Bombast: Posthumous Performance
At around 3:30 p.m. on the afternoon of November 30, 2013, a 605-horsepower 2005 Porsche Carrera GT went out of control after failing to maneuver around an uphill curve while traveling eastbound on Hercules St., which runs through Rye Canyon in the business-park area of Santa Clarita, California. The driver, Roger Rodas, and his passenger, the 40-year-old actor Paul William Walker IV, were coming from a nearby benefit for Walker’s nonprofit, Reach Out WorldWide, and friends of both men were in earshot when they heard the vehicle explode upon impact with a tree and telephone pole. The bodies, badly burned, were positively identified through dental records.
Next week, over a year and two Paul Walker Memorial Car Shows later, the film that Walker was shooting at the time of his death, Furious 7, will be released to theaters. (Two other films that Walker completed before his decease, Hours and Brick Mansions, have already been released posthumously.) In the lead-up to the opening of Furious 7, much of the discussion has surrounded the means whereby director James Wan, producer Neal Moritz, and their crew completed the film without one of their stars. (The casts of Fast & Furious movies snowball in much the same way that those of Wes Anderson movies do—once you’re in one of them, you’re in all of them.) The process involved the participation of Walker’s younger brothers, 37-year-old Caleb and 26-year-old Cody, unused footage of Paul from the previous films in the franchise, and the help of Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital. I have not yet seen the results, but those who have seem without exception impressed, if not awestruck.
As noted in a recent Hollywood Reporter piece, both Weta and Universal have been mum about precisely which scenes required CG necromancy, hoping to avoid as much as possible drawing attention to a process that might encourage uncanny chills in potential customers. The Reporter item singles out two recent precedents for Paul Walker’s resurrection: the completion of episodes of The Sopranos after the 2000 death of actress Nancy Marchand, who played Tony Soprano’s mother, and similar work on that same year’s Gladiator, necessitated when famously bibulous star Oliver Reed, after running up an impressive bar tab at a pub in Valletta, Malta, near the scene of the shoot, was stopped dead by the explosion of his overtaxed heart.
This was not so long after the controversial appearance, in 1997, of a commercial in which Fred Astaire, who had died 10 years earlier, dances about while using the new Dirt Devil Broom Vac™. Like a Diet Coke ad chock-a-block with dead celebs that had appeared some years prior, the Dirt Devil spot, licensed by Astaire’s much younger widow, Robyn Smith Astaire, gave rise to a small furor and some concern over the potential use of new technology to fill our screens with the famous undead, as though Hollywood was going to set to work straightaway Frankensteining together “new” films of Gable, Bogart, and company. These concerns have not, to date, been realized. Thus far, death is still the end for actors—at least as far as signing new feature-film contracts goes—though if you should have the bad grace to die before you’ve wrapped on a film, all bets are off. (James Dean’s timing in this, as in all things, was exquisite.) And because of this caveat, a small and exclusive category of performances exists: the posthumous performance.
For our purposes, we aren’t talking about performances that wrapped before the performer died, like Brick Mansions or Dean’s Giant, but those that the performer failed to complete to satisfaction before their death, the immovable fact of which filmmakers subsequently worked around. The physical absence of the performer, as a result, may be actively felt or detected in the film—and in the footage where they are present, one may fancy that the shadow of death is visible upon them.
While this is the stuff of tragedy, perhaps the most famous posthumous performance has been played for comedy, recreated in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (94). I am speaking of the performance “given” by Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, better known as Béla Lugosi, in Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (59). As relayed in Burton’s film, when Lugosi died in August 1956, Wood had recently shot a handful of quite random scenes with the Dracula star, and he painstakingly wound the narrative of his next project, Plan 9, around these, so as to not let a single frame of precious “final performance” go to waste. In order to tether these clips to his storyline, Wood used narration by the psychic Criswell, another of his stock players, as well as the connivance of his wife’s lanky chiropractor, Tom Mason, who “doubled” the physically dissimilar Lugosi by keeping the bottom of his face hidden with a cape flung over his forearm.
