Death is not al­ways the end

For decades, film-mak­ers have found novel ways to han­dle the un­ex­pected death of a star, writes Joe Grif­fin

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

“WHO’D want to see a dead per­son,” Jack Warner bluntly asked when James Dean passed away be­fore Gi­ant was re­leased. Judg­ing by the ticket sales for The Dark Knight, a lot of peo­ple do. Th’e un­timely death of a piv­otal pro­tag­o­nist is an age-old prob­lem in Hol­ly­wood, and one that has been tack­led in var­i­ous, of­ten imag­i­na­tive ways.

Jean Har­low was only 26 when she died be­fore fin­ish­ing Saratoga, and had her re­main­ing scenes shot with a stand-in. When Natalie Wood died be­fore Brain­storm­ing was com­pleted, an­other ac­tress filled in for some shots where her face was hid­den.

Though death is rarely funny, it’s hard not to sti­fle a snig­ger at Ed Wood’s more un­ortho­dox so­lu­tion for Plan 9 from Outer Space. When Bela Lu­gosi passed away be­fore shoot­ing was fin­ished, Wood re­placed him with Tom Ma­son. A chi­ro­prac­tor with no act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, Ma­son was also decades younger than Legosi and barely re­sem­bled the icon. Wood’s so­lu­tion was to have Ma­son play his role while hold­ing a cape over the bot­tom half of his face.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the stench of bad taste has tainted a few pro­duc­tions of this type. The late Peter Sell­ers ap­peared in Trial of the Pink Pan­ther in footage that was shot long be­fore the filmeven be­gan pro­duc­tion. This smelled more like a cash-in than a fit­ting trib­ute to the comic leg­end.

The ar­rival of dig­i­tal ef­fects changed ev­ery­thing. Bran­don Lee’s death while shoot­ing The Crow (trag­i­cally rem­i­nis­cent of his fa­ther, Bruce) was solved by a then-new so­lu­tion of digi­tis­ing his face onto the body of a stand-in. The tech­nique was used again for Oliver Reed in Gla­di­a­tor.

This brings us to The Dark Knight. Ledger had fin­ished most of his work on the film, leav­ing only a lit­tle voice work to be done. Spec­u­la­tions of ques­tion­able taste were made at the time of Heath Ledger’s death, sug­gest­ing that his fa­tal ex­haus­tion was an in­di­rect re­sult of his per­for­mance as The Joker. The un­palat­able sug­ges­tion was that Ledger’s per­for­mance and com­mit­ment were so un­re­lent­ing that it was his un­do­ing. Who wouldn’t want to see the role that killed him? was the un­easy im­pli­ca­tion.

In fair­ness, Ledger’s deliri­ous per­for­mance was the film’s big­gest sell­ing point even be­fore he passed away, so it seems log­i­cal to con­tinue the mar­ket­ing cam­paign vir­tu­ally as-was. Be­sides, the vil­lains were al­ways the big­gest draw in the Bat­man films.

We have one more Ledger film to look for­ward to. In The Imag­i­nar­ium of Doc­tor Par­nas­sus, Ledger’s char­ac­ter will be also be played by Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law. The fan­tasy premise (some­thing in­volv­ing meta­mor­pho­sis while trav­el­ling be­tween worlds) will hope­fully prove a good idea by the no­to­ri­ously ec­cen­tric di­rec­tor Terry Gil­liam.

Bran­don Lee in The Crow

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