Posted on Tuesday, January 13th, 2009 by Steve Mason
I have spent most of my career reporting on and studying sports and entertainment. Athletes and actors have very similar personality traits. In fact, many athletes secretly harbor acting aspirations and plenty of actors wish they could have been pro ballplayers and wind up playing in celebrity all-star games and pro ams.
Some athletes successfully made the transition, like The Dirty Dozen’s Jim Brown, Fred Dryer (TV’s Hunter), My Name Is Earl’s Jason Lee (pro skateboarder) and former Laker Rick Fox (Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns). Others have provided comic relief like Kareem Abdul Jabaar (Airplane!) Julius Irving in 1979’s The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and, most ridiculous of all, Shaquile O’Neal in Kazaam.
The difficult decision that athletes and actors have in common is when to quit. In baseball, Hall of Famer Willie Mayes lumbered through the outfield for the Mets at Shea Stadium well past his prime, and there was something sad at about watching legendary lefty Steve Carlton as a long reliever for the Minnesota Twins. Boxers like George Foreman and Muhammad Ali are famous for hanging on too long, and we are about to enter another NFL off-season where future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre will teeter between retirement and one more season.
Actors are also reluctant to “hang it up,” often working despite declining skills in projects not befitting their excellent resumes. Academy Award winner Jimmy Stewart’s final two jobs were as a guest voice on the 1992 Disney series cartoon Goof Troop and as voice talent in the forgettable animated feature An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. Frank Sinatra’s last few credits included Cannonball Run II (1984), a guest starring role on Magnum P.I. and as a voice on the animated Nikelodeon series Hey Arnold. Meanwhile, Oscar winner and six-time nominee Greer Garson’s final IMDb entry is for an episode of The Love Boat.
In no way do I mean to begrudge actors (or athletes) for that matter for cashing a few paychecks near the “end of regulation,” but there is something to be said for going out in a fitting way. That is one of the reasons that Clint Eastwood’s final movie packs such a punch.
The legendary Eastwood has said that his portrayal of Walt Kowalski, the embittered, bigoted Korean War veteran at the center of Gran Torino, will mark his final acting performance. If he holds to that decision, it is the perfect ending to an iconic acting career. Not only has the movie opened wide with the biggest box office weekend of his career with $29M for a new cume of just over $40M, but he has met with critical raves as well, already winning Best Actor from The National Board of Review. There is increasing momentum for a possible third career Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
When Gran Torino was first discussed and few details were available, it was speculated that this was the final chapter of the Harry Callahan series (Dirty Harry). That didn’t turn out to be the case, but it does function as a de facto finale for the five-picture Dirty Harry franchise. The Kowalski character is every bit as alienated as Harry Callahan. He doesn’t believe in the law or the simple answers provided by religion. He’s a broken-down old man who is driven by his own unorthodox sense of justice. (I am trying to make my point without spoiling the movie for those that haven’t seen it yet.)
My mission in this column is to find other actors who, by choice, restraint, circumstance or by their untimely deaths, finished their careers with performances that embody the best of their life’s work.
1. JOHN WAYNE, THE SHOOTIST
I hit my local indie video store last night so I could re-watch The Shootist for this piece. Directed by Don Siegel, the man behind Dirty Harry, this is a perfectly calibrated farewell movie for Hollywood’s ultimate movie star. There are many parallels with Gran Torino, which I will detail in a separate piece. Wayne plays legendary gunfighter J.B. Brooks who is dying of “a cancer” (as diagnosed by Jimmy Stewart as Doc Hostetler), and he clearly dictates the terms of his own death, going out in a blaze of glory. At one point, Harry Morgan (Colonel Potter from M*A*S*H), says to Brooks, “Keeping you alive long enough to die natural is costin’ the tax payers a pretty penny. You’ve plain plumb lived out your time.” In that moment, you get a hint about how Wayne may be viewing himself at the age of 69. He tells us it’s time to go, and he does it his way.
2. HENRY FONDA, ON GOLDEN POND
Too ill to attend the Oscar ceremony, his daughter Jane picked up his Academy Award for Best Actor. There was plenty of sentimentality in his win, but he also gave the best acting performance of the year. In many ways this became the summation of his career. No nonsense. Prickly at times. Fonda played octogenarian Norman Thayer who doesn’t have a loving relationship with his daughter Chelsea (played by real-life daughter Jane). At one point Chelsea says to him, “It just seems like we’ve been mad at each other for so long…” He retorts, “I didn’t think we were mad; I just thought we didn’t like each other.”
