The Final Curtain: Great Directors, Great Last Films

November 8, 2018
Getting old doesn’t mean going soft, as this handful of brilliant directors proved with their stellar final films.

SERGIO LEONE: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)

Italian director, Sergio Leone, was known for his groundbreaking “spaghetti westerns”, but his last film – and arguably his greatest – was set in New York City. He devoted over ten years of his life to planning and making the crime epic, Once Upon A Time In America. The film spans four decades, and tells of David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and his Jewish friends, detailing their childhoods on New York’s Lower East Side in the twenties, through their emerging gangster empire in the thirties. Daring in scope, the film moves back and forth in time, culminating in Noodles’ 1968 return to New York from self-imposed exile, where he is forced to face the demons from his past. When completed, Once Upon A Time In America ran for over four hours. After disastrous test screenings, it was savagely recut for US distribution to a comparably meagre 139 minutes. These cuts were made against Leone’s wishes, and the esteemed critic, Pauline Kael, wrote that she had never seen “a worse case of mutilation.” The longer European version finally found a release in the late nineties, but by then, the damage had already been done. Co-star, James Woods, commented at the press screening of the newly restored version that premiered at The Cannes Film Festival in 2012 that Leone “died of a broken heart” because he could never see the film released as he had intended. On April 30, 1989, Sergio Leone died of a heart attack at the age of sixty. With the initially butchered US version of Once Upon A Time In America dismissed by most critics at the time, the complete film is now rightly considered a masterpiece.

JOHN HUSTON: THE DEAD (1987)

In a career that spanned six decades, John Huston directed 38 films, including classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and Prizzi’s Honor. Despite such an extraordinary body of work, Huston was reductively defined in his obituary as a “hell-raising director and actor.” The adaptation of the short story, The Dead – a melancholy tale of lost love and dashed dreams – from James Joyce’s The Dubliners, was Huston’s final film. During its making, the ageing director was in a wheelchair, and had two tubes of oxygen pumping into his nose, but despite the medical obstacles, the result was an extraordinary film. Huston began shooting in January 1987, finished in April, and at the end of August, he died. He was 81-years-old. Critic, Vincent Canby, wrote that “no other American filmmaker has ended a comparably long career on such a note of triumph.” John Huston’s daughter – actress, Anjelica Huston – noted that The Dead “was a love letter to Ireland, to those people, and to that place.” John Huston had devoted much of his career to the adaptation of literary classics, including Melville’s Moby Dick, Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. For the Joyce adaptation, he involved his family in the making of the film, including Anjelica (who was coming off an Oscar win for Prizzi’s Honor) and his son, Tony Huston, who penned the script, cannily lifting much of the colourful dialogue directly from Joyce’s prose. The film was nominated for two Oscars, and won Best Film at The USA National Society Of Film Critics’ Awards.

ROBERT ALTMAN: A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006)

Robert Altman was responsible for some of the most iconic films in American cinema, including M*A*S*H, Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Short Cuts. By the time that A Prairie Home Companion came his way in 2005, Altman hadn’t worked in three years. For such a prolific filmmaker, this was deemed a dry spell. Inspired by the enduring American Public Media variety show created by Garrison Keillor in 1974, the film was written by Keillor from a story by him and Ken LaZebnik. During filming, Altman was diagnosed with leukaemia. The star-heavy ensemble included Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, and Tommy Lee Jones. As with all Altman ensemble films, there are plots and subplots unified both by a common theme (the passing of an era) and an event (the last show). Cast members performed their songs live, and Altman directed from a wheelchair while wearing an oxygen cannula. Noted Altman acolyte, Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), was hired as standby director in case his ailing hero couldn’t finish the film. Actors loved Altman and, according to Tommy Lee Jones, he loved them back. “He has respect for acting, and looks on it as a significant part of the process,” Jones said, “as opposed to an inconvenience that has to be gotten out of the way somehow so one can go about the real job of cinema.” Altman died on November 20, 2005 after completing the editing. A Prairie Home Companion was released on June 9, 2006, grossing twice as much as it cost to make, and receiving strong reviews from critics.

