Every actor can look back and identify that moment when they first stepped in front of a camera. What's hard is gazing into the future and determining which film will be the last.
Sometimes, such performances provide the perfect final punctuation to a distinguished career - Jason Robards stealing the show from Hollywood hotshots in Magnolia, for example. Others, like Audrey Hepburn's mundane cameo in Steven Spielberg's second-rate romance Always, leave audiences wishing favorite performers had been granted just one more day in the sun.
Regardless, every movie star will, one day, leave behind a legacy, good or bad, on film. Below are some last cinematic splashes made by actors while they were still in fine form.
WALK DON'T RUN (1966): For 35 years, debonair Cary Grant was the man women wanted to be with and men wanted to be. The complete leading man, Mr. Grant's smooth demeanor, effortless sophistication and self-effacing humor placed him opposite beautiful leading ladies at every turn. So, when he found himself cast as Cupid, instead of the target of love's arrows, he decided to call it a day. It's a shame because this Olympic comedy, which also stars Samantha Eggar and John Hutton, could have been the start of a new stage in the aging actor's legendary career.
THE MISFITS (1961): The final bow for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, The Misfits, deals, appropriately, with people passed by the times. The script, written with Ms. Monroe in mind by her then-husband Arthur Miller, captures the anxiety and longing of people who know they can never survive in "polite" society but long for the security it offers. The Misfits also was one of the last on-screen appearances by actor Montgomery Clift.
TWO-FACED WOMAN (1941): Greta Garbo built a career playing beautiful and mysterious women, so when she tried to change her image and be beautiful, mysterious and willfully goofy, audiences rebelled - unfairly. While it's true that it takes some effort to get past the idea of the Great Garbo a la Grand Hotel or Camille, Miss Garbo did show comedic promise in this film. Sadly, instead of taking her lumps and soldiering on when Two-Faced Woman faltered at the box office, Miss Garbo turned her back on Hollywood and closed and locked the door.
GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER (1967): While this earnest comedy about race relations may seem a bit dated, it features powerhouse performances by Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier and the ailing Spencer Tracy in his final role. Particularly riveting is Mr. Tracy, who seemed to know that after decades of dramatics, his curtain would soon close. His performance as an embattled father earned him an Academy Award nomination.
THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987): The story is simple: two sisters, played by Bette Davis and Lillian Gish in her final role, navigate the minefield of their troubled relationship as they wait for the annual migration of whales that pass their summer cottage in Maine year after year. What the film is actually about is much more complex. It's about aging and understanding and, in many ways, the timeless beauty of two legendary actresses. The film also marks the final performance of brassy beauty Ann Sothern.
Other notable final performances include those of Humphry Bogart as a repentant tough guy in The Harder They Fall, Vivien Leigh in the all-star Ship of Fools and Richard Burton as a Big Brother lover in 1984.
To be avoided are Bela Lugosi's truncated roll in Plan 9 from Outer Space, Joan Crawford as a beleaguered scientist in the low-budget horror film Trog and Bette Davis in Wicked Stepmother, a movie so bad that Ms. Davis walked out midway through filming and was replaced by a cat.
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