3. GRETA GARBO, THE TWO-FACED WOMAN
Her first “talkie” was in 1930 with Anna Christie, which was promoted with the line “Garbo Talks” and earned her an Academy Award nomination. Born in Sweden, she was an exotic European beauty, and she was easily the most heralded actress of the 1930’s with movies like Camille and Ninotchka. Then came 1941’s Two-Faced Woman, an attempt at romantic comedy, which sold tickets, but failed critically. At the age of 41, she quit. Garbo didn’t want to become another “sweater girl.” In order to preserve the Garbo illusion, she lived the rest of her days secluded. This may be the ultimate case of knowing when to walk away.
4. HEATH LEDGER, THE DARK KNIGHT
If you have been reading me on a regular basis, you know that I am a huge proponent for The Dark Knight. I view it as a masterpiece, and it hinges on the remarkable work of Heath Ledger, who died of a drug overdose prior to the film’s release. Not even 30 when he died, Ledger had the makings of a brilliant career having delivered heartbreaking work in films like Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain. Even in mediocre films, like Lords of Dogtown, he delivered the most interesting work. His turn as the Joker raises two interesting questions. Did that role somehow drive him deeper into addiction and despair? And, how good could he have become?
5. INGRID BERGMAN, A WOMAN CALLED GOLDA
Best remembered for her work in Casablanca, she survived scandal after falling in love with director Roberto Rossellini and was forced into exile in Italy. Then she made one of the greatest comebacks of all time, winning the Best Actress Oscar for Anastasia in 1956. Overall, she earned seven Academy Award nominations with three wins, and her final role for television was completely in keeping with her resume. She was relevant, powerful and courageous as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, winning both the Emmy and Golden Globe for Best Actress.
6. SPENCER TRACY, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER
The legendary Tracy died just a few weeks after shooting finished. Directed by Stanley Kramer, and also starring longtime Tracy love Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier, the film debuted after the landmark Loving vs. Virginia case was settled in the Supreme Court, declaring the state of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, banning interracial marriage as unconstitutional. Early in his career, he was praised for his “realness” amidst highly-stylized performances. By the time Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner earned him his ninth Oscar nomination (posthumously), his naturalistic style had become the norm, and he was starring in a movie about a the still-controversial real life hot button issue of interracial marriage.
7. GRACE KELLY, HIGH SOCIETY
Her final acting performance hit theatre just three months after she became Princess Grace of Monaco. By no means was it her best performance, having won the Oscar a year earlier for The Country Girl, but with music by Cole Porter and alongside star turns for Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Louie Armstrong, the movie served as a celebratory send-off to Kelly’s life of royalty.
8. JACK LEMMON, TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE
As with Gran Torino, The Shootist and On Golden Pond, here we have an actor and a character coming to terms with his mortality simultaneously. After eight Academy Award nominations with two wins, twenty-three Golden Globe nominations and six HFPA victories and an Emmy with a total of five nominations, Lemmon found one more great role. Based on Mitch Album’s beloved story of former professor Morrie Schwartz and his battle with ALS, this screen legend delivered a pitch-perfect performance winning an Emmy and a Golden Globe nomination in this Oprah Winfrey production for ABC.
9. JAMES DEAN, GIANT
A head-on car accident killed this iconic star on State Route 41 in California in 1955, but a legend was born in the wreckage of that Porsche 550 Spyder. He only has three movies on his resume with Rebel Without a Cause being the only for which he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. His performance as Cal Trask in East of Eden earned him his first posthumous Oscar nomination, and he had only recently wrapped his role as Jett Rink in Giant at the time of his death. It remains interesting to me that he was trying to avoid typecasting by accepting more of a supporting role to Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in Giant, and he actually cut his hair to look like he had a receding hairline and went gray for one of his scenes.
10. PETER FINCH. NETWORK
For the moment, Finch is the only actor to have won the Academy Award posthumously.
(That will likely change this year with Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight.) His raving maniac of a news anchorman Howard Beale has left an indelible impression on movie history. The late 1970’s social malaise was shaken somehow by Finch’s bellowing, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” It is likely the most original performance in his forty-year career as an actor.
Humphrey Bogart, The Harder They Fall
Adrienne Shelly, Waitress
Lillian Gish, The Whales of August
Brandon Lee, The Crow
Bruce Lee, Game of Death (technically unfinished)