#350. Dead on Release

A variety of reasons can exist for an actor to not be alive by the time their movie is released. Some actors are old and die from natural causes (like Spencer Tracy, who died 17 days after the end of filming Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)). Others might be involved in accidents either on the set (like Brandon Lee in The Crow (1994)) or in the course of living their life (like Anton Yelchin from the Star Trek reboot). The entertainment community mourns the lives taken so early on in their careers, but many actors have died via suicide due to either their approach to acting or the pressure of acting influencing their decisions. Sometimes a mental illness that gives an actor their creativity can also drive them into a suicide as well. This week’s two films highlight some actors who died before their films were released.

Year: 1956
Rating: Approved
Length: 201 minutes / 3.35 hours

At the age of 24, James Dean was a star to be reckoned with. In four short years, he appeared in a handful of uncredited roles, but he also earned two back-to-back nominations for Best Actor in 1955 for East of Eden and in 1956 for Giant. The trick with his nomination for Giant was that he had been killed in a car accident late in 1955, thus making this nomination the first of its kind to be given posthumously. Not only did Dean die before the release of Giant, but he also died before the release of his most iconic role in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). One can only speculate the amount of prestige such an actor would have accrued over a lifetime of acting. Even with only three credited movies to his name, the American Film Institute still placed him at #18 on their list of 50 top actors of the last century.

Jett Rink (James Dean) is a farmhand who works for Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) on his Texas ranch. When Bick brings home a lovely wife in Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), Jett is immediately stricken with her. He helps show her the ropes of the property, thus inspiring her to change some of the living conditions for the migrant workers. After the accidental death of Bick’s sister, who also ran the household and had a spat with Leslie, Jett is bequeathed a small portion of the property. After Jett finds oil on his land, he manages to become wealthier than the Benedicts. Jett, still enamored with Leslie, eventually starts dating her daughter, which further sours the relationship between him and Bick. After realizing his children will not follow in his footsteps, Bick finally allows Jett to drill for oil on the remainder of the Benedict property.

The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight
Year: 2008
Rating: PG-13
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours

Some actors die before their movies finish filming, leaving a noticeable gap in their performance. Actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman are noticeably absent from certain scenes in movies like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015). Some actors have their performances digitally completed and adjusted using CGI, or even sometimes completely created decades after their death (as was the case with Peter Cushing in Rogue One (2016)). While Heath Ledger had completed filming on The Dark Knight (2008), none of his scenes were altered after the fact by director Christopher Nolan. Ledger died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, but some feel his “method acting” approach helped push him over the edge via his role as The Joker. He is only one of two people who has posthumously won a Best Actor Oscar, the other being Peter Finch of Network (1976) fame.

After Batman (Christian Bale) has raised the stakes for Gotham’s crime-fighting, a new force has appeared to oppose him with a gospel of violence and chaos: the Joker (Heath Ledger). As Batman tries to rid the city of crime via his vigilante actions, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) tries to do so within the confines of the law. The Joker, having taken control of the majority of Gotham’s gangs, continues to escalate the situation to get Batman to reveal his true identity. Eventually, Batman finds himself in a corner as the Joker makes him decide between the lawful justice of District Attorney Harvey Dent, or Batman’s girlfriend, Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal). On top of this life-or-death decision, the Joker pits a ferry full of tourists against a boat full of terrorists in a game of “who will die first?” Batman, finally able to catch the Joker via a clever use of technology, must now retreat to the shadows.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 young actors gone too soon

#347. Spencer Tracy

It is a rare talent to not only be a prolific actor but one who has appeared in numerous classics. Add to this, several Oscar nominations for acting, and you’re left with an incredible legacy. Spencer Tracy was just such an actor. He excelled in comedy as well as drama, a challenging feat for any actor. Of course, one does wonder if collaborations with other actors and directors helped Tracy to truly shine. After all, it’s easier to act when you’re comfortable with the other people on stage, let alone the people behind the camera. Spencer Tracy worked with plenty of famous actors and directors over the years, but two individuals stand out as frequent collaborators: Katharine Hepburn and Stanley Kramer. This week’s two films examine the lengthy, varied, and oft-recognized career of Spencer Tracy.

                                                      Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Year: 1967
Rating: Unrated
Length: 108 minutes / 1.80 hours

Over almost four decades, Spencer Tracy managed to rack up an astounding 75 films to his name, often performing in two or more films every year. With this statistic in mind, it then becomes evident that Tracy enjoyed collaborating with Katharine Hepburn. The two of them starred in nine films together: Woman of the Year (1942), Keeper of the Flame (1942), Without Love (1945), Sea of Grass (1947), State of the Union (1948), Adam’s Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), Desk Set (1957), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967). These nine films comprised 12% of Tracy’s career. While rarely acknowledged officially, Tracy and Hepburn were significant to each other, both on and off camera. Sadly, mere weeks after the conclusion of filming Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Spencer Tracy died of a heart attack at the age of 67.

Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) is surprised when his daughter, Joanna (Katharine Houghton) comes home early from her vacation. Not only is her arrival a surprise, but the fiancé she has brought with her is unexpected as well. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) is a black man, which gives both Matt and his wife, Christina (Katharine Hepburn) an uneasy feeling, even though they taught their daughter racial equality. Matt struggles with giving his blessing for the upcoming nuptials as he recognizes the interracial couple will have many challenges ahead of them. Through the convincing of his friend, Monsignor Mike Ryan (Cecil Kellaway) and his wife, Matt eventually relents as he realizes the truth of the matter: all marriages will have hardships, but what matters most is that the two individuals getting married love each other.

Father of the BrideFather of the Bride
Year: 1950
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours

Considering the prestige that comes with being nominated for an Oscar, Spencer Tracy has racked up the most prestige over the years. Tied with Laurence Olivier for most nominations, Tracy received nine nods for Best Actor. After his first nomination for his role in San Francisco (1936), he would then go on to win the next two years via the films Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938). It then took almost a decade before he was nominated again. This nomination was for Father of the Bride (1950), at which point the nominations started to flow again for films like Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), and Inherit the Wind (1960). With Inherit the Wind, Tracy teamed up with director Stanley Kramer, earning himself two more nominations for the three additional films they did together, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) being slightly more auspicious than It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Marriage seems to be a favorite theme with Spencer Tracy films, as evidenced by Father of the Bride. No matter how much Stanley T. Banks (Spencer Tracy) could prepare for it, eventually his daughter, Kay (Elizabeth Taylor) would grow up and marry someone she loves. While he’s fine with it now, his anxiety affected the whole engagement process as he drank too much and passed out in the home of his future son-in-law’s parents’ house. Not wanting to spend too much money on this wedding, Stanley soon realizes the whole thing is ballooning out of his control. Murphy’s Law is in full force as the clock ticks down to the big day, with last-minute reconciliations between the bride and groom merely mirroring the number of conflicts and problems revolving around the wedding reception at the Banks’ house. With the wedding now over, Stanley watches as his little girl drives off for her honeymoon.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 stupendous Spencer Tracy roles

Bacon #: 2 (The Mountain / Robert Wagner -> Wild Things / Kevin Bacon)

#346. Sidney Poitier

While the civil rights movements of the 1960s led to legal equality of minorities, there was still resistance to their inclusion. Hollywood also had to undergo a transition in the light of these changes. Before the 1960s, most people of color represented on the silver screen were mere stereotypes of the obsequious station many of these individuals could manage. Fortunately, right around the time these changes were happening in the real world, the film world had opportunities to shine a light on these changes via the talented work of Sidney Poitier. With a black man cast in such roles as detectives and physicians, no longer were these people of color relegated to portray “the help” in the movies. Poitier’s groundbreaking acting helped pave the way for many others, even if the film industry hasn’t changed as much as people had hoped it would. This week’s two films highlight some game-changing performances by Sidney Poitier.

In the Heat of the NightIn the Heat of the Night
Year: 1967
Rating: Approved
Length: 109 minutes / 1.82 hours

Sidney Poitier earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in The Defiant Ones (1958). This nomination was the first hint of equality in Hollywood, as his co-star, Tony Curtis, was also nominated for the award. Fortunately, neither of them won, since that could have indicated who was better: black or white. Five years later, Poitier would win his one and only Oscar for his leading role in Lilies of the Field (1963). This achievement broke the barrier for the award, which had been held by white men for over 30 years. Unfortunately, the streak of white men winning the Oscar for Best Actor would continue for another three decades, when Denzel Washington would eventually win for Training Day (2001). Clearly, the struggle for these actors of color to find significant roles to showcase their talent has been an ongoing challenge and one that Hollywood seems unlikely and unwilling to change.

The murder of a Chicago businessman in Sparta, Mississippi leads the police chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) to suspect anyone in the town who seems out of place. With no suspicious characters sighted near the scene of the crime, the local police eventually find Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) loitering at the train station. As the only suspect, Gillespie tries to get Tibbs to confess, only to learn that Tibbs is a homicide detective from Philadelphia. While Tibbs just wants to leave, obviously not being welcomed by the white population of the town, his boss tells him to assist with the investigation. This request is then emphasized by the widow of the deceased, who recognizes Tibbs’ competence when compared to the biased local police force. Despite the hurdles Tibbs has to endure, he eventually solves the crime and earns Gillespie’s respect in the process.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Year: 1967
Rating: Unrated
Length: 108 minutes / 1.80 hours

Integration was one of the problems addressed by the civil rights movement. Equality was a good place to start, but without these individuals being treated as equals in an integrated society, the whole point of the movement was lost. In one of his breakout roles, Sidney Poitier portrayed a student in a mixed-race school in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), highlighting the negative (and erroneous) accusations that often befell black people based on racial bias. Unfortunately, racial bias isn’t limited to the academic arena. One of the most polarizing topics for many decades has been that of interracial marriage. If anything, the acceptance of interracial marriages should be the epitome of equality and integration. Regarding Hollywood’s portrayal of this potentially hot-button topic, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) is the epitome of interracial marriage films.

