Stars Who Ended Their Career on a High… and Those Who Ended it on a Low

October 27, 2018
If Robert Redford’s performance in The Old Man and the Gun is his last one, as has been intimated, it’s an excellent one for him to go out on. It would make him one of a rare group of stars who ended their career on a real high.

Highs

Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata (1978)

Maybe this is cheating a little because Bergman went on to appear in a (distinguished) mini series, A Woman Called Golda (1982) before her death from lymphoma in 1982, but Autumn Sonata was her last feature. A beautiful piece directed by Ingmar Bergman (no relation, though both Swedish) – their first movie together.

Richard Burton in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Like Bergman, Burton went on to make a mini series before he died (Ellis Island) but this was a fantastic final feature, in a career that at the time seemed to be constantly disappointing, but when looking back was full of dare and experimentation. Burton was a last-minute replacement for Paul Scofield in the role of O’Brien, in this gritty adaptation of the classic novel.

Laird Cregar in Hangover Square (1945)

Cregar is surprisingly little known for an actor who died tragically young – of a heart attack brought about by crash dieting to get more leading man roles. He did play the lead in his last two films, but both were murderers – The Lodger (1944) and this, a superb grand guignol thriller which is great fun.

James Dean in Giant (1956)

Dean only starred in three feature films during his short life, all classics. His reputation as a teen rebel comes from his first two, East of Eden (1953) and Rebel without a Cause, (1954) but this one is pretty good too. The film helped turn Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor into A league stars. George W Bush’s favourite film apparently!

Peter Finch in Network (1976)

The quality of Peter Finch’s films varied wildly in the ‘70s. He started on a high with Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), then dipped with films like Lost Horizon, Bequest of a National, England Made Me and The Abdication. He bounced back with the role of Howard Roarke in this Paddy Chayefsky/Sidney Lumet classic. Really, it was a support role but he won a Best Actor Oscar. Finch made a TV film, Raid on Entebbe (1977), before he died of a heart attack but Network was his last feature, and the film for which he’s best remembered.

Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981)

Those old enough to remember when this came out will remember the endless – and we mean endless – media pieces on the estranged relationship between Henry and Jane Fonda, and the way they healed it for this film. Fonda was sick during the making of it. Really, was there any way he wasn’t going to win the Oscar? It’s a very good performance and a worthy end to a magnificent career. (He did make a TV movie afterwards).

Boris Karloff in Targets (1968)

Oh okay, this is definitely cheating since Karloff made and completed several films in Mexico before he died… but this was such a final grand hurrah, such a quality spike in his later filmography, that we couldn’t not include it. A magnificent masterpiece for the great Karloff, it still ranks among the best films from Peter Bogdanovich, who should do more thrillers.

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)

Ledger became the second actor to win a posthumous Oscar with his outstanding performance in this Christopher Nolan classic – oddly the first was also an Australian, Peter Finch with Network. The Joker is a fantastic role but not fool proof, as Jared Leto proved in Suicide Squad (2015), and Ledger’s performance can make you weep for the lost talent. He died during the making of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), making this his last film.

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973)

It’s fascinating to imagine what Bruce Lee might have accomplished had he lived a long life – or maybe not, considering Jackie Chan’s later career trajectory – but he definitely went out on a high with this classic. Robert Clouse got a bunch of directing gigs off the back of this which he probably didn’t deserve – the genius of this film is Lee. (And Jim Kelly of course!)

Carole Lombard in To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Towards the end of her life Lombard was Hollywood royalty – married to Clark Gable, a big star in her own right, beloved by millions. It’s ironic that the public or critics didn’t particularly go for this light comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Lombard’s last film before dying in a plane crash at Potosi Mountain in 1942 – but it has since come to be regarded as a classic.

Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in The Misfits (1961)

Marilyn Monroe was a tragic figure and probable suicide. Gable was a hearty figure who knew tragedy but was pretty happy – he just drank and smoked too much. The action in this John Huston-directed film famously contributed to Gable’s death by heart attack. Monroe would shortly follow after being fired from the (abandoned) Something’s Gotta Give. Their last completed film is a flawed but fascinating modern day Western, considered disappointing on release but its reputation has grown. Because the script was written by Arthur Miller, Monroe-ologists are endlessly picking over it for insights into her psyche.

Tyrone Power in Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Power spent the last decade of his life trying to prove he was more than a pretty boy actor, and he did. Unfortunately, he also could never quite give up smoking which saw him die of a heart attack in Spain while filming Solomon and Sheba (he was replaced by Yul Brynner), meaning his last film was the Billy Wilder courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution. It’s an all-star cast, including Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich, but Power holds his own in the best cinematic adaption (to date) of an Agatha Christie novel.

Chips Rafferty in Wake in Fright (1971)

Rafferty swam through a lot of crap in his career but was lucky enough to end it with a strong performance in a good movie – though having grown up in Queensland we would argue that his character wasn’t terrifying. Seriously he’s just trying to be nice – it’s not his fault the whiny baby boomer hero can’t handle his booze, money or the idea of sex with a woman.

Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green (1972)

Time has been depressingly kind to this dystopian science fiction film, made during Charlton Heston’s brief heyday as a sci-fi-star-who-took-his-clothes-off-a-lot. Robinson steals the film as an analyst and he has a moving death scene – even more powerful when you find out Robinson, who was ill with bladder cancer at the time, knew it would be the last movie he ever made (he died twelve days after finishing his role). You watch his little body being draped in a sheet looking so small, we defy you not to cry. A worthy final performance from a magnificent actor (who once visited Trotsky in Mexico – not making that up, true story!)

Randolph Scott in Ride the High Country (1962)

Scott made scores of Westerns during his long career, some of them very fine indeed (check out the Budd Boetticher’s Ranown Cycle if you’re interested) but few better than his last feature, an early work from writer-director Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah later became famous for his violence but this is a restrained, beautiful elegy to the passing of the west. He decided to retire after making it, and enjoyed his many millions before dying in 1987. It was going to be the last film for co-star Joel McCrea as well, but he snuck in one more.

Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Tracy’s ill health towards the end of his life meant he was pretty much uninsurable for his last few films and he only got through them with the help of director Stanley Kramer, who bent over backwards to help Tracy. People like to make fun of the liberalism of this film, and for a comedy there aren’t many laughs, but fifty years later interracial romances still aren’t very common on screens. Maybe Tracy didn’t deserve his Oscar for this, but his performance is fine (he does look as though he’s going to drop dead at any moment – and he did a few weeks after filming), the film is good, the subject matter depressingly still relevant, and Tracy and Hepburn are a delight.

John Wayne in The Shootist (1976)

The meta-ness of this is moving – Wayne, who had recovered from cancer and was to die of cancer, plays a gunfighter dying of cancer. This isn’t up with his John Ford/Howard Hawks classics, but is still pretty good. Wayne wasn’t in the best health when making this – his cancer returned afterwards, and killed him in 1979.

Lows

Abbott and Costello in Dance with Me Henry (1956)

Abbott and Costello remained very funny for a very long time, but age and bad living eventually caught up to them, particularly Abbott, who in this last film for the team looks like an old man who’s had a stroke, slurring his words and moving awkwardly. Normally the dynamic between the two was Costello gets into trouble and is bullied by Abbott, but here Costello has the power and Abbott is like an elderly, absent-minded uncle. The pacing is slow and the attachment of these middle-aged men towards orphans feels dodgy – it’s not a very good movie. For completists only. Ironically Abbott outlived Costello, who died of a heart attack in 1959 after making a solo vehicle, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock – Abbott went from cancer in 1974.

Charlie Chaplin in A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

Hard core auteurists will defend every movie of a genius and some have spoken up for this. Good for them. This is terrible.

