Director Steven Soderbergh claims that he’s retiring and that this week’s release of ‘Side Effects’ will be his last theatrical feature. For today’s Roundtable, we look at other famous examples where a director or an actor’s final film (whether due to death or retirement) was a particularly fitting (or not fitting) way to go out.
When thinking of a director’s final movie, my thoughts immediately go to Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in America‘, a film that I consider a perfect masterpiece. When it was released domestically, Warner Bros. cut the movie down from 259 minutes to 139, changed the structure of the narrative, and pumped out something well below mediocre. Not until decades later was the original version released stateside. The differences between the two are night and day. I don’t know how he slipped through the cracks, but Leone made it through his career without ever receiving an Academy Award nomination. The domestic theatrical cut of ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ may not have been worthy of that, but had Warner Bros. released his full cut, I’m convinced that the director would have gotten at least one nomination. Only now do we get to see the perfection that he created with his last film.
Talk about one tough, insightful movie. ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead‘ would have been an impressive film from a director at any age, but for Sidney Lumet to make this at the ripe old age of 83 is even more impressive. That it turned out to be his final film is sublime.
I’m not a fan of writers and directors who that announce they’re retiring. The way I see it, creative work isn’t strictly a pay-the-bills enterprise. It’s not something you do until you have enough money in the bank, then sit around drinking cocktails and doing who-knows-what ’til you punch out. It’s something you do because you feel the need to say something about life, and whatever the things are that you want to say, you get better at expressing them with age and experience. (This is part of the reason I wonder about John Hughes, who made a bloody fortune at the age of 40 with ‘Home Alone’, seemed to mark time with kiddy slop for the next 18 years, and never directed another film after 1991. That just makes me think he was only ever in it for the money, which is a shame, because he clearly knew a thing or two about life.)
Then there’s Lumet, who released an invaluable book on making movies when he was 72, and kept right on making them – both good and bad – for another decade. As best I know, he never announced that he would retire. If his health had held up, I’m certain that he would have kept on turning out films for as long as he could. Which, actually, is what he did, and his work was all the better for it.
I enjoy ‘Family Plot‘, Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, but I can’t help wondering what types of movies he might’ve made after that. With is second-to-last film ‘Frenzy’, it seemed like Hitch was getting ready to embrace darker, more graphic content. Up until that point, he’d been somewhat stymied by the overzealous censors of the day. ‘Family Plot’ felt like an unceremonious end to the career of cinema’s most revered director. After creating such classic suspense pictures as ‘The Birds’, ‘North by Northwest’ and ‘Vertigo’ (recently anointed Best Film Ever), it’s difficult to fathom that Hitchcock ended his illustrious career with an upbeat, humorous mystery. Oh, what I would give to see the kinds of darkly graphic movies he could’ve made after ‘Family Plot’.
For decades, the general view of Stanley Kubrick was that he was a crazy obsessive, taking years and years to put together his projects and then going over schedule on most of them. Word from the set of ‘Eyes Wide Shut‘ told tales of Kubrick spending weeks on single scenes, with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman continually returning to the set for reshoots. How appropriate then that the finished product is about a man crazily obsessed with the thought of his wife’s imagined infidelity, which sends him down a rabbit hole of sex, mystery and death. Kubrick’s infamous eye for detail is in prime form, and like the best of his work, the true substance lies below the surface. Unfairly derided at the time of its release (it was foolishly billed as the sexiest film ever made), a look back at it reveals ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ to be one of Kubrick’s most powerful and endlessly fascinating pictures. It’s a fitting swan song for a man who dared to think beyond what anyone else in cinema was doing.
You can’t give a better farewell performance than Henry Fonda did in ‘On Golden Pond‘, his final theatrical release, which nabbed him his first and only Best Actor Oscar. (Fonda also got an honorary Oscar the year prior.) Playing the crotchety yet lovable Norman Thayer alongside fellow Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn, Fonda fills the character with wisdom, humor and the fears of aging/not mattering any more. Although he would appear one more time in the made-for-TV movie ‘Summer Solstice’, Fonda’s big screen goodbye proved to be the perfect cap on a remarkable movie career.
Orson Welles’ impact on film (not to mention radio) not only has enduring significance, but seems to grow with each passing year rather than diminish. Remarkable for me as far as his acting is concerned was his incredible screen presence and fine, drama-inducing voice. In the animated film, ‘Transformers: The Movie‘, a threat large enough to eclipse the interplanetary conflict between gigantic robots was needed. That threat took the form of the planet-devouring Unicron, and was voiced by Orson Welles, a performance that concluded days prior to his death. On his last performance and in the days of failing health, Welles is quoted as saying: “You know what I did this morning? I played the voice of a toy. I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I’m destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen.”
Robert Altman was a workaholic. The man had a heart transplant sometime during the 1990s and didn’t tell anyone. That didn’t stop him from working steadily, even making one of his greatest films during that period, the masterpiece ‘Short Cuts’. The director’s final film, a narrative adaptation of the (mostly non-narrative) radio program ‘A Prairie Home Companion‘, may not be a masterpiece, but (save for a wretched supporting performance from Lindsay Lohan) it’s a pretty interesting little movie infused with themes of death, mortality, and the struggle to make a lasting significance in your world – all topics that I’m sure weighed heavily on the filmmaker’s mind. At the age of 81, Altman’s health was in such rapid decline that the film’s insurance bonders required that a backup director (Paul Thomas Anderson) stand by on set to complete the picture in case Altman couldn’t do it. As far as I’m aware, Anderson wasn’t needed.
At the time of his death, Altman was still working on pre-production to a (never filmed) new project called ‘Hands on a Hard Body’ (adapted from a documentary about the famous truck-touching competition, sadly not a sequel to the 1984 sex comedy ‘Hardbodies’). While I’m sure that whatever Altman could have done with that would have been interesting in its own right, I think it’s perhaps for the best that he left off where he did.