Everybody dies, even famous actors. Some have the common sense to phase out their careers while they’re still at the top of their game and enjoy the fruits of their retirement, others milk their fame for all its worth and work ’til they drop, which is often well past their sell-by date, and, of course, there are those who die far earlier than anyone anticipated, least of all themselves, leaving their most recent project – whatever it may have been – as their last project. Bullz-Eye took a look at the filmographies of some of Hollywood’s greatest actors and examined their swan songs, and, indeed, all three of the aforementioned categories are represented.
There were only two caveats used when citing these final films: they had to have been live-action works (i.e. no voiceover performances), and the actors had to have been playing someone other than themselves. You will no doubt find yourself asking, “Hey, why didn’t [INSERT FAVORITE ACTOR'S NAME HERE] make this cut?” If you’ve got a favorite final film by an actor that was left out of the mix…hey, that’s what the Comments section is for. For now, though, sit back and enjoy…
1. Humphrey Bogart, “The Harder They Fall” (1956): Although many tend to think of his definitive work as having taken place in the 1940s simply by virtue of the fact that it’s when both “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon” were released, Humphrey Bogart continued to offer exemplary performances throughout the ‘50s, receiving his Oscar for “The African Queen” (1951), a nomination for “The Caine Mutiny” (1954). By the mid-1950s, however, the actor’s health was failing, and he would soon be diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus…not that you’d know it from his work load: in 1955, he starred in “We’re No Angels,” “The Left Hand of God,” and “The Desperate Hours.”
Watching Bogie in his final film, “The Harder They Fall,” it’s easy to say that he looks tired and worn out, but it’s just as easy to attribute that to the character he’s playing. Eddie Willis (Bogart) is a former sports writer who’s struggling to make ends meet after his newspaper shuts down, and when he’s hired by Nick Benko (Rod Steiger), a boxing promoter known for his somewhat imprecise morality, to help promote his new fighter, a naïve Argentinean named Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), there’s little question that Eddie’s doing it for the money. Everybody knows that wrestling is fake, but you may be surprised to see the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that go on in boxing: Toro’s a pretty rotten boxer, but Eddie promotes the hell out of him while Nick and his cohorts fix the fights, enabling Toro to steadily work his way up the ranks. The ending is pretty heavy-handed, with the music soaring as Eddie sits down in front of his typewriter to hash out the boxing expose that will help to clear his conscience, but Bogart is fantastic throughout the film. Sadly, it’s out of print on DVD, but if you’ve never seen it before, you may find it worth the $14.99 it’ll cost you to download it from iTunes. Eight months after “The Harder They Fall” hit theaters, Bogart lost his own fight, falling victim to his cancer at the age of 57. – Will Harris
2. James Dean, “Giant” (1956): George Stevens’ massive adaptation of Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel about ranchers and oil millionaires in the first half of the 20th century remains an especially poignant farewell, indicating the versatile actor 24 year-old James Dean would have become had he not died in an auto wreck shortly before production was completed.
At first, Dean’s Jet Rink is in line with his other roles, a rebellious, troubled ranch hand who shyly flirts with beautiful Leslie Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor) and generally runs afoul of her cattleman husband, Bick Benedict, Jr. (Rock Hudson). As a couple of decades progress, however, Rink strikes it rich — richer than the Benedicts. Wearing a mustache and with his head partially shaved to suggest a receding hairline, Rink becomes a villain of sorts as he falls for the Benedicts’ beautiful college-age daughter (Carroll Baker) and his resentments against the clan congeal into alcoholic sentimentality, jealousy, and virulent racism. Not that he’s all bad or all sad. Speaking in a mumbly Texan patois reminiscent of Boomhauer from “King of the Hill,” Dean’s Rink is highly vulnerable but full of the impish humor Dean only hinted at in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Even if the part seems artificial compared to Dean’s other roles and even if director Stevens felt it was necessary to have a key speech posthumously looped by Dean’s friend, Nick Adams, “Giant” reminds us that Dean was a lot more than a pop-culture icon or a pretty-boy emoting-machine, he was an actor. – Bob Westal
3. Grace Kelly, “High Society” (1956): Like James Dean, Grace Kelly only had to make a few films to become an immortal. Fortunately, her career wasn’t ended by death but by her “fairy tale” marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco — although she would eventually die as the result of a car accident a quarter century later.
A musical remake of the romantic comedy classic “The Philadelphia Story” with new songs by Cole Porter and co-starring Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, “High Society” was a box office success and, in theory, a perfect filmic swansong. The part of romantically confused heiress Tracey Lord fit Grace Kelly very nicely, and she had actually performed the part as her graduation performance from the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Nevertheless, she was stepping into enormous shoes — the part was written for and remains forever associated with Katherine Hepburn — but Kelly, still only 26 years old, seems to effortlessly make the part her own, adding an element of wholesome sensuality that Hepburn couldn’t quite match. She even sang nicely in a duet with Crosby of Porter’s “True Love.” For all of that, the musical comedy got mixed reviews. Director Charles Walters was not one of the greats of cinema and Sinatra and Crosby arguably had better chemistry with each other than they did with their absurdly beautiful lead. Maybe the fact that “High Society” was just okay made it easier for Kelly to attend to her royal duties and charity work and leave acting behind forever. – BW
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