Robert Redford may be undecided about whether or not his role as a friendly senior-aged bank robber in director David Lowery’s new dramedy The Old Man & the Gun will be his last acting work, but nonetheless, the announcement got us thinking about the final big screen roles of other film legends.
Underneath Bogie’s hardened exterior was always a deep sadness that seemed on the verge of revealing itself. That’s why his performance in Casablanca is as iconic as it is, because it encapsulates the archetype of the seemingly emotionless man’s man who’s yearning for love on the inside. His final role before succumbing to throat cancer was the perfect culmination of this persona, an ex-sports writer tasked with exploiting an ignorant boxer (Mike Lane) in order to make a lot of money for a corrupt promoter (Rod Steiger), only to gradually come face to face with the guilt of his exploits, in the underrated boxing drama The Harder They Fall. The script was based on a novel by Budd Schulberg, who, with his work for On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd, never shied away from showing America’s blunt acceptance of corruption and moral decay, but always held hope for one good person who would sacrifice it all in order to maintain a standard of decency. Bogie plays that character here, showcasing a subtle arc that never grandstands his changing morality, his guilt obviously hardening as he continues to con everyone around him for his payday. His turn into being decent and righting wrongs is subtle and refreshingly un-heroic. I wouldn’t be surprised if George Clooney studied this performance for Michael Clayton.
Director John Huston’s intimate modern western drama about a group of damaged people struggling to find love ended up serving the final performances for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. As if prescient of the death of these two legends, The Misfits gave them the opportunity to bear their souls to the audience via their characters. Monroe’s Roslyn begins the story as the soft-spoken sexpot who’s the center of attention for all straight males within a ten-mile radius, only to gradually reveal herself as a frail soul with tons of emotional baggage, looking for some form of pure love in a harsh world. Gable’s Gay is the cocksure, suave figure we’ve seen in countless Gable roles before, proclaiming to the world that he’s a man’s man who’ll fuck whoever he wants, do whatever he wants, any old time. Gay and Roslyn’s romance begins as mutual physical attraction, but digs deeper as the two open up about how emotionally broken they are. Through Gable’s self-aware performance, Gay eventually realizes that a macho narcissistic life has left a lot of hurt around him. Gable dispels his “calm under any pressure” persona with a heartbreaking scene where Gay drunkenly calls for his children to come spend some time with him, knowing full well that years of ignoring their existence has resulted in his own isolation. The man who’s synonymous with ending a movie with “I don’t give a damn” ends The Misfits on a note of compassion and compromise. Can’t think of a better goodbye.
This is one of those situations where the actor is mainly known for their explosive final role, but before his posthumous Oscar-winning performance as Howard Beale, the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” in Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s crystal ball about how morally corrupt mass media was about to become, Peter Finch spent decades establishing a reputation as a versatile powerhouse of an actor. His tonally different but equally memorable roles in Sunday Bloody Sunday and The Flight of the Phoenix alone are enough to showcase this pedigree. With Howard Beale, Finch creates a character who could have easily come across as a caricature. Instead, the veteran actor imbues Beale with layer upon layer as he digs deeper into the character’s gradual mental decline. The sadness and desperation within Beale, connected to his fiery resolve to be heard in a world that devalues the worth of the individual with every passing day, required an actor with the professional determination and insight of Finch’s caliber, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.
Though Ridley Scott’s sword and sandals throwback may be massively overrated, it nevertheless gave Oliver Reed, an intense actor with operatic presence emanating through his giant, luminously expressive eyes, the sendoff he deserved. The production was famous for having to use a bunch of computer magic and camera tricks after Reed died during production, but what we get out of him as the stern gladiator trainer who holds tremendous respect for the sport as well as an unbreakable code of honor intertwined with it, provides a final illustration of the actor’s deft touch when it comes to tragic characters. In the two decades before Gladiator, Reed appeared in small or insignificant roles here and there, Scott’s film at least provided the actor with a farewell befitting his stature.
Since this list focuses on Big Screen appearances, we’ll look past Newman’s voiceover work as Doc Hudson in Cars and his appearance in the miniseries Empire Falls, and instead dwell on this legend’s last great role as a consummate professional mobster struggling with what he’ll do to his protégé (Tom Hanks) after the latter splits on him in Sam Mendes’ dreary sendoff to 1930s gangster pictures. The no-nonsense, chill-you-to-the-bone-with-his-coolness Paul Newman from The Hustler, from Cool Hand Luke, pulls off a blistering final fight before tapping out for good. Starkly lit under heavy rain through DP Conrad Hall’s lens, Newman’s character stands stoically awaiting the flurry of bullets that are seconds away from tearing into him, perfectly capturing that aura Newman had cultivated over his storied career.