If they’re lucky, some of Hollywood’s greatest actors get to end their long and illustrious careers on a high note. But for some stars of the silver screen, their final films tend to be a little unremarkable, if not complete disasters. Most of the legendary actors on this list fall into the latter category – having chosen roles that seem a million miles away from their great body of work during Hollywood’s golden age.
Of course, it’s not the fault of the star if the film itself happens to be terrible and making a bad final movie certainly doesn’t erase all that a beloved actor once meant to us. But, we have to admit, once you’ve seen an iconic actor in a less than dignified role, it can be pretty hard to unsee it. (Who could have imagined screen goddess Elizabeth Taylor starring in The Flintstones?) It seems like some stars really needed the money when taking these roles, but others probably had a bit more faith in their final film choices and – lucky for those few – they made a smart move.
Among the surprising and wacky final films on this list, a few ended up being the perfect way for certain actors to bow out of the movies. Whether it’s because their last ever films stayed true to their personality or gave them a chance to poke fun at some of their most well-known roles, some of these swan song flicks are ones these screen legends can be proud of. Here are some incredibly fitting (and not-so fitting) last films from Hollywood greats.
15 Orson Welles – The Transformers: The Movie (1986)
Many polls consider Citizen Kane the greatest film ever put to screen – not bad for a movie that was directed, produced and co-written by a then 25-year-old Orson Welles (in his first ever film too, we might add). It’s quite surreal then when you realize that the man who began his career with Kane ended it with, wait for it...The Transformers: The Movie. Welles lent his deep, instantly recognizable voice to a character called Unicron, an evil shape-shifting planet robot that eats other planets. No, seriously.
The multi-talented actor and director definitely had a varied career, occasionally appearing in the odd commercial and TV comedy show, but this role has to be the strangest thing he ever did, and unfortunately, it was his last. He will of course always be remembered for iconic films like The Third Man and his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, but now you know that another addition to the Transformers family was none other than Citizen Kane. Mind blown.
14 Jimmy Stewart – An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)
When you look back at the career of Jimmy Stewart, the man rarely made a bad movie. In fact, his filmography is littered with some of the best ever – Vertigo, Rear Window, It’s A Wonderful Life, etc. But even when Stewart found himself in a less than perfect film, you could always count on him to put in a sincere, natural performance and he did this right up until the very end. His last ever role was in the 1991 sequel to An American Tail, Fievel Goes West in which he lent his distinctive voice to a rusty old dog sheriff named Wylie Burp.
Not only was this role apt when you consider how many westerns James Stewart appeared in over his career, it was an especially fitting role because the last line of dialogue he ever speaks sums up his modest, every-man persona that audiences came to love him for: “I don’t know what’s out there beyond those hills, but if you ride yonder: head up, eyes steady, heart open...I think one day you’ll find that you’re the hero you’ve been lookin’ for.”
13 Elizabeth Taylor – The Flintstones (1994)
At the height of her powers, Liz Taylor was unstoppable. Sultry in films like Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and stunningly beautiful in her most iconic role as the Egyptian Queen in Cleopatra. Luckily, these films are so highly regarded decades later that they cast a shadow over her smaller, less appealing roles. Unfortunately for the iconic leading lady, the last film on your resume is always going to be one that sticks out and for Taylor, this was the 90s live-action Flintstones movie.
The 1994 big screen edition of The Flintstones saw Elizabeth Taylor playing the pesky mother-in-law character Pearl Slaghoople (straight away, her character name should probably give you an indication of just how bad this film was). The original Flintstones TV show was well-loved in its day, but it feels like a live-action version of it should never have happened. Taylor’s performance was even slammed by some critics too. Not exactly going out on a high.
12 Joan Crawford – Trog (1970)
The cult 1970 sci-fi film Trog is dangerously close to Troll 2 territory (and not just because the names are similar). Like Troll 2, Trog is an over the top sci-fi horror with terrible special effects and even worse acting. But unlike Troll 2, it stars one of the greatest actresses to ever grace the silver screen playing a scientist who wants to domesticate a caveman. So we just have one question: what possessed Joan freakin’ Crawford to ever sign up for this?
Perhaps the pay check was too good to pass up because she certainly didn't choose this role for its artistic merit. Joan Crawford’s long-term rival and fellow actress Bette Davis apparently commented at the time that if she ever found herself starring in Trog, she would have to commit suicide. Ouch. Crawford retired from acting shortly after Trog was released and presumably went to go hide in a cave.
