Here’s a tip to all you Hollywood a-listers: seek out every film project like it’s your last one. Because you never know, it just might be. And instead of going out on top like some actors do (Peter Finch in Network, Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond), you could close up shop in a less-than-stellar fashion. You know, like these folks…
Orson Welles — ‘The Transformers: The Movie’
Career highlights: Citizen Kane, The Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil
For a while there, Orson Wells was king. When you create what’s undisputably the most influential film of all time — Citizen Kane — you pretty much get a career’s worth of bragging rights. And even though the law of diminishing returns eventually set in, Welles’ iconic status remained relatively intact. In fact, all it would have taken was one truly memorable late-career role to put those nagging “Orson’s a washed-up has-been” naysayers to rest. Instead, he went the paycheque route for his final flick, voicing the not-so-memorable character Unicron in the even-less-memorable 1986 animated film The Transformers: The Movie. When interviewed about the role, Welles flatly noted, “”I play a toy that does horrible things to other toys.” How’s that for a swan song?
Walter Matthau — ‘Hanging Up’
Career highlights: King Creole, The Odd Couple, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Sunshine Boys
Nobody played the lovable curmudgeon like Walter Matthau — not even Wilford Brimley (a close second!). It’s like Walt was born a middle-aged man and slowly got older over six decades. Over the years, his character work garnered him endless praise, including an Academy Award, a BAFTA, a Tony, and a Golden Globe. Alas, there were no awards doled out (for anyone) for his final film, a little cinematic stinker called Hanging Up. In addition to boasting the most annoying movie poster in the history of movie posters (seriously, Google it), Hanging Up kind of foreshadows Matthau’s fate: it tells the tale of three sisters attempting to deal with the approaching death of their curmudgeonly father (it’s a comedy! Haha!). You sir, deserved a better send-off. Preferably one entirely devoid of Meg Ryan.
Buster Keaton — ‘The Railrodder’ (An NFB film!)
Career highlights: The Cameraman, Spite Marriage, Free and Easy, The Playhouse, The General
Nothing against the National Film Board — which is one of Canada’s most treasured cinematic institutions or whatever — but for silent film pioneer Buster Keaton to hand his final starring role over to them? Methinks his agent must have had a lien against his house. The Railrodder (1965) is a 25-minute comedic travelogue of our home and native land. Keaton plays a British fellow whom, after reading a newspaper ad proclaiming “SEE CANADA NOW!” jumps into the Thames river and swims to Newfoundland (so uh, yeah). He then travels across Canada — No dialogue (natch) — doing a bunch of rehashed Buster Keaton-type stuff. One can only assume he was paid in maple syrup, back-bacon, and several other Canadian stereotypes.
Elizabeth Taylor — ‘The Flintstones’
Career highlights: National Velvet, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Elizabeth Taylor was not only one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the big screen, she was indisputably one of the most talented as well. Although she passed away quite recently, Taylor actually hadn’t starred in a feature-length film since 1994’s The Flintstones. Yep, her final role was Wilma Flintstone’s mom. And despite being set in the so-called ‘timeless’ Paleolithic era, The Flintstones has most decidedly not aged well. In fact, it’s a hot mess, to put it charitably. If asked why she’d wrap up the ol’ career with a role so obviously beneath her, I’d expect Liz to echo the sentiment of that prehistoric bird working as a vacuum cleaner: “It’s a living.”
Marlon Brando — ‘The Score’
Career highlights: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris
I’m not saying The Score is a way overrated film (it is). There are worse heist flicks out there to be sure, although few A) are as boring, and B) squander the talents of their leading men — in this case, Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, and one Mr. Marlon Brando. With The Score, Brando goes beyond phoning it in. He’s always seated (due to being seriously out of shape), and improvizes most of his lines (due to being too lazy to memorize anything). He was also a terror on set, regularly taking to calling director Frank Oz ‘Ms. Piggy’ (Oz is sensitive about that, ya see). It’s a tepid, by-the-numbers final performance by one of acting’s all-time greats. Tsk tsk, M.B.