POSTED August 16 2012

You’re only good as your last movie: Thoughts about posthumous films

Whitney Houston in "Sparkle"

For the most part I enjoyed Sparkle, Salim Akil’s snappy melodrama and remake of the 1976 film that marks Whitney Houston’s last screen appearance. (You can read my review here.) But given the circumstances of her untimely death I was unnerved by a speech made by Houston’s character, Emma, the mother of three daughters in 1968: “I passed out a couple of times, sure. But I never, ever laid in my own vomit. Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale to you?” Took me out of the movie, not in a good way. Yeah, I cried. You will, too.

It brought back the shock of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, one of Heath Ledger’s two posthumously-released films, the other being The Dark Knight) where, ominously, the first time we see his character he is hanging by a noose from a bridge. Yeah, I cried. You would, too.

One of the hardest parts of a critic’s job is being objective about a posthumous performance.  It was easier before I did this professionally. Then I could weep at Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It’s a movie I more or less detested except for Sidney Poitier’s exchange with his father (“You see yourself as a black man; I see myself as a man!”) and Tracy’s last words  where he gives his blessing to his daughter’s interracial marriage, effectively saying to his screen daughter and her fiancé that if they feel half as much for each other as he feels for Hepburn’s character — “that’s everything.” How can you be objective about an actor telling the actress who was a longtime companion on and off screen that he loved her?

How could I be objective watching plucky Edward G. Robinson in the posthumously-released Soylent Green where the actor and his character are aware that it’s a swan song — and refuses to swan about, remaining good-natured and unsentimental.

Those all were tough. But the toughest were those shot down in their prime: Dorothy Stratten in They All Laughed, Tupac Shakur in Gridlock’d and Adrienne Shelly in Waitress, extraordinary talents who, like James Dean, dead before the release of Rebel Without a Cause, had so much more to give. For me, the most difficult-to-watch posthumous performance was Brandon Lee in The Crow because like his father, Bruce Lee, who died days before the release of Enter the Dragon, I felt the promise that could never be realized across two generations.

So, I’m wondering, professionals and civilians: Has a star’s death affected your experience of a posthumously-released film.


  1. Miz Val says:

    Sometimes. I look at the ones like Ledger,Woods,and Houston and say to myself such a waste of good talent.But when I see say Newman,Sellers,even Karloff. I say there goes a great talent that served its time on earth well.

    So glad many like Robert Downey are waking up to discover that they can be a valuable asset to the community. They need to pass the message on to those that slip backwards from time to time …are you listening Lindsey?

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