Some actors just seem to fizzle out, whereas others go with a huge bang. Here’s my personal top ten of actors who finished at the top of their game. It’s in no particular order, and you are welcome to let me know who should have been included and what a crappy film reviewer I must be, etc.
Probably one of Wayne’s best works. Partially mirroring his own plight, he plays JB Books, a man diagnosed with terminal cancer (although it’s not known for sure whether Wayne knew that he had cancer when the film was made). A gunslinger, famed and feared for killing tens of men, he takes a room in Carson City to live out his last few weeks. He realizes that his natural end will be painful and seeks a way to minimize the pain and die with honour. An amazing performance, a superb cast and more than a touch of the Samurai about his code. A must see.
No list (of mine, anyway) would be complete without a mention for Ledger’s absolutely sublime portrayal of The Joker in what has to be the best interpretation ever of Batman. For all the pedants out there, I know his last film was technically The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), but as he managed to contribute not a great deal before he unexpectedly left us, I’m not going to count it. He will always be the lisping, squealing, twitching and generally barking mad Joker to me. To take what was essentially a camp, giggling buffoon of a character and turn it almost single-handedly into a frightening bag of crazy took someone special.
Peter Finch – Network (1976)
Purists will shout me down here as technically, Finch’s last role was as Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, in the TV movie Raid on Entebbe in the same year. However, we all know that TV movies are a different animal from ‘real’ films – even though Raid on Entebbe was actually a damn fine effort. For his role as a deliciously off-his-head new anchor in Network, Finch won the only posthumous Oscar in the ‘Best Actor’ category. Interestingly, the only posthumous award for ‘Best Actor in a Supporting Role’ is held by a fellow Aussie, Heath Ledger. Working with legends such as Sidney Lumet (director), Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty, Finch absolutely stole the show in this polemic against being told the network version of “the truth”. Set against ratings wars, Howard Beale (Finch) has a dead wife and a job he’s about to get fired from. He announces that he will kill himself live on air. His transition into a people’s messiah is still something we can all relate to today, some 30-odd years down the line.
John Cazale – The Deer Hunter (1978)
A real loss to film-making, Cazale was blighted with bone cancer and only lived to see his 42nd birthday. His amazing legacy – aside from his numerous stage appearances – includes The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). His role as Stan was as good as anything he’d ever done. Hell, if you haven’t yet seen this film, get to your video shop, Apple store, or whatever way you prefer to rent or buy your films and do yourself a favour. There’s not a bad thing about it and it’s a fitting eulogy for Cazale.
Spencer Tracy – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)
Tracy was apparently so ill during the shooting of GWCTD, the producers and cast weren’t sure he’d make it all the way to the end. Luckily for them, us, and Tracy himself, he did and left the legacy of one of the best and definitely the most controversial film of that year. In 60s America, inter-racial marriage was prohibited by law in many states. GWCTD tackled head-on the utter stupidity of such a situation. Sidney Poitier and Katherine Hepburn are wonderful, and Tracy shines as the father coming to terms with having a black man marry his daughter. Superbly played, and a very important film.
Bruce Lee – Enter the Dragon (1973)
This one had it all – martial arts action, a ‘mysterious’ death chock-full of conspiracy theories, a charismatic star and, er, did I mention the martial arts action? Lee’s first and only full-on Hollywood effort, he died in Hong Kong during post-production. The story itself seems kind of simple these days – Lee and a couple of other guys are hired to infiltrate the island of the reclusive Han, in order to uncover his opium trade. They have to join the invitational martial arts competition as part of their cover. Yes, it looks cheaply made, and the story is simple, but this, for me, was really the zenith of martial arts films that spawned a huge swathe of imitators.
Richard Farnsworth – The Straight Story (1999)
A stuntman for many years, he performed stunts for such movies as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), High Plains Drifter (1973) and Blazing Saddles (1974) before turning his hand to ‘proper’ acting. His acting career was as eclectic as it is possible to be, with a wide range of supporting and character roles. Although a famous face, he never really got top billing, until David Lynch’s biography of Alvin Straight, the old man who set off on an epic 300-mile journey across America to see his ill brother. On a lawnmower. Lynch’s careful hand, some excellent cinematography and top performances all make Farnsworth’s swan song something special. Sadly, he shot himself soon after completion of the movie when he found he had terminal cancer.
Fred Gwynne – My Cousin Vinny (1992)
“A strange choice”, I hear you cry. Maybe. Bear in mind that there was a lot more to Gwynne than The Munsters and Car 54, Where are You? He had many and varied TV roles and some very diverse parts in movies as he was such a versatile and talented actor. For me, at least, his best role was also to be his final screen appearance (unless you count some voice work he did on the 1992 documentary Lincoln). In My Cousin Vinny, he plays a world-weary, seen-it-all judge presiding over the case being fought by the hapless and often useless Vinny (Joe Pesci). Again, if you haven’t seen this, you missed out. Gwynne effortlessly provides some wonderfully timed humour in a gem of a comedy.
And James steps in here to finish the ‘top ten’ with a couple of his own…
Peter Sellars – Being There (1979)
Technically, not his last film appearance – that dubious honour went to Piers Haggard’s The Fiendish Plot of Doctor Fu Manchu (1980), which was released but a few days after Sellars’ most untimely death at the mere age of 54, on 24 July 1980. One can only hope that the great actor-comedian never got to see Haggard’s travesty, but there is no doubting that Hal Ashby’s Being There proved, once and for all, the depth and range of Sellars’ ability. The former Inspector Clouseau plays Chance, a child-like gardener who knows nothing of life outside his master’s mansion, save the jingles and catchprases he has picked up from TV. When thrust into the world following the death of his ageing employer, Chance is, by a series of contrivances and coincidences, mistaken for a profound thinker and leader of men. With a performance from Sellars that simply defines pathos and comic timing, and an ending that will move you to your very soul, there can be no better epitaph for this tortured genius.
Sir Richard Burton – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
He lost some of his edge with a series of spectacularly misguided script choices during the 1970s, but Burton as O’Brien, the ‘Ministry of Love’ torturer assigned to Winston Smith (John Hurt) in Michael Radford’s excellent adaptation of Orwell’s dystopia, was a simply magisterial return to form from one of Britain’s all-time great actors. A pity, of course, that it was his last film, but an undoubted high note. What’s in Room 101? Don’t ask…