11 Groucho Marx – Skidoo (1968)
The early days of Hollywood’s comedy circuit were ruled by the Marx Brothers and Groucho was always the man to lead them on their wacky adventures. His bushy eyebrows, cigar and painted on mustache made him instantly recognizable around the world and this look quickly became synonymous with absurdist slapstick comedy. It’s kind of a shame then, that Groucho Marx’s last film outing failed to tickle any funny bones.
Groucho’s final movie was the 1968 comedy flick Skidoo, which featured Marx as a mob boss named "God" who daren’t show his face to the world he corrupted. On the basis of this, it almost sounds like Skidoo has comedy potential, but this film misses the mark entirely and has even been described by some critics as “a car crash you can’t look away from.” Marx himself didn’t like the film, saying that he looked embalmed when he saw himself on screen!
10 Gene Kelly – Xanadu (1980)
Technically, this could count as a fitting last role for Gene Kelly in the sense that we get to see him dancing one last time – but this ain’t no Singing in the Rain. In fact, it’s as far from a classic Hollywood musical as you’re ever likely to get. The 1980 musical flop Xanadu sees Gene Kelly rollerblading in a near-future fantasy world opposite Olivia Newton-John. The film’s premise is based solely around the idea of a teleporting angel (Newton-John) and a former big band leader (Kelly) joining forces to create a roller disco.
With a plot this cheesy, even an all-singing all-dancing MGM icon couldn’t save this film from failing spectacularly. When Xanadu was released, it was met by plenty of scorn from critics and the film even helped inspire the Golden Raspberry (Razzies) film awards! Yikes. At least Gene Kelly can admit to the film’s flaws though, saying once that “The concept was marvelous, but it just didn’t come off.” That’s...putting it kindly, Gene.
9 Marlon Brando – Big Bug Man (2004)
Throughout the decades, Marlon Brando’s career has boasted some of the greatest films of a generation – Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, A Streetcar Named Desire etc. So his last ever feature film is probably the last thing you’d expect from the screen idol. It was apparently a lifelong ambition of Brando's to play a woman just once and he fulfilled that dream when he signed up to voice an old lady for the as-yet unreleased animated film Big Bug Man (2004)
Unfortunately for Brando, the world is yet to see his funny turn as a female character since the release of the animation was delayed several times. It’s not known why, but it could be down to Brando’s ill health at the time of making it. Regardless, you can find funny yet disturbing pictures of Marlon’s character Mrs. Sour online. Apparently, Brando turned up to his recording session in a blonde wig and makeup. Now that’s commitment to your craft!
8 John Wayne – The Shootist (1976)
Ask anyone what name comes to mind when you think of westerns and they’re almost bound to say: John Wayne. It’s pretty appropriate then that his last ever on-screen outing was as an aging cowboy in the 1976 film The Shootist. In the end, Wayne rounded off a career filled with films set in the Old West with a poignant role as a dying gunslinger wishing to go with dignity – poignant because John Wayne was actually dying in real life of terminal cancer.
Before his death from stomach cancer three years later in 1979, Wayne played gunfighter JB Brooks who looks for a way to die with dignity instead of pain. The film also saw the Duke partner up with fellow western stalwart James Stewart, who plays the doctor diagnosing his character with an advanced form of cancer. The Shootist also stars screen icon, Lauren Bacall, making this little-known western a rich and fitting tribute to the original screen cowboy.
7 Fred Astaire – Ghost Story (1981)
Towards the end of his long career in musicals, the multi-talented Fred Astaire occasionally hung up his dancing shoes for more serious roles like his part in the Steve McQueen thriller The Towering Inferno and his last ever film was closer to this territory than his usual stuff. The toe-tapping Hollywood legend was last seen playing Ricky Hawthorne, a businessman who loves to share spooky horror stories with his pals.
The film in question was Ghost Story from 1981 and saw a very frail-looking Astaire star alongside other big names of his time including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Melvyn Douglas. The film didn’t do too badly upon release and is considered a fairly decent horror drama, but the departure from the Fred Astaire we’re so familiar with is what makes this such a surreal last film. The man who once serenaded Ginger Rogers with classics like "The Way You Look Tonight" was also a fan of the paranormal. Who knew?
6 Gene Hackman – Welcome to Mooseport (2004)
Although Gene Hackman has had some bit parts on TV in recent years and appeared as a talking head in a few documentaries, he hasn’t appeared on the big screen in 13 years and has no plans to anytime soon. The star of classics like The French Connection and Wes Anderson’s indie flick The Royal Tenenbaums officially retired from acting back in 2004 and the last film he left us with was the underwhelming romantic comedy Welcome to Mooseport.
