The Final Curtain

29 10 2009

'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'

Al Pacino stands at the top of a staircase, machine-gunning the army of hired killers that has overwhelmed the defences of his mansion. With scant regard for his own safety, he wanders to and fro, loosing off insults and volleys of bullets in the direction of the intruders below. Eventually, inevitably, he is shot; not once, not twice, but many, many times. As his shirt turns tomato-ketchup-red, he fights back, killing and maiming as many of his persecutors as he can, before collapsing into a water feature, a bloody, lifeless mess.    

But that’s OK, because it’s only a movie. Whatever we think of Tony Montana, we can rest easy that some day soon Al Pacino will be back, pouting and strutting around our screens as if none of this ever happened.

You see, in the movies there’s death and there’s Death. The former is something that we’re very comfortable with. It’s Martin Sheen being pushed off a rooftop in The Departed; it’s Ali MacGraw slowly slipping away in Love Story; it’s Guerrilla Number 7 having his neck snapped by an angry Rambo. Death with a capital D is very different. When a Heath Ledger or a River Phoenix or a Marilyn Monroe dies – I mean really dies – between films, we find ourselves cheated and curious, and left with a whole new kind of relationship with the images they left behind. 

Last year we were offered Heath Ledger’s tour de force, a manic, final performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight. And now – hang on! – here comes another final performance, in the shape of his curtailed scenes as Tony in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

In truth, it’s all but impossible to see either performance in any kind of an objective light. In Parnassus, a messy film to begin with, the scenes that Ledger was shooting just before he died are intercut with scenes where three of his Hollywood buddies – Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell – give their own interpretations of the role. And in The Dark Knight, Ledger’s performance, while certainly impressive, was overshadowed by all of the expectations placed on it in hindsight. Was this the second or third great performance from an actor who would have gone on to better things? Or was it an amusing, well-crafted one-off, magnified out of all proportion by his untimely death?

What Death with a capital D does is focus our attention on the actor himself, and on what we know of his life story, when we should probably being paying attention to the film. Even the most high-minded of viewers will find themselves thinking occasionally during Parnassus, ‘I wonder if this is the last thing he shot’ or ‘Oh dear, he doesn’t look too well there.’ Big screen death makes ghouls of us all.

How else could you explain the phenomenal success of 1994’s The Crow? Well, OK, you could say that teenage Goths will always be suckers for a slick, dark comic book adaptation. But still, it was the death of Brandon Lee during the shoot that gave the film its initial notoriety and that has contributed much to its cult status since.

The Misfits 2

Clift, Monroe and Gable in 'The Misfits'

Sometimes, of course, death lends a rare poignancy and degree of feeling to a film. Would The Misfits be half the movie it is if we didn’t know that it was both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe’s last, and that Montgomery Clift would be dead within five years of making it? That’s not to say that we look back at all dead movie stars in the same way (everybody dies after all), but that when the young and the beautiful pop their clogs the images that they leave behind affect us in ways that we don’t always fully understand. If their beauty can be taken away in an instant, then so can ours. It is our own mortality that is up there on the screen, and the way that the stars react to it teaches us important lessons about how we live our lives. So we can choose to cock a snook or two like James Dean, or flutter through life like Marilyn, or build a tower to our torment like Clift. Meanwhile, on the screen, the actors themselves march towards their doom, unaware of whatever fate posterity has in store for them.

At the other end of the scale, old actors die too, and sometimes this holds an equal fascination. In Sunset Boulevard, a grizzled Buster Keaton plays poker and a dignified Erich von Stroheim plays butler, the glory days of silent actor and director long behind them.



John Gielgud spent much of the nineties playing dying men on TV and in film, and in his last performance in 2000 was reduced almost to the status of a corpse. In David Mamet’s six-minute adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe, Gielgud stands speechless and almost motionless on a stage while a director and his assistant consider how to position him for a spectacle, and which parts of his body to ‘whiten’.

For most of the piece, Gielgud stands with his head bowed. Only in the film’s last shot does he raise it slightly, allowing us a glimpse of those aged, watery eyes. And what do we see in them? A man on the brink of this world and the next? A time-torn thespian shuffling off this mortal coil? Or was the old actor simply thinking of another day’s work done, and wondering what to have for his dinner?



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