DAVID LEAN: A PASSAGE TO INDIA (1984)

The period between David Lean’s previous film, 1970’s Ryan’s Daughter, and A Passage To India had been fourteen years, and the acclaimed director was in his eighties when he went into production on what would become his final film. “I would rather make one good picture in three years than make four others in the same time,” the legendary British filmmaker of Lawrence Of Arabia, The Bridge On The River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago proclaimed at the time. Set in 1928, the film follows Adela (Judy Davis), who is taken to India by Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) with the likely purpose of being married off to the older woman’s son. Breaking the general rule against intermingling with the Indians, local Muslim medic, Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), invites the ladies on an expedition to The Marabar Caves, which ends in tragedy when Adela returns to accuse the shocked Aziz of having attempted to rape her. Lean and his leading lady, Judy Davis, did not get on, as the actress recalled years later. “He was a frightening, Lear-like figure,” she said. “He came with this enormous reputation, but he wasn’t at the height of his physical powers, and he carried a lot of tension because of that.” The film, however, premiered to great praise for its master director. Lean won The New York Film Critics Circle and National Board Of Review Award for Best Director, and the film was nominated for Best Film at the Oscars. Post the success of A Passage To India, Lean attracted financing for his new film, Nostromo, with Steven Spielberg as executive producer. But prior to filming, Lean died at the age of 83.

SIDNEY LUMET: BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007)

“This is a movie, I promise you, that grabs you and won’t let you think of anything else,” late critic, Roger Ebert, wrote of Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. “It’s wonderful when a director like Lumet wins a Lifetime Achievement Oscar at eighty, and three years later, makes one of his greatest achievements.” Sidney Lumet’s films (including the towering likes of 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico and The Verdict) have been nominated for more than forty Academy Awards. He never won, but the Lifetime Achievement award went a long way to celebrating this master director of actors. Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead began as an original screenplay by Kelly Masterson, a former Franciscan brother, but the film really came alive when Lumet ingeniously cast the physically mismatched Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers who arrange for a third party to rob their parents’ small jewellery store. During the botched and poorly planned heist, both the thief and their mother (Rosemary Harris) are killed. As usual, Lumet was prepared in the extreme, and insisted on a two-week rehearsal to enable the actors to get into the psyches of their characters. After festival screenings, the low budget Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead was released on October 26, 2007 and became a sleeper hit, accruing a worldwide gross in excess of $25 million. As it did, Lumet was already planning his next films. He announced a two-picture deal with The Buddha Group, with an option on a third. “I forget that I’m an old man,” the prolific director said. He was then 82. But at 86, Sidney Lumet was dead from lymphoma.

JOSEPH L. MANKIEWICZ: SLEUTH (1972)

“I am never quite sure whether I am the cinema’s elder statesman, or just the oldest whore on the beat,” Joseph L. Mankiewicz once mused. At sixty-three when he directed Sleuth (1972), Mankiewicz was still in the prime of his career. 21 years later, he died. The dialogue-rich, character-driven stage hit by Anthony Shaffer was the kind of project that suited the famed director of All About Eve perfectly. Sleuth is a cleverly mounted two-hander rarely shying away from its stage pedigree. In this richly layered thriller, the perfectly cast Sir Laurence Olivier plays Andrew Wyke, with the equally well positioned Michael Caine as Milo Tindle, the lover of Wyke’s estranged wife. Mankiewicz wanted to accentuate the contrast between the classes, as Olivier’s intellectual – precisely because he is intellectual – believes himself to be mentally superior to his non-intellectual nemesis, perfectly embodied by the cockney accented Michael Caine. As producer, director and/or writer, Mankiewicz’ name appeared on the credits of over sixty movies, yet he always saw himself as being apart from Hollywood. He was greatly and publicly admired by contemporaries including Fred Zinnemann, Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder. Though he helmed fascinating films like Suddenly, Last Summer and There Was A Crooked Man, Mankiewicz’ peak was undeniably in the fifties, with his back-to-back director and screenwriter Oscars for 1949’s A Letter To Three Wives and 1950’s All About Eve. Sleuth (which was remade in 2007 with Jude Law, and Michael Caine in the Olivier role) received critical acclaim and Oscar nominations for Mankiewicz and his two leading men. 21 years after Sleuth was released, and without making another feature, Joseph L. Mankiewicz died on February 5, 1993.

