The Last Performance

October 04, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

When an actor nears the end of his (or her) career, a decision looms: to continue or retire? There are essentially three choices: accept increasingly irrelevant and/or demeaning parts to continue performing on a regular basis, appear before the camera only on rare occasions for "special" projects, or fade from the public eye and enjoy those last years in relative peace. In the wake of Paul Newman's recent death, I thought I'd mention how a few of the biggest names in Hollywood ended their screen careers.

Some actors don't have a choice in the matter. A surprisingly large percentage of actors die of cancer, many at a relatively young age, especially by today's standards. Humphrey Bogart, inarguably one of the top five iconic male film actors, succumbed to the disease at the age of 57. He was a major box office draw to the end. Watching his final film, The Harder They Fall is a little difficult for anyone who knows the movie's background. Bogart was dying when he made the film and it adds a sense of poignancy to the proceedings. Less than a year after its release, Bogart would be no more. For him, there would be no need to answer the question of how to end his career.

John Wayne was older when cancer claimed him but, at 72, he was still too young. Like Bogart, Wayne worked until his failing health no longer permitted him to make movies. His final feature, The Shootist, arrived in theaters roughly three years before his death. And, while Wayne was not terminally ill at the time of filming, the production's subject matter (a dying gunfighter going out on his terms) seems almost prophetic in retrospect.

50 years old at the time of his death, Steve McQueen might have had another decade or two of top Hollywood billing ahead of him had he survived. McQueen spent the final five years of his life battling cancer; his final "cancer-free" movie was the Irwin Allen disaster flick, The Towering Inferno. McQueen would make three post-Inferno movies before his 1980 death: An Enemy of the People, Tom Horn, and The Hunter.

Audrey Hepburn died in 1993 at the age of 63, but the cancer that took her life did not prematurely end her career. Hepburn had been mostly retired since 1967, although she made a brief "comeback" of sorts in the late '70s and early '80s, when she appeared in three films. Her final acting appearance was in Steven Spielberg's Always, one of the director's least appreciated movies. Although the film was not well received, it did little to blemish Hepburn's reputation.

For Marlon Brando, the decision to keep working into his later years was more one of necessity than desire. Brando's reclusive lifestyle was difficult to maintain, and he needed to keep working in order to pay the bills. Few of the movies Brando made during his last decade of life are worth remembering (except, perhaps, Don Juan de Marco). He made stinkers like Christopher Columbus: The Discovery and The Island of Dr. Moreau simply because the filmmakers were willing to cut a hefty check in exchange for his presence in their movies. His final movie was the mediocre The Score, which paired him with Robert DeNiro.

Another respected actor with a less-than-stellar late career trajectory was Sir Laurence Olivier. Olivier, one of Britain's most respected stage and screen performers of all time, died in 1989 at the age of 82, but the last twenty years of his life contained a variety of hit-or-miss appearances. Projects like The Betsy, Dracula, Clash of the Titans, and (gasp!) Wild Geese II were counterbalanced by a magnificent 1983 TV adaptation of King Lear and 1984's The Bounty. Olivier's final performance was in the 1986 British mini-series adaptation of J. B. Priestley's Lost Empires (Colin Firth's coming-out party) - a nice role in which to take a final bow.

Jimmy Stewart retired to private life after a long and successful career. He died in 1997 at the age of 89. At the time of his death, he hadn't appeared on screen for more than a decade, although he had lent his voice to several animated projects and possibly even a Campbell's soup commercial. Stewart's final project was the TV mini-series North and South Book II. Although most of his post-1970 work was on TV, he made a few movies in the late 1970s, including The Shootist (with John Wayne), Airport '77, and The Magic of Lassie.

Like Stewart, Katharine Hepburn lived the last decade of her 96-year long life out of the public spotlight. Hepburn's final theatrical performance was in the 1994 re-make of Love Affair. That same year, she also appeared in two made-for TV productions, One Christmas and This Can't Be Love. Probably the best remembered of her late-career movies is On Golden Pond, in which she appeared opposite Henry Fonda and for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. Of the seven acting jobs Hepburn took after On Golden Pond, only two were theatrical features. (Love Affair and Grace Quigley)

Finally (for this column at least), there's Paul Newman who, despite dying of cancer at the age of 83, ended his career on his terms. Newman cut down his acting workload beginning in the early 1990s, appearing in only five films that decade, all of which (except perhaps Message in a Bottle) were generally well-received by critics. His final live-action production was 2002's Road to Perdition and his last performance of any kind was voice work for the Disney/Pixar animated feature, Cars. There's some irony to be found that Newman's last film was also the one that grossed the most money. So, just as there are movie-goers who know Laurence Olivier only as Zeus and Alec Guinness only as Obi-Wan, there are sure to be those who will know Newman as the voice of Doc Hudson. As legacies go, that's not a bad one.