With a whimper, not a bang: 15 particularly depressing cinematic swan songs from talented actors
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1-2. Frank Sinatra & Dean Martin, Cannonball Run II (1984)
Everyone who’s ever seen Cannonball Run II knows how truly awful it is. It doesn’t just manage to be an incredibly bad movie in spite of dozens of talented actors, it pulls off the near-miracle of being even worse than Cannonball Run, which was the worst thing ever made by humans until its sequel hit the screens. But what isn’t as well known is that the Hal Needham race-movie crudtacular managed to do what decades of smoking, bad diets, and alcohol abuse couldn’t: It killed off the Rat Pack. Not only was it Dean Martin’s final film prior to his death, but it apparently so traumatized Frank Sinatra that he never appeared in another movie. And Sinatra at least got to play himself. (Sammy Davis, Jr. survived, if you can call starring in The Perils Of P.K. with Professor Irwin Corey surviving.) What’s more, while Jim Nabors lived through Cannonball Run II, he hasn’t made another big-screen appearance since. Sinatra and Martin made some lousy movies in their crossover careers, but they deserved better than to go out with a movie that made stink lines come off the screen.
3. Bela Lugosi, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Bela Lugosi’s career was one long, sad testament to the perils of drug addiction. He slid from handsome, immensely popular Hungarian matinee idol to big-screen Hollywood legend for his portrayal of Dracula down to appearing alongside Criswell and Dudley Manlove in what is widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. Lugosi died before Plan 9 was finished, but his humiliation didn’t end there: He was replaced by dentist/theatrical amateur Tom Mason, who “impersonated” him by stomping around with a cape over his face. And when the movie came out, fans of the legendary actor had to contend with a final screen appearance drawn from the ridiculous scenarios and dialogue of director Ed Wood. The inherent tragicomedy of the situation eventually led Tim Burton to make a movie about it, featuring Martin Landau as Lugosi. The film earned Landau an Oscar, an award Lugosi never got within sniffing distance of winning.
4. Groucho Marx, Skidoo (1968)
Technically, Groucho Marx isn’t the worst thing about the deranged Otto Preminger anti-classic Skidoo. In fact, playing the mob boss “God,” he may be the best. But that statement denotes a landmark in damning by faint praise. Preminger’s film is an absolute mess, from its early scenes of Carol Channing in hippie drag to its final moments, where the end credits are sung in their entirety by a baffled-sounding Harry Nilsson. Preminger, desperately trying to understand the counterculture, dropped acid, made wholesale (and inexplicable) changes to the script, and screamed at Groucho on the set. The latter would be a bigger problem if Groucho had cared in the least, but he was carrying on his own far more successful experiments with LSD at the time; he went out in a bad way by agreeing to star in this stinker, but if his hallucinations led to visions of dancing, singing garbage cans, he had the good taste to leave them out of his films. Preminger didn’t.
5. Bruce Lee, Game Of Death (1978)
Following Bruce Lee’s tragic 1973demise, a cottage industry of impersonators sprang up in Hong Kong, including Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Liang, and Dragon Lee. But it’s particularly hard for fans of the Little Dragon to swallow the fact that a Bruce Lee imitator—Kim Tai Chung—actually appeared in Bruce Lee’s final film, playing Lee himself. Unlike many inauspicious swan songs, Game Of Death at least had the potential to be a great movie; Lee wrote the script, choreographed the action, and directed some of the footage starting in 1972. Some of the surviving scenes of Lee fighting various martial-arts experts, including Filipino fighter Dan Inosanto and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, are thrilling hints at what might have been. When Enter The Dragon director Robert Clouse decided to finish the movie years later, though, he did it on the cheap, endlessly recycling the existing footage, using bad stand-ins, and hiring a Hollywood hack to complete the screenplay. He also covered Lee’s absence in cartoonishly stupid ways, from filming a cardboard cut-out to showing Lee’s “reflection” in a mirror that was really a poster. To add insult to injury, Lee’s character fakes his own death—and Crouse uses newsreel footage of the actor’s actual funeral to portray the funeral of his character.