ROBERT MULLIGAN: THE MAN IN THE MOON (1991)

Robert Mulligan – along with Sidney Lumet, Martin Ritt and John Frankenheimer – emerged from the post-war television age. During the sixties, he directed ten films, half of which were produced by Alan J. Pakula, who himself went on to direct masterpieces like Klute and All The President’s Men. Mulligan’s stand-alone classic was unquestionably his adaptation of Harper Lee’s seminal novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Mulligan, however, directed many other fine – though far less celebrated – films, including Love With The Proper Stranger, Baby The Rain Must Fall, Summer Of ’42, Bloodbrothers, and Same Time, Next Year. His final film, The Man In The Moon, was one of his best. In her debut film role, Reese Witherspoon plays a fourteen-year-old girl who discovers romance when she develops a crush on her handsome neighbour. Mulligan expertly evokes a sense of time and place (fifties Louisiana), and elicits a brilliant performance from Witherspoon. Working from Jenny Wingfield’s sensitive screenplay, Mulligan shows his characteristically delicate touch in revealing the confusion inherent in growing up, and the loss in discovering that the world isn’t as simple as children believe it to be. The film was a critical success, but a commercial failure. In 1991, Mulligan reflected on how many of his films dealt with the coming of age of their protagonists. He rejected that term, however, and referred to them as “coming to life movies.” Robert Mulligan died in 2008 at the age of 83 of heart disease. “The Man In The Moon is a wonderful movie, but it is more than that – it’s a victory of tone and mood,” wrote Roger Ebert. “It’s like a poem.”

KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI:  THREE COLOURS RED (1994)

The untimely death of the outstanding Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, aged 54, dealt a huge blow to European cinema. Although he had only come into worldwide prominence in the last few years of his career with the brilliant ten-part Dekalog, The Double Life Of Veronique, and the trilogy, Three Colors Blue, White And Red, Kieslowski had been working in cinema for almost thirty years, first as an innovative documentary maker, and then as a feature filmmaker. Movie lovers embraced both his gorgeous images and compelling characters, but at a deeper level, he asks how one can be a moral person in an immoral world. A graduate of the renowned Lodz Film School, the Three Colors trilogy concluded with Red, which further investigates Kieslowski’s themes of coincidence, love, isolation, betrayal and renewal. It explores the deepening relationship between a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and a beautiful model (Irene Jacob) who meet when she runs over his dog. After he completed Red, Krzysztof Kieslowski announced that he was exhausted and would direct no more movies. “If I made the films separately, I’d have lost six years of my life,” the director said, “so I won three years.” Red was voted Best Foreign Film by The National Society Of Film Critics and New York Film Critics, and earned three Academy Award nominations including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. On March 13, following elective heart surgery in a Warsaw hospital, Krzysztof Kieslowski died way before his time. “I know a lot about lenses and the editing room,” he once said, “but that’s not real knowledge. Real knowledge is knowing how to live, and why we live.”

SAMUEL FULLER: WHITE DOG (1982)

A former crime reporter and war veteran, the dynamic Samuel Fuller (Shock Corridor, Naked Kiss, Pickup On South Street, The Big Red One) often made his films feel like ripped-from-the-headlines exposes. In his last film – the under celebrated but boldly confrontational White Dog – Fuller argued that racism was a product of conditioning. The film is based on a shocking event in the eventful life of actress, Jean Seberg. In the sixties, a white German Shepherd stray that dropped into her life subsequently attacked and mauled her black gardener, along with two more black people. Paramount acquired the rights to the subsequent book, White Dog (written by Seberg’s husband, Romain Gary), in 1975, and had young writer, Curtis Hanson (who would later direct LA Confidential), adapt it for Roman Polanski to direct. When Polanski infamously fled the US on statutory rape charges, Hanson suggested that seventy-year-old veteran, Sam Fuller, direct. Paramount eventually held a couple of sneak previews, allowed the picture to screen at festivals, and then quietly killed it in fear of the controversy that its story of a dog trained to attack black people by white supremacists would provoke. “I was dumbfounded,” Fuller said. “It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a goddamned prison forever.” Paramount later attempted to recoup its investment by selling the film to television in a trimmed, less inflammatory, form. White Dog didn’t receive a proper release until Fuller’s cut was restored and released by Criterion DVD, eleven years after the director’s death at the age of 85 in 1997.

