Many actors grow old and slow down, like we all do. They appear in fewer and fewer films, and those that do often are stuck in movies that don’t feature their best work, or are unworthy of their talents. Some retire at their peak, such as Cary Grant or Randolph Scott, and live out their remaining decades in wealth and self-imposed privacy. Others keep working in projects of decreasing quality, and their final films are embarrassments best left forgotten (Errol Flynn in Cuban Rebel Girls, anyone? Or Joan Crawford in Trog?)
But some actors die in the saddle, working hard to the end, and if they’re lucky, in movies actually worthy of their talents.
Here are five particularly memorable cinematic swan songs. All five actors were either dying when they made their final films, or (in Oliver Reed’s case) died during filming. This adds a poignancy to their work, certainly, but doesn’t detract from the fact that these men went out on a high note, delivering performances that rank alongside their very best.
John Wayne in The Shootist (1976)
In a rare case of real life/reel life synchronicity, the inimitable "Duke" Wayne -- himself losing his battle with the Big C, as he called it -- plays J.B. Books, a notorious gunfighter also slowly succumbing to the disease. All Books wants to do is live out his final days in peace and quiet, but his reputation won’t allow it.
The Shootist is a fine western as well as a character study of a tough-minded yet courteous man who demands respect and exits life on his own terms.
Wayne gives one of his best performances. He’s still a big, big presence on screen, but he’s understated and rueful here, and is surrounded by a veteran supporting cast, including Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Hugh O’Brien, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, John Carradine and Ron Howard. The film is understandably set-bound and sometimes feels a bit like a glorified TV movie, despite having experienced director Don Seigel at the helm. However, the script and acting are strong and it’s a fitting and fond farewell to a true screen legend.
Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
Stanley Kramer’s heartfelt film -- about upper class white parents (Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) dealing with the sudden news of their daughter’s impending marriage to a black man -- has garnered an unfair reputation as an outdated, square piece of work. But whatever you might think of the film as a whole (I find it a charming, funny and observant film), few are likely to find fault with Spencer Tracy’s performance as put-upon, acerbic father Matt Drayton. Tracy is great throughout the film, but his final, 7-minute speech is outstanding. He clearly is pouring out his heart to Hepburn, the “real world” love of his life, and every note and every emotional beat comes through clear and true.
Old and grey at 67, Spencer Tracy still had what it takes.
Apparently, Columbia Pictures were so nervous about Tracy’s bad health, Hepburn and Kramer put their salaries in escrow to the studio in order to get the picture completed. Tracy died shortly after filming finished.
Watching the film now, you’d never tell he was so ill. His natural gravitas and comedic timing shine through. As he so often was throughout his career, here Tracy is the solid anchor that grounds the film, the star around which all the other actors revolve.
Massimo Troisi in Il Postino (The Postman) (1994)
Massimo Troisi literally gave his life to make Il Postino. In this charming Italian import, Troisi plays a rural postman who strikes up an unlikely friendship with exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Phillip Noiret).
Troisi postponed desperately-needed heart surgery in order to complete the film. So weak he could only film for an hour each day, Troisi persisted to the end, and died only a few hours after finishing his last scene. He was only 41.
Watching the movie now, it’s obvious that Troisi was not a well man, but he gives a very fine performance, delicate and human and quietly funny. Was the resulting movie worth this talented man’s life? He obviously thought so.
Oliver Reed in Gladiator (2000)
Gladiator marked the return of the great Oliver Reed back to the A-leagues where he belongs. As Proxima, the ex-gladiator turned ludus who takes our hero Maximus (Russell Crowe) to Rome, Reed got a belated chance to show modern audiences the sort of robust performance that used to be his norm back in the 60s and 70s, before the excesses of alcohol and bad behavior burned one too many bridges and ran his career into the ground.
In a classic case of going out in the style to which he was accustomed, Reed died in a bar. He was on location in Malta, having a long lunch and indulging in his favorite pastimes -- boozing and brawling. He had been drinking a ridiculous amount of alcohol, and bested several men much younger than himself in arm wrestling bouts – when he suddenly keeled over dead from a massive heart attack. He was 61. Director Ridley Scott managed to rescue his performance in the editing room and the result was a posthumous Best Supporting Actor nomination. Reed was a man who always lived life full-throttle and one could hardly think of a more fitting way for him to shuffle off this mortal coil. His final performance shows his fierce talent undiminished.
Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green (1973)
This dystopian sci-fi film is today most famous for its (endlessly parodied) final punchline (“Soylent green is people!”), but it remains a gripping “what if?” experience and deserves a serious reappraisal. Charlton Heston (very good, as usual) is the star, but Edward G. Robinson is the movie’s heart and soul.
Robinson has many fine moments in the film, but there are two standouts. One is the scene where Detective Thorn (Heston) has raided rich murder victim Joseph Cotton’s refrigerator and brought home the spoils to his roommate, Sol -- a piece of beef and 2 sad little apples, supplies only the extremely wealthy can afford in this overcrowded future.
Robinson is so good here, first breaking down in tears at the sight of fresh food, something he hasn't seen since he was a young boy.
Later, Sol lovingly prepares a meal for Thorn. In a cute bit, Robinson picks up an apple, looks at it wonderingly for a moment, then slowly rubs it on his shirt. Heston copies him with his own apple, then takes a big crunchy bite. Sol's teeth can't handle it; he gnaws on the apple for a while before attacking it with a plastic knife.
This scene is not only a showcase for some excellent acting, it's also a perfect example of economical storytelling, fleshing out this grungy, spartan future world with a few light brushstrokes. The scene is joyfully played, a bright ray of sunshine in an otherwise dark, grim film.
The other highlight is Robinson’s poetic exit from the movie, as Sol allows himself to be “processed” by the faceless corporation in order to lead Thorn to the fateful secret behind the conspiracy. Beautifully shot and edited, this scene is likely to stay with you long after the final credits have rolled, and becomes even more powerful when one realizes that Robinson died 10 days after shooting on the movie finished.
Any other valedictory performances I missed? Let me know in the comments.
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