Joan Crawford in Trog (1970)

Joan Crawford always had an element of camp about her – this ratcheted up to the max in the sixties, during her ‘psycho biddy’ era of stardom. This was her last film, the sort of movie John Waters loves. She did later famously take over her daughter’s role on a soap opera before she died in 1977.

Marlene Dietrich in Just a Gigolo (1978)

Dietrich remained popular on stage for most of her life. It was probably a mistake to return to filmmaking though with this, er, ahem, flawed piece.

Errol Flynn in Assault of the Cuban Rebel Girls (1959)

Flynn’s movie career is probably best appreciated as a few chapters in a lifetime of adventure, rather than its own existence. He packed more into his fifty years on this planet than most – even at the end of his life he was running around Cuba, befriending then-guerrilla Fidel Castro and making this propaganda film for him, starring Flynn and his underage girlfriend Beverly Aadland. Flynn isn’t in the film very much, and when he is, he looks as though he’s going to drop dead (which he did soon after making this). As a piece of sociological history this is fascinating (it’s very pro Castro). From a dramatic and technical standpoint, it’s dire.

Greta Garbo in Two-Faced Woman (1941)

Everyone liked Garbo in Ninotchka (1939), no one liked her in this, and Garbo got so spooked by the reaction, the little sook went into semi retirement. It wasn’t supposed to be permanent and numerous comebacks were planned, but none eventuated. Garbo died in 1990 without adding to her filmography. This is one of those films that every now and then some film writer will do a piece arguing for it to be re-appraised and no one gets enthusiastic about it.

Alan Ladd in The Carpetbaggers (1964)

This was actually a good film in its trashy way … but it was just so heartbreaking to see the physical disintegration of Ladd. He’d been falling apart in front of our eyes for the previous decade, as his alcoholism and self loathing took hold – turning a charismatic, dynamic performer into a puffy, waxy, bloated figure. He never looked worse than in The Carpetbaggers – when Carroll Baker tells Ladd he looks thirty in one scene, you want to laugh. He looks like a desperately unhappy man about to kill himself… which he tried to do in 1962, and succeeded in doing in 1964.

Steve McQueen in The Hunter (1980)

McQueen was inactive for most of the late ‘70s, despite being in incredible demand. After the failure of Enemy of the People (1978) he returned to “sure fire” material with Tom Horn (1979) and this, before dying of mesothelioma in 1980. Ironically, neither of those films did particularly well and barely anyone remembers them these days, especially The Hunter, a disappointingly by-the-numbers action film from one of the genre’s great stars.

Dick Powell in Susan Slept Here (1954)

The genius of Dick Powell still remains unappreciated – few people managed to reinvent themselves so consistently in his career… from crooner to film noir star to director to genius television executive. He became so successful that he eventually gave up acting – his last lead was in this Frank Tashlin comedy, where the then-50-year old plays a screenwriter who creepily romances “delinquent” Debbie Reynolds (then 22) so she won’t go to prison. This film has its fans but it’s all a bit Woody Allen-Soon Yi for our tastes. Powell went on to have a great behind the camera career before dying of cancer in 1961.

Shirley Temple in A Kiss for Corliss (1949)

For a while there in the late ‘40s it seemed Shirley Temple had a genuine shot at being a movie star as an adult – if you don’t believe us, check out her performance in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947) – but she was defeated by sheer weight of terrible material – if you don’t believe us, check out That Hagen Girl (1947), Honeymoon (1947), Adventures in Baltimore (1948), and this. Temple does good work once more, as does co-star David Niven, but both are sunk by a particularly idiotic script.

And one that straddles the fence…

Bela Lugosi in Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959)

This was once voted the Worst Film of All Time, which is unfair for a work that, while shonky (with Lugosi laughably doubled), has a lot of life, imagination and uniqueness. It’s beloved in a way that so many “better” films aren’t.

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