NEW YORK – When the musical drama “Sparkle” opens today, the late Whitney Houston will join the spectral cast of performers whose final film roles came after their deaths. Whether with young actors like James Dean and Heath Ledger or middle-aged ones like Houston or Bernie Mac, the death of a movie’s star between production and premiere can create a mystique – although, given that the vast majority of people in the century-plus canon of movies we see on TV, video and elsewhere are, in fact, dead, that mystique doesn’t usually last long.
“It’s a short-term phenomenon,” says Columbia University film scholar David Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and professor emeritus of theater and film at Long Island University. “When an elderly star dies, people get a little sentimental, and there may be an uptick in the Netflix requests. And when somebody young dies, there’s a lot of mourning and grief, and people make a legend out of the person instantly, whether it’s deserved or not. But,” he notes, “the grief goes away, and new young stars come along, and life goes on.”
Dean – killed in a car accident on Sept. 30, 1955, during production of “Giant” (1956) and less than a month before the release of “Rebel Without a Cause” – is the biggest exception. His ongoing mystique is fueled by his live-fast, die-young death at 24, his two posthumous Oscar nominations (for “Giant” and for 1955’s “East of Eden,” released before he died) and his iconographic embodiment of 1950s teen rebellion. And Dean’s mystique might have continued, anyway – look at the similarly enduring Marilyn Monroe, who died while in production on an uncompleted film but whose final movie, “The Misfits,” was released a year and a half before her 1962 death.
Bruce Lee, who died before the release of “Enter the Dragon,” likewise seems to have a special place in popular culture, but he was both a film star and a martial-arts star. Ditto rapper-actor Tupac Shakur, who was murdered before “Gridlock’d” and “Gang Related” came out.
Whether Houston will reach these sanctified ranks, it’s too soon to tell. But as this list of some of the most well-known posthumous stars demonstrates, we most often just mourn and move on.
Heath Ledger (1979-2008): He won the best supporting actor Academy Award for his indelible antagonist the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” released seven months after his death from what New York City’s chief medical examiner ruled was an “accident, resulting from the abuse of prescription medications.” He also starred in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (2009), in production when he died; co-stars Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law play magically transformed versions of his character in those scenes he never got to shoot.
Bernie Mac (1957-2008): The comedian, who died of pneumonia, posthumously co-starred with Samuel L. Jackson in “Soul Men” (2008) and appeared in the John Travolta-Robin Williams comedy “Old Dogs” (2009).
Chris Farley (1964-1997): The “Saturday Night Live” alum appeared in two movies after his death from a drug overdose and a narrowing of the arteries around his heart: “Almost Heroes” (1998) and, in an uncredited cameo, “Dirty Work” (1998).
John Candy (1950-1994): The rotund comic died of a heart attack in March 1994, four months after completing “Canadian Bacon” (1995), while on location for “Wagons East!” (1994).
River Phoenix (1970-1993): Dead at 23 from an overdose of cocaine and heroin, the older brother of Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix appeared in Sam Shepard’s 1994 art-house Western “Silent Tongue.” Last week, director George Sluizer announced that a reconstructed version of the uncompleted “Dark Blood,” which Phoenix was shooting at the time of his death, would premiere before an invite-only audience at the Netherlands Film Festival on Sept. 27.
Vic Morrow (1929-1982): The star of TV’s “Combat!” was killed, along with two child actors, when a helicopter crashed atop them in an on-set accident while shooting “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983). The overall scene, though not the filmed crash itself, remained in the movie.
Natalie Wood (1938-1981): After her mysterious death by apparent drowning – the cause of which the Los Angeles County coroner changed from “accident” to “undetermined” last month – the actress starred in the science-fiction movie “Brainstorm,” released nearly two years later.
Spencer Tracy (1900-1967): The screen legend completed filming “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), his last movie and his last pairing with Katharine Hepburn, 17 days before his death of a heart attack.
Clark Gable (1901-1960): A heart attack also claimed the Oscar-winning star of 1934’s “It Happened One Night,” days after he completed filming John Huston’s “The Misfits” (1961).
Jean Harlow (1911-1937): It’s hard to imagine that the star of nearly two dozen films, including such classics as “The Public Enemy,” “Platinum Blonde” (both 1931) and “Dinner at Eight” (1933), was only 26 when she died of kidney failure after collapsing on the set of “Saratoga.” Actress Mary Dees stood in for her, back to camera, with Paula Winslow providing her voice, in the remaining scenes of the film, which became one of the year’s biggest hits when released less than a month after Harlow’s death.
Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926): Silent films’ legendary “Latin Lover,” Valentino inspired a frenzy after his death from pleuritis and other factors, with thousands of mourners lining the streets of New York. His last film, “The Son of the Sheik,” came out 11 days later.