Cinema's Most Memorable Last Performances

The final roles of Hollywood's late, great actors, from James Gandolfini to Marilyn Monroe

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The last couple of years have seen a number of Hollywood heavyweights die before their time. Two of them – James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman – have new films out this autumn, gritty crime thrillers The Drop and A Most Wanted Man.

While both films come highly recommended in their own right, it's the chance to see these great actors on screen one more time that will be their biggest draw for most.

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Here, we've compiled the most memorable final performances, from Marlon Brando to Marilyn Monroe. Whether they were career-crowning hits, or later-life misses, there's something intrinsically fascinating about seeing these legends in what would become their last ever big screen outings. 


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1 | James Gandolfini – The Drop (2014)

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After earning a total of nine best supporting actor nominations for his role in Enough Said, James Gandolfini appeared to be on an unstoppable post-Sopranos high before his untimely death in 2013. With this autumn’s The Drop, Gandolfini returns to the tough guy roles he became famous for in the early 90s before defining the genre in The Sopranos. Gandolfini has spoofed this persona before, as a crying, alcoholic assassin in 2012’s Killing Them Softly, but here, in the Dennis Lehane-penned world of Brooklyn bars and illegal money drops, Gandolfini comes full-circle, portraying Cousin Marv with the same reluctance and vulnerability that we came to recognise in Tony Soprano, “Take a look at the front of the bar and the name on the sign. That’s my name. I used to own it once… when I walked into a place people sat up straight… I was respected, I was feared. And that meant something.”

While Gandolfini dipping his toes in seemingly familiar territory may not attract the same plaudits as romantic drama Enough Said, the late actor gives a fitting and masterful final performance, with Variety praising his talent for putting across Cousin Marv’s "cynicism and capacity for reckless violence in a few deft, understated strokes, certainly all that’s needed from an actor whose iconic tough-guy stature can hardly be overestimated.”

 

2 | Philip Seymour Hoffman – A Most Wanted Man (2014)

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Hoffman’s death in February of this year left four films in various stages of production, but his final leading role (and the pick of the bunch) is in this month’s A Most Wanted Man, in which the late actor turns in a performance worth of standing beside career highlights Capote and The Master. As a straightforward spy thriller the latest John le Carré adaptation is more than capable, but the clincher is how the film documents an actor in rapid physical decline. As German spy Gunther Bachmann, Hoffman is overweight, run down and exhausted, hunched over and mumbling as he chain smokes and swills yet another drink.

Gunther is a man nearing the end of his time as a spy and the end of his tether. One way or another the events of the film will be his last case, and Hoffman knows this, twisting every ounce of frustration from the character in a performance that’s especially powerful in the retrained, silent moments when Gunther trembles with the urge to not explode. When he finally does, at the end of the film, it’s a relief, and in retrospect it’s not difficult to see Hoffman’s own torment resonating through the role. If only Hoffman had been able to walk away as well.


3 | Pete Postlethwaite – The Town (2010)

Pete Postlethwaite was in the midst of a Hollywood resurgence when he succumbed to cancer in 2011. His last performance is as the under-written landlord in Nick Hamm’s Killing Bono, but for a real taste of Postlehwaite’s talents, you should look to the 2010 double punch of Inception and The Town. In the former, Postlethwaite was dying businessman Maurice Fisher, channeling his own ongoing experiences with cancer into one of the film’s most important – and touching - roles.

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In The Town he gave some of the film’s most memorable lines as mob boss Fergie Colm, stripping the leaves from a rose while threatening Ben Affleck’s bank robber, “you’re gonna do this for me, or I’m going to clip your nuts…I gave your mother a taste [of heroin], put the hook into her, she was doped up good and proper… if there’s a heaven son, she ain’t in it.” Postlethwaite’s illness is vividly apparent in the film, and it was the actor’s drastic weight loss that partly led to Affleck casting him in the role, commenting that the actor’s reduced frame made the character seem as if “the malice must be in his soul”.

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4 | Rita Hayworth – The Wrath Of God (1972)

Towards the end of her career, Hayworth was gathering a reputation as a drunk, with the popular consensus that this contributed to the breakdown of her five marriages. It wasn’t until later in her life that Hayworth was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a condition that combined with her alcoholism to rapidly worsen her health. Her last film, The Wrath Of God, was completed 15 years before her eventual death in 1987, but such was the poor state of the actress’ health that each of her scenes had to be shot line by line as she could not remember the script.

While by no means a classic, the late Roger Ebert claimed the film was enjoyable, but harmless, “this is the kind of movie we don't see very often anymore: a simple, dashing tale told for sheer fun.” Sadly, Hayworth, with her star firmly on the decline, doesn’t get a mention in what might be the film’s best review.


5 | James Dean – Giant (1956)

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Famously, James Dean’s last words were “That guy’s gotta stop… he’ll see us”, uttered just seconds before a head-on collision killed the 24-year-old actor in his new Porsche 550 Spyder which Dean was in the process of breaking in before a racing event in Salinas. Ironically, Dean’s track career had been put on stand by after Warner Brothers banned him from racing while filming what would become his final film, Giant.

