“Die, my dear? Why that’s the last thing I’ll do!” – Groucho Marx (1890-1977)
It comes to us all, and those in tinseltown are no different. There comes a time where the sun must set for some of Hollywood’s greatest talents, leaving behind a catalogue of work that will continue to be enjoyed by future generations. Below, in no particular order, are a selection of great final roles from late film stars – some are extremely well known, whilst others flew more under the radar, but all feature the swansong of an acting great which makes them worthy of attention:
Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond (1981: Dir: Mark Rydell)
Whilst younger generations may recognise Jane Fonda as one of the stars of Netflix hit Grace and Frankie (2014-present), not all may be aware that she is in fact the daughter of a Hollywood great who oversaw a family of notable actors. Henry Fonda was one of the biggest stars of the classic era, featuring in innumerable films and garnering across the board respect as a master of the craft. A fitting end to his career came in the form of On Golden Pond, which won him an Oscar and will ensure you almost certainly have something in your eye more than once upon viewing.
A ruminative take on old age places Fonda alongside fellow Hollywood legend Katherine Hepburn. His daughter Jane Fonda, who by the time of this film had long taken up the mantle of star in her own right, purchased the film rights specifically so her father could play ailing Norman Thayer. She has since said that watching the film makes for an especially emotional experience due to the strained onscreen father/daughter relationship holding many parallels to their real life bond. Laden with sentiment, this won’t be a film for everyone, but it makes for a fitting final role for an acting giant made all the more special in seeing real cathartic family moments playing out onscreen.
Carrie Fisher, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017: Dir: Rian Johnson)
The sudden passing of Carrie Fisher in 2016 at the age of 60 was felt the world over, though it seems fitting that her one of her final roles is a return to the one that made her name. The actress was catapulted to fame as Princess Leia in a little film called Star Wars back in 1977 and whilst she did complete another project prior to her death – a film titled Wonderwell also starring pop star Rita Ora – it has not yet been released, and the utilisation of unused footage from The Force Awakens (2015) meant fans were able to posthumously witness what for many constituted a perfect send off.
A lifelong champion of the underdog who did not shy away from discussing the realities of addiction and mental illness, Fisher was the daughter of another treasured actress, Debbie Reynolds, who passed away just one day after her. Her turn as General Leia Organa (stripped of her Princess title) was widely lauded in both new entries into the franchise, her role as mother of villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) adding several shades of grey to the well worn “light side versus dark side” concept that has come to define the franchise. Further unused footage means that Fisher will appear in the 2019 as yet untitled conclusion to the new trilogy, a fitting tribute to a woman who brought a disarming talent and honesty to everything she did.
Raủl Juliả, Street Fighter (1994: Dir: Steve E De Souza)
A good performance doesn’t always constitute a good film, which was certainly the case for Raủl Juliả in his final role. The Puerto Rican actor became known and beloved to audiences as patriarch Gomez in two live action adaptations of The Addams Family just a few short years prior to his death in the early 1990’s. Based on the famous arcade style game, the likelihood of critical adoration were always low, though it proved to be a commercial hit by raking in three times its budget. Juliả’s performance as militaristic dictator General M Bison – the villain of the piece to Jean Claude Van Damme’s action hero – was highly praised across the board to the point that he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Saturn Awards, no mean feat given the film routinely features on lists of worst video game adaptations of all time.
It is a testament to his talent and professionalism that Julia is still capable of entertaining whilst being let down by almost every other aspect of the film, with The Washington Post critic Richard Harrington noting that he is “an actor too skilled for the demands of the evil warlord….but far too professional to give anything less than his best.” The actor – who started out in plays before cracking Hollywood – took on the project as a way of spending more time with his children, who were fans of the video game franchise. Whilst there may not be much for adult viewers to take away, children are sure to enjoy the action flick, which given his motivations for pursuing the project makes it a fitting conclusion for another gifted actor who was taken far too soon.
John Cazale, The Deer Hunter (1978: Dir: Michael Cimino)
A beautiful final performance made sweeter by the story of kindness behind it, John Cazale’s turn in The Deer Hunter is a often considered one of the finest final turns in Hollywood history. The famed character actor – best known as Fredo in the first two Godfather films – had his career cut short by cancer, passing away at 42. His terminal diagnosis meant the studio were reluctant to keep him on the film, but his partner Meryl Streep (who also features) has recounted that co-star Robert DeNiro personally paid the extortionate insurance fees to ensure Cazale kept his part. A harrowing tale – famed critic Roger Ebert claimed it to be neither anti or pro war – of how Vietnam wreaked havoc on the lives of the ordinary. Cazale puts in a thoughtful turn as Stan, one of the members of the male friend group at the centre of the film who does not go off to war, he brings a sense of realism whilst providing a masterclass in scene stealing with lines such as “nothing’s changed, I’m getting more ass than a toilet seat and Axel here, he’s getting fatter than ever.”
Still considered a classic, the film has come under contemporary criticism for historical inaccuracy – it came to light that the writer didn’t interview a single veteran before creating the script, and there has additionally never been any evidence that Russian Roulette games took place during the war – though it continues to pack an undoubtable emotional impact. It is sad to think of the further career successes that Cazale would have had should he have lived, but The Deer Hunter stands tall as a worthy testament to his mighty talent and is a fine finale – we all owe Robert DeNiro thanks for helping ensure it saw the light of day.
Spencer Tracy, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967: Dir: Stanley Kramer)
Another icon of the classic era of Hollywood cinema was Spencer Tracy, who made a name for himself starring alongside Clark Gable in the 1930’s, only to become one of the most beloved stars of the studio system. He is also known for his 26 year relationship with Katherine Hepburn, his frequent co-star and an icon in her own right. The pair kept their relationship quiet as Tracy was married for the duration, though he and his wife are reported to have lived separate lives. Stanley Kramer’s seminal comedy, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, proved to be his final role and the film proved notable for tackling racial issues in a time where studios otherwise refused to.
The film sees Tracy take on the role of a liberal newspaper publisher who has his views tested when his daughter (Katharine Houghton) brings home her new black fiance (Sidney Poitier). Whilst there are certainly aspects of the film which haven’t aged well for the 2018 viewer, it deserves credit for it’s tackling of what was at that time one of the biggest societal taboos, whilst also a chance to see Tracy deliver some relatively challenging character work opposite Hepburn as his onscreen wife. By the late 1960’s Tracy was in poor health and wasn’t working much – he was delighted to take the role, but was openly referring to it as his last. He died 17 days after shooting finished, leaving behind a final performance that is also one of his finest.
“I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun, and I enjoyed every minute of it” – Errol Flynn (1909-1959)
Above are just some of the highlights from generations of Hollywood greats – are there any you feel should have been included? Share your views in the comments section below!