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Cinematic Swan Songs

Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe rode off into the sunset together in The Misfits. Photo credit: United Artists

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Here at Three Easy Pieces, I walk you through a pocket of pop culture, from its early days, to its present. This time: cinematic swan songs. I'm talking about the final projects of actors or directors. Good or bad, there's something magnetic about seeing the last film that these artists will ever make. Some of them stick the landing, like Robert Altman's sweet, elegiac A Prairie Home Companion, which very fittingly ended the director's career; others, like Gene Hackman's final role being in the largely forgotten comedy Welcome to Mooseport (as opposed to the absolutely perfect previous film of his, The Royal Tenenbaums) carry a sense of ennui. These are the cinematic swan songs that I find most compelling.

BIRTH: The Misfits (1961)

Honorable mention: The Black Sleep (Bela Lugosi's last), Skidoo (Groucho Marx's last)

It's hard to overstate the magnitude of classic silver screen stardom that's waving goodbye in The Misfits. This would be the final film for its two stars, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. With John Huston directing a script by playwright Arthur Miller -- whose marriage to Monroe was falling apart during filming -- this seemed every bit like a surefire hit. And, yes, modern audiences look on it as something of a classic, but the production was infamously troubled, and it bombed at the box office.

An aging cowboy (Gable) chances upon a young, soon-to-be divorced woman (Monroe), with the two spontaneously falling in something like love. A sadness hangs over the movie, and a good amount of drinking, with Gable and Monroe adrift in their lives: Gable has no compunction about selling horses for meat, while Monroe is aghast at the suggestion, but neither quite have a handle on where they're meant to be going. The film closes with the two driving off into the night, a poignant last image for the pair.

DEVELOPMENT: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)
Honorable mention: Street Fighter (Raul Julia's last), The Dead (John Huston's last), Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick's last)

The ‘80s and ‘90s found a lot of older stars leaving this mortal coil. Ultimately, a recent rewatch of An American Tail: Fievel Goes West made up my mind. The movie -- which, at just 74 minutes, barely qualifies as one -- is a wild, silly mess, and a deeply nostalgic one for folks of a certain age. I don't think I ever put it together, as a kid, that the person voicing Sheriff Wylie Burp (a cartoon dog who's the law in a western town populated only by animals, but don't worry about that) was none other than Jimmy Stewart, in his final role.

Setting aside the lunacy of cartoon mice, cats, and dogs, Stewart takes his part as a beaten down, weathered old sheriff, finding the world has left him behind, and turns it into a genuinely poignant performance. Perhaps it took the gravitas of someone who's done so much great work, in the past, to imbue a role with so much feeling that even I, a dummy who couldn't recognize Stewart's voice at such a young age, could sense it.

TODAY: Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids (2016)

Honorable mention: Thoroughbreds (Anton Yelchin's last), Furious 7 (Paul Walker's last)

Jonathan Demme was one of the most diverse, textural, and deeply humanistic filmmakers around. Starting from the school of cheap filmmaking, working with Roger Corman, Demme went on to make some great films: Melvin and Howard, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, and Rachel Getting Married. Aside from his narrative features, though, he was a wizard at capturing live performances, like Spaulding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia, and his many concert films (in particular, Stop Making Sense, which is inarguably the best concert film of all time).

It's fitting that his last film would be the seeming trifle of a Justin Timberlake concert film, but every bit of his eye, ear, and sense of fun are on display with Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids. Like his other concert docs, he makes you care about not only the central artist, but about every supporting player, creating a vibrant mosaic that reverberates with energy. We lost a great one, but what a catalogue he left behind.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Love Songs by Punks.

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