After East Of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause, Dean had become Hollywood’s most sought-after young actor. His untimely death ensured this reputation endured, with his third film as a leading man earning Dean a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and earning praise from the likes of the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, who wrote in his 1956 review: “it is the late James Dean who makes the malignant role of the surly ranch hand who becomes an oil baron the most tangy and corrosive in the film. Mr. Dean plays this curious villain with a stylized spookiness – a sly sort of off-beat languor and slur of language…This is a haunting capstone to the brief career of Mr. Dean.”


6 | John Cazale – The Deer Hunter (1978)

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Never has an actor had such a perfect run of films as the late John Cazale, whose six screen credits include The Godfather Trilogy, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter, all of which were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Cazale had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer just before work was due to start on The Deer Hunter and as a result the studio were reluctant to hire him, a decision which prompted co-star Robert DeNiro to pay Cazale’s insurance money and director Michael Cimino to rearrange the schedule to allow Cazale’s scenes to be completed first. The actor finished his parts, but died before the film was completed. It’s a testament to Cazale’s skill as an actor that his performance stands out beside the eccentricities of Christopher Walken and DeNiro, and a number of actors have picked up on the subtle ticks and quirks Cazale employed in the role. DeNiro himself praised the late actor’s talents, saying “He was real…There was no forced 'acting' from John”, while Steve Buscemi claimed of The Deer Hunter “You could watch the movie with just the scenes he’s in and be thoroughly entertained, or really moved.”

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7 | Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (2008)

Ledger’s final role was the lead character in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but it’s his penultimate role – and his last completed performance – in The Dark Knight  for which he’s rightly remembered, and was awarded only the Academy’s second ever posthumous Oscar. In preparation for the role, Ledger spent a month working on the character’s voice and laugh, while keeping a “Joker diary” of inspirations for the part, including Malcolm McDowell’s character from A Clockwork Orange. Rumours that this intense preparation had such a psychological affect on Ledger that the actor began abusing sleeping pills (of which he died four months after shooting finished) appear to be unfounded, with friends claiming Ledger had suffered from insomnia for years. Nevertheless, the actor’s mental frame did not appear to be the best during filming, as revealed in this New York Times interview, “Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night... I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.”

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The final performance was widely lauded, with New Yorker critic David Denby panning the film as a whole, but praising Ledger, claiming Christian Bale was “upstaged by the great Ledger, who shambles and slides into a room, bending his knees and twisting his neck and suddenly surging into someone’s face like a deep-sea creature coming up for air… His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss.


8 | Steve McQueen – The Hunter (1980)

McQueen was diagnosed with cancer in 1979, shortly after completing work on what would become his final film, The Hunter (1980). It’s an illness that permeates the film (in which he plays an aging bounty hunter in hot water), as McQueen plays the role for laughs in what could almost be considered a spoof of his fast-talking tough guys in Bullitt and The Getaway. Physically, McQueen appears to be in decline, with the trailer declaring the actor – still only 50-years-old – is “not as fast as he used to be”. While the film is by no means one to be avoided, it signals the decline of McQueen as the hard-edged leading man. Thankfully, McQueen’s knowing performance signals the late actor still had a lot to offer.


9 | Marilyn Monroe - The Misfits (1961)

The death that launched a thousand conspiracy theories, Monroe overdosed on barbiturates at home on 5 August 1962. She was 36-years-old and was in the midst of filming Something’s Got To Give (a film which 20th Century Fox re-filmed with a new cast and released 16 months later). Monroe’s last completed role was as divorcee Roslyn Tabor in drama The Misfits. The film was widely regarded as a career highlight for Monroe’s co-star Clark Gable while Monroe received the 1961 Golden Globe for “World Film Favourite”. Despite this, Monroe repeatedly claimed she hated both the film and her performance and tragedy struck for both actors, with Gable suffering a fatal heart attack two days after filming ended, while Monroe – who attended the premiere while on a pass from a psychiatric hospital – passed away less than 18 months later.


10 | Marlon Brando – The Score (2001)

A crime thriller in the vein of Heat starring Edward Norton, Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando sounds like an instant classic, but while Marlon Brando’s last film was entertaining enough, it was widely critcised for re-treading traditional thriller ground. Nevertheless, Brando (bloated and costumed in suits apparently cut from marquees and a selection of bathrobes) is on great form as DeNiro’s mentor / criminal fixer Max, playing the role with a hint of joyfulness that was missing from many of the other performances from this stage in his career.

The improvised scenes between Brando and DeNiro never quite reach boiling point, but Brando gives it his best shot at actually acting after years of phoning in his performances. It’s not Don Corleone, but it’s a good nod to Brando’s most famous roles and the best swansong we could have hoped for just five years after Brando was nominated for a Golden Raspberry for worst supporting actor in (the universally panned) The Island of Dr. Moreau.


Any we've missed?


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