Often when actors or singers know a performance is going to be the last of their careers, they will make an effort to make it particularly memorable or emblematic of their entire body of work, going out on a high note. That's their swan song.
That phrase dates back to ancient Greece and references the notion that the swan, an otherwise beautiful bird with nonetheless no pleasant-sounding calls, on the point of death, produces a mournful song that rivals its physical beauty.
A genuine swan song pretty much presupposes that the performer realizes the performance is indeed his or her ultimate act on the stage. But in the movies, an actor's last performance can be difficult to pin down (at least for the viewer), even if an actor intends to retire after a particular project.
In the days of the old studio system, films generally followed a fairly well-regulated process of production, post-production and release. Even an actor who appeared in several films from the same studio during the course of a year could be fairly certain that the films would come out in the same order in which he worked on them and in a reasonably short or at least predictable span.
But nowadays, actors move freely from studio to studio and also work on independent productions, which can take far longer to get to theaters than much more complex studio productions. So even if an actor retires, the last film he or she works on may not be the last one that audiences see. When an actor dies unexpectedly, that's sometimes even more the case.
James Gandolfini, who died in June, has a comedy, "Enough Said," coming out this month, for instance, and a crime drama, "Animal Rescue," announced as due out sometime next year. In any case, he'll be remembered primarily for his years on cable in "The Sopranos."
But things can be far more complicated than that. Pat Morita (best known as Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid films of the 1980s) passed away Nov. 25, 2005, but "Royal Kill," which the Internet Movie Database notes is the last film he worked on, came out in 2009. "Act Your Age," produced and directed locally by Robin Christian Peters in 2004, has a later IMDb release date than "Royal Kill" by a few months, though. And this year saw the appearance of "Blunt Movie," a sketch comedy with Morita in a "Karate Kid" take-off!
When Heath Ledger died during the production of "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" in 2008, writer/director Terry Gilliam finished the film with Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law standing in for Ledger. Dr. Parnassus' traveling "theatre" transports his clients (or are they patients?) into fantasy worlds where their dreams come true, so Gilliam simply had Ledger's character assume a different face in each of three fantasy worlds.
That saved the film — a boon for die-hard Gilliam fans, at least, I suppose — but it did not do much for Ledger's reputation as an actor. That was better served by his penultimate performance as The Joker in "The Dark Knight," for which he won an Academy Award.
Even actors who retire don't always depart in vehicles that show them at the top of their form, though. Take Danville native Gene Hackman, who left acting in 2004 to write novels and paint.
His last film was a comedy — never his strong suit — in which he played a two-term ex-president who becomes involved in a small-town mayoral race and a romantic triangle, both in contention with the town's plumber, played by Ray Romano. Even the title of this anemic, predictable comedy, "Welcome to Mooseport," is not the sort to brighten a resume, let alone cap one off with distinction.
For really excellent, albeit unplanned, swan songs, though, you have to go back to some of Hollywood's biggest stars.
Henry Fonda's last film, "On Golden Pond" (1981), earned him his only Oscar and presented his only opportunity to act with his daughter, Jane, who played his character's daughter. Those characters' strained relationship reflected that of the actors themselves, and the film, one hopes, helped smooth that out.
"The Misfits" (1961) , written by playwright Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston, provided superb farewells for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe plays divorcee Roslyn who becomes involved with Gay, Gable's aging cowboy. Gay refuses to settle down, and things come to a head when they go on a mustang roundup which the sensitive Roslyn does not realize is going to send the horses to a slaughterhouse.
Gable did most of his own stunts, including being dragged behind a truck across salt flats at 30 mph, and considered this the best work of his career. Monroe projected convincing vulnerability on the screen but was apparently a disaster on the set because of her drug and alcohol use; Huston even shut down production to send her to a hospital for two weeks of detox.
A couple days after shooting ended, Gable had a heart attack and died. Monroe died of a drug overdose a year and a half later without completing another film. In retrospect, their final lines resonate with a poignancy well beyond that which the film itself confers on them.
Roslyn: "How do you find your way back (home) in the dark?" Gay: "Just head for that big star straight on. The highway's under it. It'll take us right home."
In my opinion, though, the best such movie swan song belongs to John Wayne in Don Siegel's 1976 "The Shootist," where he plays an aging gunslinger dying of cancer. Wayne had already survived one bout of cancer and was free of it at the time of filming but died from it three years later without having made another film. In any case, the film served to sum up Wayne's career as a western star, with specific references to his past films.
That includes appearances by actors he'd performed with in the past, most notably James Stewart, Lauren Bacall and John Carradine, characters named after real people or other characters in Wayne films, and dialogue with subtexts referring to previous films.
But most moving is an opening montage recounting the life history of Wayne's gunfighter using shots from Wayne westerns spanning four decades. It's hard to imagine a better filmic farewell.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.