Movie stars have a sort of eternal quality to them, particularly the legends. James Stewart is forever the 30-something George Bailey, proprietor of the Bailey Building and Loan in Bedford Falls. Audrey Hepburn is forever the princess on a lark in Rome. Cary Grant is forever Roger Thornhill, running from spies in South Dakota while wearing a perfectly tailored suit.
And yet, in reality, our favorite celebrities made movies until eventually they made their last picture. Some of their choices for a final movie are well within character, but others are surprising, in both good ways and disappointing ways. Let’s take a look at a few of these final movies. They are all worth a rental, if only to say goodbye.
I’m not kidding. James Stewart, the icon of elegance and American earnestness had as his final film role an animated dog character named Wylie Burp. Yikes! This movie had a ton of talent attached to it: Steven Spielberg produced it, James Horner (Titanic (1997)) composed the score, and the voice actors include John Cleese, Jon Lovitz, Amy Irving and Dom DeLuise. It’s an adorable animated movie with high adventure—featuring mice in the Old West. Am I recommending this as a romantic date night movie? Uh, no. But it sure is one your kids will enjoy and probably watch a dozen times before you return it.
Bogart was dying of cancer when this film was being made. He was only 57. As you watch him here in this cynical and dark tale of the world of boxing, you can’t help but rue his early death all over again. Here Bogart is the press agent for a clearly inept, but giant boxer brought in from Argentina. Rod Steiger is menacing and terrible as the boxer’s promoter. I wouldn’t call this a great film, but it is a very good one. This is not the Bogart of Casablanca (1942) or The Maltese Falcon (1941). It’s still the cynical, world-weary but morally clear Bogart of those films. Here he is tired and willing to give in to make a buck. It’s a sadder, chastened Bogart, and that makes the performance somehow all the more powerful.
This is, by general consensus, one of Steven Spielberg's worst movies. A remake of the 1943 World War II romantic drama, this moves the aerial danger from war to battling forest fires. The cast is magnificent: Richard Dreyfus, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, and Audrey Hepburn as, well, an angel. As I said, it doesn’t quite work. After 1967, Hepburn basically retired from the movies, and made only four more (including the luminescent Robin and Marian in 1976). Is this movie worth seeing? I will give it a qualified yes. If you go in not expecting much, I think you will like it. But most importantly, it has the radiant Audrey Hepburn in it.
Okay, it’s been a terrible week. It’s Friday night and everything has been a disaster since you woke up Monday morning and you just need to sit in front of the TV with a bowl of frozen macaroni and cheese you’ve overheated in the microwave and watch something silly, fluffy, maybe slightly stupid, and romantic. Here’s the movie for you. Grant plays a British businessman in Tokyo during the 1964 Summer Olympics, who ends up playing matchmaker for two crazy kids (Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton). Grant is charming and funny as always, and it is worth remembering that he was at his best in comedies. If you’re looking for his best comedies, check out His Girl Friday (1940) or The Awful Truth (1937). This isn’t the greatest exit from the limelight for Cary Grant, but it isn’t bad either. Lots of fun and worth a rental.
This is a remarkable film. I don’t think John Wayne is a great actor, but I do think he was one of the greatest movie stars. He has a visceral presence when he appears on the screen and he always plays the same character: John Wayne. Here he is cast as legendary gunfighter J. B. Books, who is informed he is dying of cancer. He arrives in Carson City, NV, to live out his final months, but his past cannot leave him alone. What a cast: Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Ron Howard, Scatman Carothers, Harry Morgan, and John Carradine. If you’re looking for an old-fashioned Western with a twist, this is the movie for you. Wayne stopped making movies after this one and died of cancer himself three years later.
In 1961, Cagney made One, Two, Three, a fast-paced Billy Wilder comedy set in Berlin during the construction of the wall. And that seemed like it was it for Cagney. He did some voiceover work in the late 1960s, but had retired from the movies. And then in 1981, he was coaxed into making this magnificent film by the expatriate Czech director Milos Forman. Based on E.L. Doctorow's 1976 novel about turn-of-the-century America, Cagney plays the racist chief of police. It’s quite a performance. Cagney has a small role, but honestly, until I recently watched the movie again, his performance was the only one I remembered. To get a sense of Cagney at the height of his powers check out his riveting performances in the astonishing gangster movie White Heat (1949) or his marvelous song and dance man performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Cagney was 81 when he made this movie and had been retired from performing for nearly a decade. Yet, there he was again, up there on the big screen. A deeply gratifying performance in a small role.
Schmaltz is a form of rendered chicken fat. It’s excellent as a base for frying, or, if hardened, as a spread on crackers. Maybe not the healthiest thing you’ll eat this week, but delicious nevertheless. As a type of movie-making, it’s also not the most challenging filmmaking you’ll see this week, but delicious nevertheless, as well. Take such schmaltzy melodramas as Now, Voyager (1942) or An Affair to Remember (1957). Please. When I was in my 20s, these movies were subjects of heavy disdain to my oh-so-incredibly-cool self. Now? I love them. Love Affair fits right into this, with a tale of star-crossed lovers who fall in love but can never seem to quite meet up. Katharine Hepburn plays salty Aunt Ginny. She’s just great. Also starring Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Garry Shandling, Chloe Webb, and Pierce Brosnan. It was written by Robert Towne. You’d think with all this talent the movie would be a bit better. But it isn’t. Still, it’s an old-fashioned, schmaltzy romantic melodrama. What are you waiting for?
Newman had a lifelong fascination with auto racing that began in the late 60s. He started a quiet career as a race car driver in 1972, entering races at first as P. L. Newman, and became obsessed with the sport for the rest of his life. In 1972, he drove a Porsche 935 in the 24-hour LeMans race in France, finishing second. It is, therefore, somehow appropriate that his final film was the computer animated film about car racing from Pixar. Newman voiced Doc Hudson, a 1951 Hudson Hornet, a sleek and elegant sedan from the now-defunct Hudson Motor Company. The Cars franchise has never been the strongest of the Pixar films, but it has been enormously lucrative for the firm. Newman’s character is the wise old man of the film. In a way, it’s wonderful to think of Newman as a sleek, elegant, bold American car. While he voiced a couple of other documentaries after this film, this is his final performance as an actor. It’s a good one, and one you can enjoy as an adult along with the kids. It’s a sweetly cantankerous performance and a suitable farewell to a career that lasted more than 50 years.
Heath Ledger was one of the brightest young lights in the Hollywood firmament. His Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) was the pinnacle of a career that was arching upward. Reportedly, however, his journey into that role led him into some fairly dark places psychologically and took an enormous toll on his ability to sleep. His death was ruled accidental due a large number of opioids in his system. He was nearly done filming this crazy and almost hallucinatory tale of magic and fantasy from the Victorian Era in England. For those of you who are Heath Ledger fans, this movie is a must see.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.