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A Menagerie of Memorable Last Films

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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?

Good Guys Gone Bad

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Want to know what’s really scary? It’s when an actor normally associated with good-guy roles decides to go bad. In fact, it adds a whole other dimension to the badness. These are some of my favorites.

DENZEL WASHINGTON IN “TRAINING DAY” (2001)

Washington’s performance as corrupt Det. Alonzo Harris is full of explosive, confident power. By turns witty and violent, it’s a role that builds to a crescendo of creepiness. It also won Washington an Oscar.

HENRY FONDA IN “ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST” (1968)

The guy who played Tom Joad, young Abe Lincoln and the old dude from “On Golden Pond” is a very bad man. He’s a revelation, actually, playing a hired killer in this Sergio Leone western. Fonda exudes the same patient intelligence here that he does to all his movies, but in the service of greed.

CHRISTIAN BALE IN “AMERICAN PSYCHO” (2000)

When Bale commits to a part, he goes all the way. In this gory tale, he’s a rich banker with a taste for blood. Remember the crazy eyes Bale brought to “The Fighter” last year? Just add a dash of sociopathic glee and you’ve got “American Psycho.”

ROBERT MITCHUM IN “NIGHT OF THE HUNTER” (1955) AND “CAPE FEAR” (1962)

One of the all-time greats, Robert Mitchum gives a surreal performance in “Night of the Hunter,” as an insane preacher who stalks a pair of children in an attempt to find some hidden cash. Equally creepy is his Max Cady in “Cape Fear,” in which an ex-con takes revenge on the lawyer who put him in jail. There’s a terrifying scene in which Mitchum sneaks aboard a houseboat where the lawyer’s wife (Polly Bergen) is hiding. Gives me the chills.

RUSSELL CROWE IN “3:10 TO YUMA” (2007)

Here’s a classic example of an actor having more fun in the villain role. Crowe plays Ben Wade, a charismatic outlaw being escorted to the train that will take him to jail. It’s a part that is full of guile, humor and perceptiveness.

PAUL NEWMAN IN “HUD” (1963)

Towering performance by Newman in one of his best movies. Hud Bannon is a selfish, flawed, petty man who never fails to hurt those around him in a small, Texas town. Yet he’s absolutely electric and able to manipulate people who ought to know better than trust him. Nobody played simmering resentment better than Newman.

MORGAN FREEMAN IN “STREET SMART” (1987)

A lot of people haven’t seen this movie, yet it’s the reason Freeman became a prominent film actor. He played a New York City pimp named Fast Black who threw a good scare into Christopher Reeve’s character, and the audience.

HARRISON FORD IN “WHAT LIES BENEATH” (2000)

It certainly seemed as if Ford relished this opportunity to be menacing rather than macho. I won’t give away any plot details, other than to say this is a “things that go bump in the night” flick, and Ford is responsible for some of the bumps.

BURT LANCASTER IN “THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS” (1957) AND “SEVEN DAYS IN MAY” (1964)

Speaking of macho, there’s the always-intense Burt Lancaster. In “Sweet Smell of Success” he’s a sadistic, powerful newspaper columnist (go figure), and in “Seven Days in May” he’s an egomaniacal general trying to overthrow the government. Either way, you don’t want to cross him.

TOM HANKS IN “ROAD TO PERDITION” (2002)

This one might need an asterisk. Yes, Hanks plays a hit man during the Depression. Yes, he does dastardly deeds. But he spends much of the movie trying to protect his young son, so you’re still kind of rooting for him.

BEN STILLER IN “DODGEBALL” (2004)

What, you thought comedies didn’t have any good guys gone bad? Think again. Stiller is a wonderful sleazebag as evil gym owner White Goodman, who tries to ruin Vince Vaughn.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER IN “BATMAN AND ROBIN” (1997)

Pretty much everyone hated this movie, and I’m fine with that. But Arnold was masterfully campy as Mr. Freeze, like it or not. And his accent worked here, for once.

GREGORY PECK IN “THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL” (1978)

On the other hand, I am not as enamored of this performance. Why is it on the List? Because of its incredible hubris, friends. “The Boys from Brazil” asks us to belief Atticus Finch – ATTICUS FINCH – as Nazi monster Dr. Josef Mengele. That’s a tough one, Scout.

DON CHEADLE IN “OUT OF SIGHT” (1998)

This is what a good actor Cheadle is. Despite being so small of stature, he’s utterly convincing as a career criminal capable of sudden violence. He has the ability to play smart, funny and realistic all at once, while still being frightening. Terrific movie, by the way.

DICK VAN DYKE IN “NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM” (2006)

Not an extremely big role, but come on. This is Rob Petrie. This is Bert from “Mary Poppins.” And he’s just so … mean.

HEATH LEDGER IN “THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008)

Here’s our big finish and justifiably so. Ledger took an iconic character, the Joker, and transformed him into something both original and exciting. This is a great movie and Ledger is the best thing in it. You can’t take your eyes off of him, first of all. What’s more, he’s hilarious. And mysterious. And malevolent.

That’s all, folks. So who did I leave out?