The highs, lows, and hmmmms that followed some of Hollywood’s most exclamatory exits…
Actor Paul Walker died on November 30th, 2013, but we have yet to see his last performance(s). Fast and Furious 7, which was filming when he passed, is still to come, but this week marks the release of his final complete starring role, in Brick Mansions - a remake of the French parkour film District 13. One more action role isn’t likely to change our impression of poor Paul all that much, but it does seem like a good occasion to think about some other final roles that came to define their performers (for better or worse).
James Dean: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Dean starred in three classics within quick succession – East of Eden (which garnered an Academy Award nomination), Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant – only the first of which had been released theatrically by the time of his death-by-Spyder (the Porsche, not the arachnid). The combined success of both Rebel and Giant confirmed what people already suspected: the world had lost a major talent. And EVERYONE looks cooler when they smoke.
Orson Welles: Transformers: The Movie (1986)
Citizen Kane is widely considered one of the greatest motion pictures ever made – but it was also the last film over which Welles had anything resembling creative control. By the ‘70s and ‘80s the O Man had slumped into a rotund figure of ridicule (case in point: the infamous wine ad in which he goes method/super drunk). Welles’ final role, in this animated Transformers offering, has him reduced to voicing the super bad bot, Unicron. Still…it was a Shia LaBeouf-free production, so that’s a plus.
Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath’s first “serious” role, in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, gave us a sexy cowboy-on-cowboy taste of the range we had not previously seen from him, so it was not a complete shock to learn that the star of A Knight’s Tale could also pull off something with a little more weight. But it was a knight of a darker shade that showed the world how horrifying a makeup-loving murderer could be. Speculation was rampant after the 28-year-old actor was found dead of a prescription pill overdose before the film’s release, but there was no need for shallow psychology; his death was a mistake, a tragedy, and hardly the result of an actor becoming too entrenched in playing a dark character. If there’s a lesson here, it’s this: Don’t underestimate an artist before it’s too late. And also, maybe, just maybe, Jack Nicholson’s take on the role was less avant-garde, and a little more over-acty, after all.
John Candy: Wagons East! (1994)
This Western comedy co-starred a dismal Richard Lewis, and currently holds a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – in part because the film was interrupted by Candy’s fatal heart attack, but its reputation would have been bad even in ideal circumstances. Like Bruce Lee’s Game of Death before it, Wagons East! attempted to get around the problem of its deceased co-star by recycling old footage, and the results are a bizarre mess of mismatched shots and awkward edits. And yet, despite the quality of the film, people would continue to remember Big John fondly in his greatest roles rather than for the poor choice he’d made at the very end. Also? There just might be a curse attached to overweight comedians starring in westerns.
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