In Jean-Luc Godard’s classic Breathless (1960), a noted writer (played by a noted film director, Jean-Pierre Melville) is asked what his greatest ambition in life is. “To become immortal…and then die,” he responds. Death catches up with us all, but actors who have lived on celluloid have a greater shot at achieving lasting notoriety. Indeed, they can get a few more chances even after their passing.
Paul Walker, who died in a car crash this past November, was seen post-mortem in the Hurricane Katrina-themed drama Hours and lingers a few more minutes with us in the action-packed Brick Mansions, which opens April 25th. James Gandolfini, who did not live long enough to enjoy gratifying success as a romantic lead in last year’s Enough Said, goes out with another wiseguy credit, The Drop, to be released in September. Philip Seymour Hoffman completed most of his scenes as Plutarch Heavensbee in the two-part finale of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, which means we’ll be seeing him onscreen in November 2015, almost two years after his death in February. That’s a lengthy span, until you consider the five years it took the psychological thriller Something Wicked, starring the late Brittany Murphy, to hit a few screens earlier this month.
Final Acts of Genius
Some actors we recall from that final memorable role before the fade out to “The End.” The Dark Knight (2008) ends ambiguously for the evil Joker, as Batman subdues him. But death had claimed actor Heath Ledger months before its opening; shortly after, he would win a posthumous supporting actor Oscar for the part, only the second actor to do so. The first, Peter Finch, met a bitter end in the finale of the bleakly satirical Network (1976), as a famously “mad as hell” TV newsman assassinated on air to boost ratings. Promoting the film with its director, Sidney Lumet, he collapsed from a heart attack at the Beverly Hills Hotel, dying in the filmmaker’s arms. He made a poignant bit of Oscar history two months later, winning Best Actor at the 1977 ceremony.
The Most Famous Rebel
James Dean, dead in a car crash at age 24 in 1955, received two posthumous Oscar nominations—the only performer to date with that dubious distinction. The first was for his starring debut in East of Eden (1955), the second for his third and final role, in the epic Giant (1956). It’s one of the most compelling swan songs, as we see the “rebel without a cause” (his second, icon-defining role) age from a callow youth in the Texas oil fields to a middle-aged oil magnate, with his hair shaved and dyed gray to suggest the passage of time. His last scene, a drunken speech at a banquet, is a fascinating glimpse of what might have been.
Passing Before Passing
Some actors “died” onscreen (and put an end to their careers) as they lived on offscreen. John Wayne chose to go out with The Shootist (1976), which begins with clips of the actor in his earliest cowboy roles, and ends with his ailing gunfighter being gunned down in a saloon shootout, after dispatching a trio of varmints. A 78-year-old Clint Eastwood chose a similar exit in Gran Torino (2008)—then returned from this presumed acting career summation to play a baseball scout in 2012’s Trouble with the Curve. (Fans are hopeful that Sean Connery, offscreen since 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Gene Hackman, who called it quits after 2004’s Welcome to Mooseport, might make one more film to end on a higher note than those mediocre credits.)
Death & Co.
Katharine Hepburn accompanied two legends to their final resting place on Turner Classic Movies. Her famed relationship with Spencer Tracy, onscreen and off, ended after 26 years and nine films with the hit comedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), a taxing shoot for the actor, who could only work a few hours a day and died just weeks after the filming. (It yielded his ninth Oscar nomination, a posthumous one; she won her second Oscar for the movie.) Somehow Hepburn had never worked with Henry Fonda over their long and distinguished careers, but that was corrected in time for Fonda’s last feature film, 1981’s On Golden Pond, another smash. Like Dinner, it ends with her warmly united with her co-star after earlier tension, and, like Dinner, it won her another Oscar, along with Fonda, his first. At age 86 she ended her feature career in 1994 with Love Affair, saying “f**k a duck” to Warren Beatty.
Leftovers Made Good
Some actors have defied death for a final credit. A few scraps of footage Bela Lugosi shot for the notorious no-budget director Ed Wood before his passing in 1956 ended up in Wood’s bad, beloved Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), with the actor’s undefined “role” augmented by the filmmaker’s poorly disguised chiropractor. (The episode was replayed in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic, Ed Wood.) Bruce Lee went the stand-in route for 1978’s Game of Death, completed five years after his untimely death.
By the 1990s special effects had improved to allow his son, Brandon, a smoother, if no less tragic, exit in The Crow (1994), as an undead guitarist, allegedly killed by mobsters, finally laid to rest with the fiancée whose murder he had been avenging. The film was released a year after the actor had died in an accidental shooting on set. Digital effects helped filmmakers complete Oliver Reed’s role in the Oscar-winning Gladiator (2000); the same will resurrect Philip Seymour Hoffman for one Mockingjay scene, and revive Paul Walker for next year’s Fast & Furious 7, his final spin in the franchise.
In the End, There's Only Love
One recent exit stands out for its tenderness. The hit Bridesmaids (2011) is a spiritual cousin to movies like An Unmarried Woman (1978) and Starting Over (1979), and features their star, Jill Clayburgh, in a supporting role as Kristen Wiig’s mother, completed not long before her death from leukemia in 2010. After a few testy exchanges early on, they embrace. In Clayburgh’s final scene onscreen, Wiig holds her close and says, “I love you, mom”—the perfect ending.