RSS Feed

A Menagerie of Memorable Last Films

Posted on

Obviously, actors don’t usually know when the final film of their career is coming. If they did, Jimmy Stewart wouldn’t have gone out on “The Magic of Lassie,” and Gene Kelly wouldn’t have said yes to “Xanadu.” But here are some final films that I find particularly memorable.

RICHARD HARRIS

(HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, 2002)

Perhaps it was his reputation as a scalawag intermingling with the role, but I always thought Harris imbued Dumbledore with a deep sense of danger and mystery, beyond the plot of the movie. This is by no means a slap at the work of Michael Gambon, who took over the part in subsequent Harry Potter films.

HEATH LEDGER

(THE DARK KNIGHT, 2008)

Purists may argue this wasn’t his last film, since he did appear later in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” To my thinking, however, “Imaginarium” wasn’t a full performance and shouldn’t be considered as such. His Joker, on the other hand – that was a complete performance. And an amazing one, too.

MARILYN MONROE & CLARK GABLE

(THE MISFITS, 1961)

Such an odd twosome, yet it worked here. What’s more, these were fitting roles for their last film: he’s full of craggy, manly force and she’s a volcano of vulnerability.

PAUL ROBESON

(TALES OF MANHATTAN, 1942)

This selection requires some explanation. It’s an episodic film about how a fancy suit with tails comes into various lives and has some unusual effect. Some parts of it are quite good, but then we get to the great performer Robeson’s episode. He’s a poor rural farmer who finds the suit, which is full of money. Robeson came to see his role in this film as playing into an African American stereotype and spoke out vehemently against it. He never acted in another film.

HENRY FONDA

(ON GOLDEN POND, 1981)

Fonda ended a fine movie career with this emotional crowd pleaser, which he knocked out of the park. Of course, he was helped nicely by Katharine Hepburn and his daughter, Jane. The old poop got an Oscar for it, too.

INGRID BERGMAN

(AUTUMN SONATA, 1978)

What a lucky break for serious movie fans that Ingrid Bergman, one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the screen, got to end her career this way. She’s a high-achieving pianist who has a soul-searching visit with her two grown daughters. Ingmar Bergman wrote and directed.

RICHARD BURTON

(NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, 1984)

Burton is simply terrific as the intense interrogator, O’Brien, in this version of George Orwell’s famous novel of humanity amid totalitarianism. Those eyes, that voice…

WILLIAM POWELL

(MISTER ROBERTS, 1955)

As the ship doctor aboard a cargo vessel in World War II, Powell had a chance here to hint at all the things that had made him a great leading man from the silent era right on through the Depression. He was wise, he was funny and he was on the side of the angels.

MADGE SINCLAIR

(THE LION KING, 1994)

So what if it’s an animated film? Madge Sinclair was a class act, and her vocal performance helped give “The Lion King” deep emotional resonance. She played Simba’s mom.

PETER FINCH

(NETWORK, 1976)

Iconic part in an iconic movie. Finch was the crazed, network anchorman Howard Beale, whose deranged antics on camera proved to be a sage warning of things to come in our profit-obsessed culture of today. He was “mad as hell,” and so were we.

JAMES DEAN

(GIANT, 1956)

This is a big, melodramatic story about rival Texas ranchers fighting over money and women. Dean plays a guy named, I kid you not, Jett Rink. Also starring Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, “Giant” is full to bursting with 1950s hubris.

JEAN ARTHUR

(SHANE, 1953)

Among other things, “Shane” was about people wishing their lives were different, yet sticking with the roles the world handed them. Jean Arthur’s character, a frontier wife and mom who may or may not be in love with noble gunslinger Shane, was no different. Arthur was one of the best comic actresses of her era, yet she played this role completely straight.

RANDOLPH SCOTT

(RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, 1962)

The modern Western film began right here. Scott and Joel McCrea play former partners who must take a shipment of gold through some sketchy territory. Turns out Scott is kind of sketchy, too. This movie was directed by Sam Peckinpah, and he loaded it up with incredible dialogue and visuals that spoke to growing old in a changing landscape.

WOODY STRODE

(THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, 1995)

He only appears at the beginning of the film, but I love Woody Strode so I put him on this List anyway. He’s the local coffin maker in a freaky Western town where the head honcho (a smirking Gene Hackman) holds a gunfighting contest that includes Russell Crowe, Sharon Stone, Leonardo DiCaprio and a cast of thousands.

SPENCER TRACY

(GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER?, 1967)

Thankfully, society has changed enough to make this film seem more and more dated. At the time, though, it was a big deal. Tracy is an elderly dad whose daughter is planning to marry an African American man. The big scene comes toward the end of the film, when Tracy gives a speech about the enduring, sustaining nature of love.

WILLIAM HOLDEN

(S.O.B., 1981)

Good as he was in his younger days, I’ve always liked Holden’s later work best. In “S.O.B,” he satirizes the Hollywood movie industry very effectively. The 1980s had to have seemed insane to people who came of age in the 1940s and ’50s.

BURT LANCASTER

(FIELD OF DREAMS, 1989)

They just don’t make movie stars like this guy anymore. Lancaster appeared to relish every second of his career, playing good guys, bad guys, pirates, acrobats, prison convicts, soldiers, mobsters, preachers and lawmen. The gleam was still in his eyes as Doc “Moonlight” Graham, in Kevin Costner’s baseball fantasy. There’s one scene here, where the camera sweeps around to catch a big close-up of Burt’s face, that plays now like his farewell to movies. Beautiful.

So tell me, what are your favorite final films?

6 Responses »

  1. U r killing me!!! Now I HAVE to watch so many of these films..Some are repeats and some never seen..I have to share Network with my 25 y.o. daughter! She will love it! I dont know if it is a final but what @ The Big Chill??? Loved it!

    Reply
  2. oh I forgot..my favorite series of films…The Thin Man!! Santa needs to being that to me this year!!

    Reply
  3. Bob and I just read this together. He thought it was a great selection. Lots of memories. I’m glad to see The Misfits on the list. It’s one of my all-time favorites and I must play it (for awhile) at least once a month. You are so on the mark,Jimbo: Gable is so craggy/manly and Monroe is so beautiful/vulnerable. Thanks for another great list!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *