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10 Uniquely Noteworthy Posthumous Performances on Film

This Friday, the final performance of Bernie Mac hits theaters nearly three months after his untimely death of complications from pneumonia. A bittersweet coda to the late funnyman’s career, to be sure; nevertheless, the buddy comedy Soul Men (co-starring Samuel L. Jackson and featuring, by sad coincidence, the last screen appearance of the legendary Isaac Hayes, who died just one day after Mac) so far hasn’t been getting the sort of fanfare that sometimes accompanies posthumous performances. It’s up for debate whether that’s due to the mixed reviews the film’s getting (currently 60% on Rotten Tomatoes – still fresh!), the typically less-starry reception that comedies receive versus weighty dramas or massive blockbusters… or in rare cases, that film which is both, such as The Dark Knight. A film for which the late Heath Ledger, whose accidental overdose has dominated the headlines most of the year, is still hotly tipped for at the very least an Oscar nomination, if not a win. It is always a curious bell-curve to observe: Which swan songs don’t result in the sort of legendary status afforded to a James Dean or a Bruce Lee, but rather as poignant grace notes or notable – and sometimes, underrated – curiosities. Here are 10 such performances:

Bela Lugosi, Plan 9 From Outer Space: Had Lugosi not expired shortly after Ed Wood filmed what might otherwise have been an innocuous bit of footage of the horror icon sniffing a rose outside his house, his contribution to one of the much-beloved bad films of all time could surely have been eclipsed by yet more baffling forays into B-movie legend. Instead, Wood finished the rest of his 1959 film using his wife’s chiropractor impersonating Lugosi – badly, holding his cape up to his face for the entire film – and crystallized what remains perhaps the strangest – and shortest – posthumous performance in film history.

Peter Finch, Network: Finch’s Oscar-winning turn as batshit news anchor Howard Beale might have been the sort of posthumous accolade more easily chalked up by naysayers to a sympathy vote had Paddy Chayefsky’s 1975 film not proven a major awards season player in so many ways. Frankly, we think Finch’s grand finale speaks for itself, yet it functions in synch with many indispensable aspects of the film’s greatness; other Oscars garnered include those for screenplay, leading lady Faye Dunaway, and supporting actress Beatrice Straight. (Arguably even more of an oddity, given that her performance added up to a mere eight minutes of screen time.)

John Cazale, The Deer Hunter: In the pantheon of great character actors, few have burned so brightly and quickly as Cazale, who appeared in just five films yet all of them proved cornerstones of 1970s cinema. His last role in Michael Cimino’s Oscar-winning Vietnam character study is most notable in that it nearly didn’t happen; Universal didn’t want to insure him when he was diagnosed with bone cancer, but Cimino and Cazale’s fiancée and co-star Meryl Streep fought back on his behalf. Moving his scenes forward in the shooting schedule to ensure its completion, he died days after wrapping in 1978.

Peter Sellers, Trail of the Pink Panther: If the Lugosi story is bizarre yet poignant in its effort to keep a star’s light shining after death, the last screen appearance of the great Sellers in 1982 is just plain bizarre. After the star succumbed to a heart attack just before production began, director Blake Edwards cribbed together the seventh film in the series from a collection of Sellers’ deleted scenes from previous Pink Panther outings in such a haphazard fashion that the actor’s fourth wife, Lynne Frederick, successfully sued the filmmakers for $1 million on the grounds that it damaged his reputation.

Natalie Wood, Brainstorm: Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 sci-fi precursor to virtual reality might have been consigned to the scrapheap of the utterly forgettable had it not been for the last appearance of screen legend Wood, who drowned off the coast of Catalina Island five days before her filming was complete. Extensive re-writes following her death likely muddied the final result, and while the film isn’t terrible it isn’t all that remarkable either. What is remarkable is how despite the mediocre material, Wood shines in the film as brightly as she ever did. A bona fide star to the very last.

Heather O'Rourke, Poltergeist III: Surely the most shocking victim of the so-called “Poltergeist Curse,” child actress O’Rourke died of septic shock caused by a bowel obstruction before completing the 1988 sequel, in which she is the only returning member of the long-suffering Freeling family. A body double was used to film the final sequences of the film; widely considered vastly inferior to the first and even the second Poltergeist films, the third in the franchise opened to decent box office, yet in the years since it remains noteworthy mostly for the circumstances its 12-year-old star’s tragic demise.

River Phoenix, Silent Tongue: When Phoenix collapsed on Halloween night 15 years ago on the Sunset Strip and died of a drug overdose, the last film he made – Peter Bogdonovich’s The Thing Called Love – had already been released. Yet what would prove to be his posthumous final appearance on screen was Sam Shepherd’s ghostly western, an art-house curiosity with a uniquely strange and riveting performance from Phoenix that speaks volumes about the potential that remained untapped in an actor already considered one of the greatest of his generation at the time of his death.

Raul Julia, Street Fighter: Perhaps one of the more dubious posthumous roles on our list, film buffs to this day bemoan the fact that a lion of an actor such as Julia – who continued to work despite being diagnosed with stomach cancer - made his final mark on the big screen playing a scenery-chewing baddie opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 1994 video game adaptation. It’s hard to begrudge him having a little fun at the end, though, particularly if you take into account that actor’s two sons were apparently delighted their dad was offered the chance to play General Bison. He did it for the kids!

Phil Hartman, Small Soldiers: Any way you cut it, Joe Dante’s 1998 romp about souped-up action figures wreaking havoc in suburbia is a deeply underrated kid-flick. What makes it all the more worth checking out is a classic, warm-hearted and hilarious turn by Phil Hartman in what would prove to be his last film role following the comedian’s shocking death in a murder-suicide that also claimed the life of his wife, Brynn. Though best known for his stellar television CV, it remains among Hartman’s most solid work.

Heath Ledger, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus: We admit it: Ledger’s awesome in The Dark Knight. Yet amazingly, this film may yet top it; barely into production when the actor died in January, the completion of director Terry Gilliam’s fantasy epic remained in doubt at first. However, the famously unlucky auteur decided to push onward, securing what may be the starriest list of substitutes in film history; somehow, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell will all join forces along with Ledger’s existing scenes to bring the film’s protagonist to life. We have no idea how it’s going to work, but we sure as hell can’t wait to find out.

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