6. Raul Julia, Street Fighter (1994)
In spite of a varied filmography and lengthy theater background that showcased his ability to be dashing, macabre, and witty, Raul Julia is mostly remembered for his dazzling performances as Gomez Addams in the film adaptations of the Charles Addams strip. And while he excelled in that adaptation, he was jaw-droppingly horrible in another: 1994’s Street Fighter, loosely based on the videogame. It isn’t just Julia, though. Nobody is good in this significantly unfaithful interpretation of the arcade brawler. While some of the cast apparently learned their lines phonetically (not just Jean-Claude Van Damme), Julia valiantly but unsuccessfully tries to bring menace and weight to warlord M. Bison, in spite of dialogue like this clunker, delivered while preparing to torture a would-be assailant: “You always hid behind your sumo and your boxer.” At other times—usually when he must laugh maniacally while staring at the camera—Julia instead chooses to ham it up for those who couldn’t tell he was the bad guy. It’s an unfortunate, cheesy bookend to an otherwise enviable career, made all the more tragic by Julia’s gaunt appearance; he was in the final stages of a battle with stomach cancer at the time. Also sad is the movie’s odd inclusion of a post-credits teaser for a sequel that suggests Bison is still alive, even though the credits honor Julia’s 1994 death with a somber “Vaya con dios.”
7. Gene Kelly, Xanadu (1980)
He was one of the premier dancers of American film. He co-directed Singin’ In The Rain, the greatest musical ever made. And he could have stopped just a few movies earlier and chosen the sublime Jacques Demy film The Young Girls Of Rochefort (1967) as his final film. But no, Gene Kelly opted to hop back into films after he crossed into his sixth decade, including the famed 1980 debacle Xanadu. Was it the roller-skating that attracted him? The disco take on Greek mythology? The tracksuits? The headbands? Whatever Kelly’s reasons for taking the role of Danny McGuire, museless former bandleader and construction mogul, it turned out to be his final film. But honestly, he wouldn’t have done much better if he’d stopped one film earlier: His penultimate theatrical release was Viva Knievel!
8. Peter Sellers, The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980)
Imagine you’re a Peter Sellers fan in August 1980. You’re still mourning Sellers’ death from just a few weeks earlier. What more fitting tribute than to attend his final film in its first week of release at the local multiplex? Fans couldn’t have known that no Pink Panther awaited them—just a racially insensitive spoof that ends, inexplicably, with the saddest disco-dance scene in all of moviedom. What’s worse, the great comedian reportedly even directed part of the movie. At least Sellers put himself in contention for the steepest drop in quality between his penultimate and final films: The great Being There arrived just a year before.
9. Bette Davis, Wicked Stepmother (1989)
Bette Davis was in her early 80s when she started filming Larry Cohen’s Wicked Stepmother, but she looks about 110. When she dropped out of filming early on, she said it was due to problems with the script and the way she was being shot, and while Cohen has since claimed Davis was covering for bad health, the movie seems to agree more with her than him. In the 20 minutes she appears onscreen, Davis plays a witch who marries Colleen Camp’s widowed father; she quickly ingratiates herself with Camp’s husband, while filling the house with cigarette smoke and a cat. (Camp plays a non-smoking vegetarian with allergies.) It’s all supposed to be hilarious, but Davis looks frighteningly emaciated, and her poor physical condition makes it impossible to laugh without wincing. When she leaves the story and gets replaced by her daughter, Barbara Carrera, it’s a relief, but the images linger. Davis died a few months after filming, and Stepmother remains an ignoble end to a storied career.
10. Veronica Lake, Flesh Feast (1970)
Veronica Lake had a tough time after her 1940s heyday, battling alcoholism, the IRS, mental illness, and a flatlined acting career that left her working as a barmaid. Publishing an autobiography helped put her back on her feet, but Flesh Feast, her 1970 return to the silver screen, didn’t exactly put her back on the map. The low-budget horror movie starred Lake, who also produced, as a scientist contracted to revive Hitler’s corpse by way of her trademark flesh-devouring, youth-restoring maggots. The child of a concentration-camp victim, Lake understandably has mixed feelings about this, and in the movie’s finale, she exacts revenge on Hitler by demonstrating that her maggots have the power to take life as well as restore it. Yes, the star of Sullivan’s Travels ended her career by putting maggots on Hitler’s face.
