Houston is about to join the immortals – a tragic group of actors whose final film roles came after their deaths. Houston had completed Sparkle when she died in February, drowned in her hotel room in Beverly Hills. Whether with young actors like James Dean and Heath Ledger or middle-aged ones like Houston, 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. “When an elderly star dies, people get a little sentimental, and there may be an uptick in the DVD 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 September 30, 1955, during production of Giant and less than a month before the release of Rebel Without a Cause – is the biggest exception. His ongoing mystique is fuelled by his livefast, 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 death in 1962.
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.
It’s too soon to tell whether Houston will reach these sanctified ranks, but as this list of some of the most wellknown posthumous stars demonstrates, we most often just mourn and move on.