unassuming hardware store owner (Ray Romano), who quickly proves to be a wildly popular candidate. The reasons behind Hackman’s retirement were revealed after last-shot flick Runaway Jury. After his last scene, he went drinking with longtime friend and co-star Dustin Hoffman, who regales how Hackman said: “Today is so nutty… it’s just going to be epic things, four dimension, seats moving and Smell-o-Vision. It’s perfect timing for me [to wind down a career], because I’m 77.” A voiceover job for The Wolf of Wall Street never came to fruition, but luckily there’s one hell of a back catalogue to enjoy.
9. John Wayne – The Shootist (1976)
The Shootist is a fitting finale to the all-American Western giant. John Wayne’s final film performance has an unerring similarity to his real-life situation. Wayne plays J. B. Books, a dying gunfighter, who is using his last days to find a way to die with a minimum of pain and a maximum of dignity. At this point, the six-pack-a-day man had already lost a lung and several ribs to lung cancer, and would ultimately die from stomach cancer three years after production ended. There’s a beautiful poetry in this, and The Shootist is a remarkably suitable ending to a film career that began in 1926.
8. Judy Garland – I Could Go On Singing (1963)
Now from the beautifully poetic, we turn to the tragically ironic with Judy Garland. In her last film, Garland is Jenny Bowman, a successful singer who, while on an engagement at the London Palladium, visits David Donne (Dirk Bogarde) to see her son again, spending a few glorious days with him while his father is away in Rome. It’s an attempt to attain the family that she never had. The film was blasted upon release, but Garland’s performance shines through. Despite successful TV shows, Garland never made it back to the silver screen. Her poor health and depression soon took over, leading to her suicide through an overdose of barbiturates. We’ll always have classic moments, like the above, to remember her by.
7. Marlon Brando – The Score (2001)
Marlon Brando was an exceedingly talented actor. The Godfather, Superman, On the Waterfront and Apocalypse Now are giants of the world of cinema. It’s likely that Marlon Brando knew this. When you’ve achieved the best, why do you need to keep trying? This seems to be his lead motivation in Frank Oz’s The Score. The tales of Brando’s behaviour on set are at once shocking and unsurprising. For example, during filming breaks, Brando would walk around the set naked because of the warm weather. The actor actually refused to wear trousers for his scenes, hence every shot of his is taken from the chest up. The stories from the set make for a more intriguing time than the film itself, but this is still worth a watch just to see Robert De Niro and Brando riffing off each other.
6. Marilyn Monroe – Something’s Got To Give (1962)
Something’s Got To Give was a disastrous shoot. An incomplete, delay-ravaged, over-budget film that featured Marilyn Monroe’s final performance. The signs looked bleak from the off. Monroe had not been seen on the screen for over a year as she fought personal demons and poor health. She suffered from illness throughout the film’s production, but frustrated director George Cukor and the studio when she sang the infamous ‘Happy Birthday’ to President John F. Kennedy while considering herself too ill to shoot. Out of 33 shooting days, Marilyn showed up on the set only 12 times. Soon after, she was fired. One month later, Monroe was found dead of an apparent suicide in her Brentwood home, and the film was abandoned. There’s still some Monroe excellence on show in the 30-odd minutes salvaged, but it’s rough and we’re just left with an almighty sense of what might have been.
5. Vincent Price – Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Vincent Price defined the horror genre of the 1950s and ’60s. His witty, villainous turns made him a cult icon, which made him the perfect fit for his final film, Edward Scissorhands. Tim Burton wrote the role for his hero, and the actor dutifully repays him. It’s a magical, heartbreaking turn from Price and it’s a marvel it occurred at all. At this point Price was deeply ill with emphysema following a lifelong smoking habit, as well as a severe affliction with Parkinson’s disease. The role was intended to be much longer, but the American actor’s health inhibited this. That being said, this is a wondrous final showing from a classic actor.
4. Bruce Lee – Game of Death (1978)
You’re probably aware of that famous yellow tracksuit. An iconic moment within ’70s cinema, yet its power must be connected to the untimely death of Bruce Lee. At just 32, and at the height of his cultural relevance, the martial artist passed away. With only minimal footage, the filmmakers aimed to capitalise upon the success of Enter the Dragon. The film they created is an oddity, with the sustained concern that it’s exploiting Lee’s death. Steve McQueen, George Lazenby, James Coburn and Muhammad Ali all refused roles in the film because of this. They were probably right to do so. At one point, real footage of Lee’s corpse in his open-topped casket is used to show the character Billy Lo faking his death. It gets worse as there is even a scene, taking place in Billy Lo’s dressing room, where a cut-out of Lee’s face was taped to a mirror, covering the stand-in’s face. All that being said, Lee’s final film – despite his minimal presence – remains truly iconic.
3. Ethel Merman – Airplane! (1980)
Ethel Merman: “The undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage”. The American actress was a stalwart in Broadway musicals for nearly four decades. Many of the biggest showtunes today got their big moment through her powerful, belting mezzo-soprano voice, precise enunciation and pitch. The likes of ‘Anything Goes’,’There’s No Business Like Show Business’, ‘I Got Rhythm’, ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ and ‘It’s De-Lovely’ all hit the big time thanks to Merman. Wonderfully, her final performance came in the spoof Airplane!, where she played a shell-shocked solider who thought he was Ethel Merman. The perfect encapsulation of a career. Surely every actor would wish to bow out in such a perfect manner.
2. Oliver Reed – Gladiator (2000)
Oliver Reed was one of the original Hellraisers. A womaniser, incredible drinker, and an uproarious individual who remained ever-popular. In a career full of triumphant performances, it must be the one released after his death that deserves the most recognition. As the compelling Antonius Proximo, Reed funnels his years of experience, pain and unending charm to deliver a wondrous turn. His performance becomes increasingly accomplished, considering Reed’s death through heart attack halfway through filming. The team wanted to keep Reed in, and spent a sizable $3.2 million digitally mapping the actor’s face onto mannequins and body doubles. This is especially impressive considering the technology available at the turn of the century. The only great shame is the absence of a well deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars. They just don’t make ’em like they used to.
1. Peter Finch – Network (1976)
There was only going to be one choice for the top. Before the unending praise of the late Peter Finch begins, read what Paddy Chayefsky gives the actor:
I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.
All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.
You’ve gotta say, “I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!”
So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell,
“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
This is beautiful active tense rhetoric. An actor’s dream. It’s powerful, it’s moving, and even four decades on, the text holds relevance. The potential is realised above and beyond by Peter Finch. This furious, manic and unhinged speech from exhausted news anchor Howard Beale is cinematic perfection. Even if you haven’t seen Network, you will have heard this speech. Finch’s unforgettable turn is a blistering masterclass in rage and subtlety. Through Finch, Sidney Lumet captures a timeless snapshot of an angry America post-Vietnam. The first winner of a posthumous Oscar, and a wholly deserved one. This is a final performance for the ages.
That’s our Top 10. We could have easily done 20 or 30 touching on the great (Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus or James Gandolfini in The Drop), to the strange (James Stewart in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West or Orson Welles in The Transformers: The Movie). Who else did we miss? What do you have?