11. Joan Crawford, Trog (1970)
1970 was a bad year for classic movie stars dabbling in horror. For Trog, Joan Crawford teamed with Freddie Francis, an Oscar-winning cinematographer with a sideline in directing horror movies. Trog wasn’t one of Francis’ better efforts, classed up only a tad by the presence of Crawford, who plays an anthropologist trying to tame a revived sub-human troglodyte lovingly nicknamed “Trog.” Spoiler: It doesn’t work out well. The most terrifying detail: Crawford appears to be wearing almost as much makeup as the actor playing Trog.
12. John Belushi, Neighbors (1981)
At least give John Belushi credit for trying something different with his poorly received final film, Neighbors. In a bid to finally escape the “Fatty fall down, make funny” straitjacket, Belushi switched roles with Dan Aykroyd early in production, opting to play a milquetoast suburban everyman whose life is tuned upside down by his outrageous new next-door neighbors (Aykroyd and Catherine Moriarty, fresh off Raging Bull). Critics and audiences alike jeered the change in pace. Aykroyd and Belushi warred openly with director John G. Avildsen, and a highly regarded Larry Gelbart script based on Thomas Berger’s novel was transformed into a would-be satire.
13. Chris Farley, Almost Heroes (1998)
Considering the one-two punch of his duds Black Sheep and Beverly Hills Ninja, perhaps Chris Farley had already reached his filmmaking peak and was tumbling down the other side when one too many speedballs cut his life short. But no one as talented and funny as Farley should have to be remembered for a final stinker like Almost Heroes (or, for that matter, Dirty Work, in which he later had a posthumous, uncredited cameo). Buddying up with the always-forgettable Matthew Perry in one of Christopher Guest’s unfortunate non-mockumentaries, Farley puts a coonskin cap on his one character—the loud, boorish buffoon—as a 19th-century explorer of the American West trying to beat Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. As last films go, at least Almost Heroes is a somewhat solid, though derivative, rundown of Farley’s career highlights, from weight jokes (he sobs in shame while eating eagle eggs he’s supposed to be using as medicine to save his partner’s life) to over-the-top freak-outs to Tommy Boy. (The scene in which he makes fun of Perry’s masturbating is paraphrased from the earlier film.) In Farley’s final scene, he soars with an eagle to unimaginable heights, then gets crapped on and plummets into the ocean, a fitting metaphor for his career.
14. Orson Welles, The Transformers: The Movie (1986)
Technically, Orson Welles’ last film role was the 1987 romantic comedy Someone To Love, a minor but not horribly embarrassing grace note. But Love wasn’t actually the last film Welles worked on before his death in 1985—that honor falls to an 84-minute animated toy commercial called The Transformers: The Movie. Welles lent his voice to Unicron, a planet that could transform into a giant robot in order to destroy other robots and attack Cybertron, the homeworld of the Decepticons and the Autobots. The film is brisk and largely inoffensive (and a damn sight less soul-sucking than the big-budget Michael Bay version), but there’s something terribly sad in knowing that the man who gave us Charles Foster Kane and Harry Lime spent his final weeks delivering lines like “This is my command: You are to destroy the Autobot Matrix of Leadership.” There were rumors that Welles died before completing the project, leaving fellow cast-member Leonard Nimoy to fill in the blanks, but the truth is even more depressing; Welles finished his role a mere five days before his heart gave out for good. (Transformers was also Scatman Crothers’ final role. Thankfully, Judd Nelson survived his work as Hot Rod.)
15. Rodney Dangerfield, The Onion Movie (2008)
Rodney Dangerfield wasn’t exactly an amazing actor, but he picked his roles perfectly: There’s no denying his leading-man ability in Back To School, and he brightens up each of his Caddyshack scenes. But he went out with a serious whimper and a rehashed joke—and looking very unwell physically, which of course he was. For some reason, The Onion Movie ends with Dangerfield dressed as his character from Caddyshack, Al Czervik, repeating his final phrase from that movie: “Hey, everybody! We’re all gonna get laid!” It isn’t exactly a joke so much as a nostalgia-stab. Maybe they should’ve had him say the hilariously bad sanitized-for-TV version of the line: “Hey, everybody! Let’s all take a shower!”