In it, Hackman plays a former US president who decides to run for mayor in a small town. Despite a quirky premise and decent supporting cast (Ray Romano, Fred Savage), the film was completely trashed by critics so it’s a shame that this is probably the last film associated with a talent like Gene Hackman. At 87 years old, it’s unlikely that he’ll ever make a big screen comeback, and if he does, it will be on one specific condition: “If I could do it from my own house, maybe, without them disturbing anything.” Yeah, but how would you do car chases in your living room, Gene?
5 Ethel Merman – Airplane (1980)
The legendary singer and actress was dubbed the “First lady of the musical comedy stage” so it makes sense that her final film appearance was in one of the best and silliest comedy films ever made – Airplane. Four years before her death in 1984, Ethel Merman struck gold with her last film choice, making a hilarious cameo as a shell-shocked soldier who believes he is Ethel Merman. Airplane is a film chock full of fourth-wall breaks and brilliant parodies, but this moment is definitely one of the highlights.
In the scene, the main character Ted tells Elaine that one soldier in the hospital, Lieutenant Hurwitz, is so disturbed and severely shell-shocked that he actually thinks he’s Ethel Merman. We then cut to the soldier’s bed and the iconic singer bursts out of the bed sheets singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” She’s then restrained by nurses and sedated. Merman may only have appeared for less than a minute but it made for one of the best moments in the film and one of the best movie exits anyone could ever hope for.
4 Janet Leigh – Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)
Janet Leigh shocked us all when she was brutally murdered in Psycho’s endlessly imitated shower scene, but several decades later, she would go on to do something equally shocking – starring in the disastrous horror flop that was Halloween H20, the seventh installment in the Halloween horror franchise. The film may not be as terrible as others on this list, but considering how clumsy and awkward Leigh’s brief scenes are, this certainly wasn’t the best film for the iconic star of Psycho to bow out on.
Janet Leigh took a fairly long break from the movies, spending 18 years away from the spotlight – that is, until this. Her first film role in almost 20 years would also be her last and it’s probably not one she’d prefer to be remembered for. Because Leigh stars opposite her real-life daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, you get the sense that the director just wanted to see these two share screen time. While it’s definitely cool to see them together (and the subtle references to Psycho), Leigh’s scene seems tacked on and unnecessary, a bit like most of the Halloween sequels.
3 Judy Garland – I Could Go On Singing (1963)
Just six years before her tragic death, the incomparable Judy Garland starred in a film that was very befitting of her entire career. The 1963 musical I Could Go On Singing had Garland playing a famous stage singer with a troubled personal life. The musical drama could well have been a documentary about her own life since it mirrored so many of the struggles she faced on and off the screen.
Before making this apt farewell film, Judy Garland had not appeared in a singing role since her career-revitalizing turn in 1954’s A Star is Born. There, she played a young starlet who’s taken under the wing of an aging alcoholic mentor, played by James Mason. In this way, I Could Go On Singing brought Garland’s life and musical career full circle, from playing the innocent and idealistic young Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to a lonely middle-aged superstar. In 1969, Garland sadly died of an accidental overdose.
2 Natalie Wood – Brainstorm (1983)
The beautiful and talented Natalie Wood will always be associated with her role as Maria in West Side Story and as James Dean’s love interest in the classic film Rebel Without A Cause. Her last film, however, was a departure from her usual style of films – an 80’s sci-fi thriller called Brainstorm. Wood had appeared in the sci-fi disaster movie Meteor a few years before, but Brainstorm was a step into intelligent sci-fi storytelling, exploring the pitfalls of mind-reading technology.
Tragically, Natalie Wood died during the making of the film in a yachting accident, so the director re-worked the ending using her earlier scenes. At the age of just 43, the brunette beauty had so much more to offer, as evidenced by her successful start in the movies – she picked up a total of three Oscar nominations before turning 25. There aren’t many modern actresses who share that accolade
1 Gene Wilder – Another You (1991)
The late great Gene Wilder sadly passed away this time last year, but he left us with a lot of fond movie memories. Like a lot of kids probably did, I first saw Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in the original 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but I came to know him as the eccentric comedian and long-time comedy partner of Richard Pryor. Over the years they appeared in four films together, one of which was Wilder’s last ever film Another You.
Towards the end of his career, the wild-haired comic actor dabbled in some TV movies in the late 90s and even appeared as a recurring character in Will & Grace, but he made his last feature length film around 26 years ago. His last comedy outing with Richard Pryor may not have been incredibly well received, but the film’s premise – a mental patient mistaken for a millionaire - was as wacky as any other they made together and this made it the perfect note to end on.
Sources: ranker.com, screenrant.com, metv.com