Although the traditionally liberal parents of Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) should have no ideological qualms with their daughter marrying John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), something about an upper-class white woman marrying a black man doesn’t sit well with them. While Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina (Katharine Hepburn) would want more time to talk to their daughter about this upcoming marriage, they are surprised with not only the fiancé but his parents as well. All three of them are coming over to the Draytons’ house for dinner as a chance for the two families to get to know each other. The time to question the engaged couple’s thought process is short, as John is traveling from San Francisco to Europe via New York immediately after dinner, and Joanna has decided to go with him for their wedding ceremony in Geneva. Will everyone be accepting of this unusual arrangement?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 perfect Sidney Poitier performances

Bacon #: 2 (Sneakers / David Strathairn -> The River Wild / Kevin Bacon)

#167. Katharine Hepburn

As impressive a feat as winning three Oscars for acting may be, one has to consider that some of those wins might be for a Supporting role. For instance, while Meryl Streep has won three Oscars for acting, only two were for Best Actress. The only actor to win all three of his Oscars for Best Actor is Daniel Day-Lewis. Of course, when only five people have won three awards for acting, the feat is hard to match. That is unless you’ve beaten that record. Katharine Hepburn is just such an actress. Not only has she won four Oscars, but all four were for the Best Actress category. Furthermore, even though she doesn’t have as many nominations as Meryl Streep, all 12 of Hepburn’s nominations were for Best Actress. Even more to the point, Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004). This week’s two films examine some of Katharine Hepburn’s lighter work.

Bringing Up BabyBringing Up Baby
Year: 1938
Rating: G
Length: 102 minutes / 1.7 hours

Even though Katharine Hepburn bookended her career with Best Actress wins, it doesn’t mean she worked in serious films the entire time. In fact, some of the films she acted in were initially considered failures. While many factors can work against a movie being successful, over time its cultural significance emerges and makes it a classic. After all, sometimes we go to the movies not to think about deep subjects, but to laugh and be entertained. And there’s nothing more entertaining than a screwball comedy. Perhaps it was the fact that Bringing Up Baby (1938) was filled with screwball characters that alienated its original audience. When we look at its legacy now, we see a stupendous film, despite its designation as “low comedy” (i.e., slapstick and fart jokes). What really helped cement this film’s greatness was the performances of its lead actors: Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.

Let’s face it: leopards make lousy pets. Unfortunately, the wealthy seem to gravitate toward owning exotic animals, despite the challenges in keeping them. Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) is now in possession of a leopard she received from her brother. The leopard is meant for their aunt, Elizabeth Random (May Robson), but Susan knows nothing about keeping leopards. In comes David Huxley (Cary Grant), a paleontologist who is looking to impress Mrs. Random to receive a large donation to his museum. Unfortunately, Susan does not know the difference between a paleontologist and a zoologist, and so she gets David to help her raise the leopard. Adding to the unfortunate circumstance, David is a day away from marrying Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) and cannot spare any energy for these crazy antics. Still, Cupid’s arrow is a cruel mistress.

The Philadelphia StoryThe Philadelphia Story
Year: 1940
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 112 minutes / 1.86 hours

When a movie containing Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart comes along, there’s no doubt it will be excellent. The Philadelphia Story (1940) does not disappoint on this aspect. Reminiscent of the aforementioned Bringing Up Baby, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant worked well together to produce another quality comedy. In fact, The Philadelphia Story was the fourth of four comedies featuring the pair, preceded by Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938), and Bringing Up Baby. One of Hepburn’s 12 nominations was for her role in this film, even though the only two Oscars it won were for its writing and for James Stewart’s performance. This Best Actor role was obvious in the film, as Stewart gives one of the best drunk scenes ever seen in cinema. The American Film Institute (AFI) has placed this film at #44 on its Top 100 list, whereas Bringing Up Baby only made it to #88.

Hepburn plays a rich woman by the name of Tracy Samantha Lord Haven who is about to be re-married. However, when a tabloid reporter, Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart), and her ex-husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), show up, she begins to do a bit of soul searching. While she wants to marry George Kittredge (John Howard), she’s now torn between him, the ex-husband her younger sister adores, and the mysterious reporter. As the wedding approaches, the stress gets to Tracy, and she ends up drinking a bit too much, which is somewhat ironic considering one of the reasons she divorced Dexter in the first place was because of his alcoholism. However, she wasn’t the only one drunk, as Mike joined in the festivities. After finding out that Mike and Tracy went for a swim, the fiancé leaves, but the guests are already there! They expect a wedding, and a wedding they will get, but for who?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Katharine Hepburn classics

Bacon #: 2 (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner / Timothy Scott -> Footloose / Kevin Bacon)