In the pre-CGI days, the emergency double was the only and best solution for filmmakers who had a movie to finish and a dead star on their hands. Toward the end of the shoot of Saratoga (37), 26-year-old star Jean “Baby” Harlow complained of feeling unwell, and requested that her boyfriend, William Powell, be allowed to take her home. Shortly thereafter she went into hospital, and on June 7, following premature reports that she had begun to mend, Harlow died of uremic poisoning, which today would go on the death certificate as acute renal failure. The few minutes of Harlow’s performance that still remained to be completed were shot with the assistance of an unconvincing voice double and a lookalike, Mary Dees, who director Jack Conway thought best to obscure with floppy hats, binoculars, and various other bits of business, despite her really quite remarkable resemblance to Harlow. (Mary’s scenes have been compiled here.) The actor Lionel Atwill, being as he was an infallibly polite Englishman, was good enough to film his death scene before going into hospital when a nasty and ultimately fatal tag-team of bronchial cancer and pneumonia befell him on the set of Lost City of the Jungle (46), though much else had to be made up with a fill-in and cutting-room floor sweepings. No such advance warning was provided by Natalie Wood: in November 1981, after the production of Brainstorm had returned from North Carolina to Southern California, star Wood, her husband Robert Wagner, her co-star Christopher Walken, and Captain Dennis Davern took a weekend trip to Santa Catalina Island on a 60-foot yacht called Splendour. What happened that night would give birth to endless speculation (as well as a tacky joke that starts “What’s the only kind of ‘wood’ that doesn’t float?”), but what’s certain is that Wood did not return. (Director Douglas Trumbull patched in the Natalie-shaped hole in his film with rewrites and a body double, and the film finally appeared almost two years later.) Most recently, we have the case of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (09), which Terry Gilliam had almost wrapped shooting when word came that star Heath Ledger had fatally overdosed on prescription meds. Gilliam completed the film with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell playing different facets of Ledger’s character while inside the Imaginarium, and with double Zander Gladish in a handful of scenes outside of it, wearing a mask. “That Mr. Ledger enters the film with a hangman’s noose around his neck is disconcerting,” wrote Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, “if only because it serves as a blunt reminder of his death and even some of the early, irrelevant chatter about a possible suicide.”
Rather than detail the melancholy production history of John Candy’s Wagons East! (94), I will move along to perhaps the most interesting case of posthumous performance in the studio era, that of Robert Walker. Walker and his young wife, Phylis Isley, had first left New York to attempt Hollywood in 1939, without success, but when in 1941 she was signed to a seven-year contract by David O. Selznick, the couple, assured of their financial security, sold their place in Long Island and headed west, now with two young children in tow. Selznick helped to secure Walker a contract with MGM, and happily both he and his wife, now renamed Jennifer Jones, were embraced by the moviegoing public. Unhappily, Selznick was cuckolding young Walker with his new star, and the marriage officially disintegrated in 1945, the same year of his very touching performance in Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock, opposite Judy Garland.
My Son John
While Walker continued to work, he gained a reputation for heavy drinking and emotional instability. He was twice in trouble with the law for driving under the influence. A second marriage to Barbara Ford (daughter of John), who ought to have known a volatile boozer when she saw one, lasted only five weeks. In December 1948 he flew the coop from the Menninger clinic in Topeka, Kansas and, after being collared for drunkenness, wrecked the Topeka police station. Yet the film for which he is best remembered today, along with The Clock, was that of Bruno, mastermind of the “crisscross” scheme that sets Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (51) in motion. This was the actor’s penultimate role. On the evening of August 28, Walker’s housekeeper called his psychiatrist, Dr. Frederick J. Hacker, reporting that Walker was suffering acute nervous anxiety. Hacker arrived at Walker’s Brentwood home and, after attempts to calm the actor failed, called in reinforcements in the person of Dr. Sidney Silver. It was Silver who administered an injection of seven-and-a-half grains of sodium amytal to Walker, who had reportedly taken the sedative before with no negative consequences. This time, however, Walker stopped breathing, turned blue, and dropped stone dead at the age of 32. Incidentally I will note that I went to university with Dr. Silver’s granddaughter, and she informed me that this incident haunted him to the end of his days.
More immediately, Walker’s death posed a problem to director Leo McCarey, who was then finishing the film My Son John with the actor. Walker plays the title role, and is a hoot as the scabrous, effete intellectual whose boorish parents (Dean Jagger and Helen Hayes) begin to suspect him of working with the Commies. McCarey, who was known for presiding over a loose, improvisatory set, had to pull off a hell of an ad-lib to wrap his movie without a climax or the linchpin performer, and under the circumstances did the best anyone could be expected to. Acquiring unused footage of Bruno’s death scene from Strangers on a Train, in which he addresses Farley Granger in a strangled voice from the wreckage of a carousel, McCarey made the last words appear to be coming from a mortally wounded John, giving his last testament to Van Heflin from an upturned automobile. In John’s final moments, which can be viewed here, he asks to deliver a final recantation of his political affiliation—to be delivered, naturally, by tape recorder. “And so Bruno dies twice,” wrote David Thomson, “even if the character lives on.”
