Memorable Final Performances
After remembering the most memorable film debuts given by classic film actors and actresses I thought it would be useful to highlight those established career performers who “went out in style”. I’m only including the “swan song” performances from those actors and actresses with significant “bodies of work” who also achieved wide acclaim at some point during their career that left us with a memorable final act.
Constance Bennett’s stunningly portrayal of Lana Turner’s evil mother-in-law in the remake Madame X (1966)
Ingrid Bergman earned her sixth and last (of seven overall) Best Actress nomination in her final film Höstsonaten (1978)
Humphrey Bogart – while it was certainly not one of his best or most well known roles Bogie did give us a very compelling final performance as an aging sportswriter – who finds himself promoting and then protecting an Argentinian boxer – in his last film The Harder They Fall (1956).
James Cagney twenty years after his magnificent performance in Billy Wilder’s One Two Three (1961) gave his final performance as police commissioner Rheinlander Waldo in Ragtime (1981) which also served as Pat O’Brien’s last film (and Jeff Daniels’s film debut).
Jane Darwell who’d won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) was the memorable bird woman about whom Julie Andrews’s title character sings in the equally unforgettable Mary Poppins (1964).
Robert Donat – won an Academy Award for Best Actor in his tenth film playing the title role in Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939). I just saw his last (and only his 20th) on-screen performance in director Mark Robson’s excellent film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) in which he plays the Mandarin (leader) of a small Chinese village and was very impressed.
Peter Finch’s incredible “mad as hell” performance as an on-air (TV) talent in Network (1976) made him the third male actor to ever be nominated posthumously and the only one (to date) that has received the Best Actor Oscar after his death. However it should be noted that Finch did appear in a made-for-TV movie (as Yitzhak Rabin in Raid on Entebbe) before he died in January 1977; but Network (1976) was his last film appearance.
Henry Fonda finally won his Best Actor Oscar (on only his second nomination!) just months before his death for his last film On Golden Pond (1981) with Katharine Hepburn who won her record breaking fourth Best Actress Oscar on what was her third-from-last on-screen role. He and Hepburn played an aging couple whose daughter was played by Fonda’s real life daughter Jane. Like Finch Fonda did have a final role in the made-for-TV movie Summer Solstice (1981).
Clark Gable just months before his 60th birthday gave a very physical performance as a man who catches unwanted wild horses for money in The Misfits (1961) which was also Marilyn Monroe’s last film.
Burt Lancaster though he continued to accept TV roles for years afterwards left us with one last memorable character that of a ballplayer with potential who chose instead to become a doctor (“Moonlight” Graham) in Field of Dreams (1989).
Double Best Actress Oscar winner Vivien Leigh gave a credible performance as a woman who’s fought and indeed is still fighting against “Father Time” in Stanley Kramer’s multiple Oscar winner (B&W Art Direction-Set Decoration & Cinematography) Ship of Fools (1965).
Carole Lombard who died tragically and much too young in a plane crash returning from a USO Tour gave one of her best comedic performances in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) co-starring Jack Benny and Robert Stack among others.
Zero Mostel gave a powerful touching final on-screen performance as the tragically blacklisted actor Hecky Brown in director Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976) starring Woody Allen. Ironically Mostel himself had been blacklisted by the HUAC.
William Powell’s ‘Doc’ opposite Henry Fonda James Cagney and Jack Lemmon’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar performance in Mister Roberts (1955)
Tyrone Power as Charles Laughton’s client in Billy Wilder’s excellent Witness for the Prosecution (1957) also character actress Una O’Connor’s last film.
Edward G. Robinson perhaps the biggest acting oversight in Academy Awards history gave one final performance as the link between the past and the awful future presented in the sci-fi thriller Soylent Green (1973).
Western genre veteran Randolph Scott left us with yet another fine character a conflicted ex-gunslinger in Sam Peckinpah’s somewhat underrated Ride the High Country (1962).
Ann Sothern received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in her last film The Whales of August (1987) which also served as Lillian Gish’s last on-screen performance.
Lee Tracy earned his only Academy Award recognition a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination when he returned to the screen (after 17 years!) to reprise his Tony nominated role as the President of the United States in film version of Gore Vidal’s compelling political campaign drama The Best Man (1964).
Spencer Tracy – not only was Tracy the first (of only two to date) actor to receive back to back Best Actor Oscars but he left a film legacy which is perhaps unsurpassed by any other. Naturally his final on-screen performance was outstanding as well and also not surprising it also starred his longtime girlfriend Katharine Hepburn no slouch in the acting department herself. Tracy’s role as a newspaperman forced to face his liberal ideology in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) was not only rewarded with a Best Actor Oscar nomination but he was only the second male actor ever to be posthumously nominated (having died only 17 days after filming had been completed).
Rudolph Valentino in the title role of the National Film Registry entry silent The Son of the Sheik (1926)
I’ve intentionally left James Dean who’s body of work and role in Giant (1956) while memorable doesn’t really meet the aforementioned criteria. I’m one who believes his legend has benefitted greatly from the brevity of his life and the way he died. I also don’t think that Grace Kelly had a long enough career to warrant inclusion on this list … nor was her performance in the Cole Porter Musical (and remake of The Philadelphia Story (1940)) High Society (1956) all that memorable.