7 Ways to Cope with Movie Star Deaths

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As The Dark Knight approaches the $450 million mark, Oscar buzz is building for the late Heath Ledger. Christopher Nolan has insisted that he did not digitally alter or use stand-ins to complete Ledger's scenes—this was the director's attempt to preserve the integrity of the late actor's performance. Unfortunately, that honor was not bestowed upon the legacies of other departed actors. Here are a few methods directors have used to fill the gaps left by deceased movie stars—some respectable, others not so much.

1. Make it an A-List Tribute

Ledger's final role will officially come in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a magic-based film he was shooting when he died. Rather than abandon the film, director Terry Gillam has insisted that the show will go on. He has decided on a rather unconventional method to fill in the gap—using not one, but three, A-List actors (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law) to complete the film. The scenes completed by Ledger are all set in the real world, whereas the film traverses through different realms. Ledger's face will be magically changed to that of other actors used to portray different incarnations of his character. Imaginarium, like Dark Knight, will be dedicated to Ledger when it is released next year.

2. Poorly Conceal the Actor's Absence

plan-9.jpgNot all movies have access to A-List stars, like the low-budget cult disaster Plan 9 From Outer Space. There are many things wrong with this movie, but one glaring problem was the fact that Bela Lugosi died before production even began. Director Ed Wood decided to use a few minutes of unreleased Lugosi footage originally intended for a movie called Tomb of the Vampire as the basis of the script and its major selling point. After the bizarre scene with a caped Lugosi inspecting flowers in his yard, his character was portrayed by chiropractor Tom Mason. Wood attempted to hide the fact that Mason looked nothing like Lugosi (and stood a foot taller) by concealing Mason's face behind a cape and having him slouch for the entirety of the film. Due to this and other ridiculous errors, the film has become a cult classic and is regarded by some as the worst movie ever made.

The hidden face technique was used decades later with the late Bruce Lee. During production for Game of Death, Lee took a leave of absence to film the big budget Hollywood kung fu movie Enter the Dragon. Lee tragically died after filming Enter the Dragon, and thus never completed Game of Death. In order to not waste unreleased footage of a man who had posthumously become a major star, production resumed six years later using a new script and a radically different plot. Two stand-ins with sunglasses, fake beards and mysterious shadows were used to portray Lee in new scenes involving his character. Lee's absence is most obvious in a scene in which a cardboard cut out of Lee's face is taped onto a mirror for a close-up shot. The film also controversially used actual footage from Lee's funeral and a close up of his actual body in a coffin for a scene in which Lee's character fakes his own death.

3. Send in the Stunt Doubles

Of course, using stunt doubles isn't such a big deal when only one or two scenes are needed to complete a film. Natalie Wood tragically (and some argue, suspiciously) drowned during a break in production for the 1983 science fiction film Brainstorm. Though principal photography was mostly complete at the time of her death, a critical climactic scene had yet to be filmed. Production was halted for two years while the studio and director contemplated what to do with the movie. The studio wanted to abandon the project and collect the insurance money. Eventually, the decision was made by director Douglas Trumbull to use obscured camera angles and a stand in to complete the remaining scenes. The film was a critically praised tribute to Wood, but a box office bomb.

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4. Use Computers

Brandon Lee died in a tragic on-set accident while filming The Crow. His death was almost twenty years after the mysterious death of his father, Bruce Lee, and just a month before the release of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, a big screen biography about his father. The Crow had just seven scenes left with Lee to film when he died on March 31, 1991. With the support of Lee's mother and fiancée, director Alex Proyas decided to complete the film using CGI technology to superimpose Lee's face on stand-ins. The film was a huge success when it was released in 1994, despite the notoriety of the devastating on-set accident.

The same CGI-masking technique was used to complete the unfinished scenes of Oliver Reed in Gladiator. Reed suffered a heart attack in Malta while wrapping up his role as the slave dealer Proximo. He was nominated for several awards for the role, and the film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as Best Visual Effects.

5. Cut and Paste

Just because the star of a successful film series died before a film is written doesn't mean it can't be made. The 1982 bomb Trail of the Pink Panther was made a year after the death of franchise anchor Peter Sellers, who portrayed iconic Inspector Clouseau. All of Sellers' scenes were constructed using archival footage, deleted scenes and outtakes from other Pink Panther films. It became pretty obvious which movies the scenes were pulled from based on the clothing and quality of the footage. The rest of the non-Sellers scenes were made concurrently with new footage for the next installment of the series, which did not use the Clouseau character. Apparently, no one wanted to watch a movie recycled from the editing room floor; it was a commercial and critical failure.

Sellers' widow Lynne Frederick was not amused by the cut and paste film; she successfully sued the production company for tarnishing her late husband's name and reputation. The franchise continued without Sellers or financial success in Curse of the Pink Panther and Son of the Pink Panther. When the franchise was revamped in 2006, Steve Martin was cast as Clouseau.

6. Cover it Up

When John Candy passed away in 1994 late in production for Wagons East, the filmmakers claimed that all of his scenes had been shot and would be used as is. Fans of Candy have noticed that at least one scene with Candy in a bar was recycled with a slightly different background, and that a stand-in was used in other scenes. Additionally, fans and critics suspect the script was altered to eliminate Candy's incomplete scenes. Despite being one of the last works of a beloved actor, the film was critically panned and bombed financially.

7. Scrap the Whole Thing

Sometimes it's best to place unfinished films on the shelf when a quality product cannot be made without a departed star. The final project of River Phoenix, a bizarre drama called Dark Blood, had only 11 days of filming remaining when he died in 1993. A few scenes have been made public by director George Sluizer, who legally owns all footage from the film. He has claimed that he intends to use the footage as part of a biography about Phoenix.

Marilyn Monroe's unfinished final project, Something's Got to Give, is one of the most notorious unfinished movies of all time. The film was a remake of the 1940 screwball comedy My Favorite Wife and suffered script and budget problems from day one. After failing to show up on set many times, Monroe was fired from the film, but as co-star Dean Martin stated, "No Marilyn, no picture." She was re-hired, but there was still no picture—she died on August 5, 1962, shortly before production was to resume. The nine hours of footage featuring Monroe, including a much talked about skinny dip scene, was placed in a Hollywood vault and left untouched for decades. To save face, Something's Got to Give was rewritten, recast with Doris Day and given the title Move Over, Darling and used many of the same sets and costumes from the Monroe shoot.

In 2001, the original scenes were touched up and developed into a 37-minute segment for the biography Marilyn: The Final Days.

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August 13, 2008 - 8:00pm
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