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
“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