A whole separate category of queasiness is reserved for performances which become “posthumous” only after their stars, through negligence, freak occurrence, or combination of the two, actually die on-set. Offhand I can think of only a few instances of this. There’s that of Vic Morrow, who was killed while performing in John Landis’s contribution to the omnibus film Twilight Zone: The Movie, decapitated by a falling helicopter that spun out of control when its tail rotor was destroyed by controlled pyrotechnics. (Also killed in the impact were two child actors, My-Ca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, aged 7 and 6.) When Roy Kinnear tumbled from the back of his horse while shooting The Last Return of the Three Musketeers, he ended both his own life and the career of his frequent director, Richard Lester. Brandon Lee who, in spring 1993, was fatally struck by a .44 magnum round while filming The Crow in Wilmington, North Carolina. A number of (sub)urban legends swirled around this incident in the years of my youth. One is that the Hong Kong Triads who had purportedly contributed to father Bruce Lee’s “mysterious” demise during the filming of Game of Death in 1972 had finally caught up with his issue. (The existing Game of Death footage would be integrated into a movie released in 1978 which, somewhat disturbingly, also featured My Son John actor/Angel of Death Dean Jagger.) Another is that the fatal footage had actually been kept in the final cut of the film.
To the best of my knowledge, the Brandon Lee snuff footage is not readily available, though the death of Morrow, Le, and Chen can be seen, captured in long shot, in the 1993 Traces of Death, a collection of caught-on-camera atrocities which has been categorized under the broad definition of the “shockumentary,” though it has none of the poetry of the works produced by, say, Jacopetti and Prosperi or Climati and Morra, and all of the slavering ghoulishness. It has been around 15 years since I revisited any of the films in the Traces series, though I can well remember the host from the third installment onwards, a faceless metalbro who went by the name Brain Damage (producer Darrin Ramage) and established an air of stark and utter nihilism with his dreadfully droll punnery, speaking with a stilted, stentorian tone that sounds like that of a pre-adolescent lowering his voice two registers. (Here is his introduction for the third entry in the series, which should give you a reasonable idea of the sort of wit at play throughout.)
The necessity—or, more to the point, the profitability—of compiling such material has been made moot by the existence of the Internet, for anyone so inclined can now, with a minimum of effort, watch the panic-stricken final moment of Morrow and two Vietnamese children, or security-camera footage capturing the fatal impact of the Walker/Rodas collision. None of this has necessarily undermined Amos Vogel’s observation in his 1974 opus Film as a Subversive Art that the depiction of death—the biological event, not the sentimental trappings that surround it—is cinema’s “Ultimate Secret,” the “last stronghold of primitive taboo,” upheld by a “commercial cinema [that] either avoids death or romanticizes it.”
The film containing a true posthumous performance, however, is the nearest that “commercial cinema” comes to thanatological cinema. I specify performance, because though there is undoubtedly an aura to final films finished after their director’s death, the movies I’m discussing are united by the heightened awareness of the body—its presence, and the presence of its absence. Crude attempts to replace the departed serve to impress us with the impossibility of doing so. As a “final viewing,” then, the posthumous performance is a bit like the lying-in-state celebrity funeral that opens Billy Wilder’s Fedora (78). In speculating as to what brought audiences flocking to, say, Saratoga, we may assume it was the game of catching out the counterfeit Harlow, as well as searching the real, ailing Harlow’s face for any inkling of approaching mortality, any indication that she had one foot poised in the hereafter. The latter is, I fancy, a fruitless undertaking, for in every case mentioned save that of Lugosi, we are dealing with relatively young and vital animals. (Should one care to stare death in the face, a better start might be the filmography of life-loathing toper W.C. Fields, which is something like a protracted snuff film.) If nothing else, the posthumous performance serves to underline the basic necromantic power of cinema, epitomized in Mika Kaurismäki’s 1994 Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made, in which director Sam Fuller revisits a tribal village in the Amazon basin where he shot rushes some 40 years previous and screens the footage for its inhabitants, who are astonished to see their long-dead relatives once again speaking and moving.
Plan 9 from Outer Space
The process of cinematic mourning and resurrection is rather well described in Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. The actual Lugosi, when he first appears, stands frail and ashen at the side of a grave which Criswell’s narration informs us is occupied by that of his late wife. “All of us on this earth know that there is a time to live and that there is a time to die, yet death is always a shock to those left behind,” the psychic intones. “It is even more of a shock when death, the proud brother, comes without warning.” Next, Lugosi, wearing a cloak and slouch hat and carrying a cane, exits a ranch-style home in some undistinguished Los Angeles suburb. He is still, per Criswell, in mourning for his departed wife: “The sky to which she had once looked was now only a covering for her dead body . . . Confused by his great loss, the old man left that home, never to return again.” At these words Lugosi steps off the left side of the screen from a long shot, and almost immediately the sound of screeching brakes is heard, signaling that the “old man” has just been struck by a car. (Given the framing, we have to presume that the car has driven onto his lawn.) This is not our final glimpse of Lugosi’s old man, however, for he is soon to be raised from his grave by a bolt of extraterrestrial lightning, and we see him twirling among the cardboard tombstones, modeling something very like the Dracula cape that we know Lugosi himself was laid to rest in. “From the blast arose the moving figure of the dead old man!”