LUCHINO VISCONTI: L’INNOCENTE (1976)

“You need to make life burn,” Italian director, Luchino Visconti, once said. Though considered one of the founding fathers of the Italian Neo-Realism movement, Visconti’s films became progressively more lavish. Yet the grandeur of his style never obscured the humanity of his subjects, and his films (including the likes of Death In Venice, Le Notti Bianche, and Rocco And His Brothers) are amongst the most thoughtful and profound ever made. Visconti was born into an aristocratic family of great wealth. A descendant of the lords who ruled Milan, his most personal film, The Leopard, details the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy. Visconti developed a passion for film in the thirties, and became an assistant to the great French director, Jean Renoir. Known as an uncompromising perfectionist and meticulous craftsman with a profound understanding of people, while filming 1972’s historical drama, Ludwig, Visconti suffered a massive stroke on the back of a 120-a-day smoking habit. The stroke forced him to direct his last two films from a wheelchair. Visconti’s final film, L’Innocente, examined European high society at the end of the 19th century, and starred Giancarlo Giannini, Laura Antonelli and Jennifer O’Neill. Visconti always claimed that he never made a film for himself, but only for the audience, and the focus was always on the human beings. “I was impelled toward the cinema by, above all, the need to tell stories of people who were alive, of people living amid things, and not of the things themselves,” the director said. Visconti died of influenza and heart disease on March 17, 1976, in Rome, two months before the film’s premiere at The Cannes Film Festival. He was 69-years-old.

BOB FOSSE: STAR 80 (1983)

Famed Broadway director and dance choreographer, Bob Fosse, only directed five films, three of which – Cabaret, All That Jazz and Sweet Charity – were musicals. Along with the biopic, Lenny, his final film, Star 80, was the director’s only straight-up drama. In the controversial film, Mariel Hemingway stars as Playboy Playmate, Dorothy Stratten, who rose to fame in the late seventies, only to be murdered by her estranged husband, Paul Snider (Eric Roberts). Hemingway is deeply moving as the sweet, naïve girl who makes it big, while Roberts is riveting and disturbing as Paul, who makes Dorothy into a star, and then spends the rest of the film raging in her shadow. Snider’s decline into psychosis is brilliantly captured, and Eric Roberts was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, and won The Boston Film Critics Best Actor award. “Bob Fosse was one of the greatest filmmakers ever to make movies, and he made everybody who watched the movie have to go through that experience…and it was hard,” Eric Roberts told Bullz-Eye. “It should’ve been a mega-hit, but it was ahead of its time. It has since become a cult classic, so I’m satisfied by that, but Bob Fosse never saw that. He died. I love him like I love my life. He became my second father, and he was great to me. We had a great relationship. I just cannot say enough about that monster talent and great man.” A powerful treatise on the nature of fame and the desperation that it can inspire, Star 80 remains a shocking and volatile work from the supremely talented Bob Fosse, who died of a heart attack on September 23, 1987.

LUIS BUNUEL: THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)

“God, death, women, wine, dreams,” screenwriter, Jean Claude Carriere, said of the great Luis Bunuel’s obsessions. The Spanish-born legend was friends with Picasso, was thrown off a Hollywood lot by Greta Garbo, apparently attended orgies held by Charlie Chaplin, immigrated to America in 1938 to escape fascism, and backed the anarchists in The Spanish Civil War. He also made a series of films over a fifty-year period, beginning with his stunning debut in 1929 with the surrealist masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou, and ending with 1977’s That Obscure Object Of Desire. In between were classics such as Los Olvidados, The Exterminating Angel, Diary Of A Chambermaid, Simon Of The Desert, Belle De Jour, The Phantom Of Liberty, and The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. For his final movie, the 77-year-old Luis Bunuel directed an updated version of an early 20th Century novel by Pierre Louys. Co-scripted by his regular writer, Jean-Claude Carriere, it stars the great Spanish actor, Fernando Rey, as Mathieu, who in his own pathetic way falls victim to the allure of a beautiful and unattainable woman who proceeds to fleece him of his money. She’s played by two women, with Carole Bouquet representing her cool northern side, and Angela Molina her hot, earthy, Mediterranean aspect. Bunuel tells his tale aboard a train to a cross section of intrigued passengers. The film was described as a buoyant satire about the foibles and follies of the privileged class. Bunuel was diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the bile duct, and died in a Mexico hospital at the age of 83. “The old surrealist created another masterpiece in this, his final film,” wrote critic, Dave Kehr, in The Chicago Reader.

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