If the first rule of show business is “always leave them wanting more”, then Chadwick Boseman was a showman of the highest order. Nearly four months after the actor’s untimely death from colon cancer at the age of 43, we have his final film, an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Boseman delivers a performance of blistering fire and soul, a turn that has already sent critics and viewers wild with adulation. But it is impossible to watch without thinking about his recent death, perceiving it, rightly or wrongly, in every fibre of his performance.
When an actor dies, especially as suddenly and shockingly as Boseman did, we turn to their work for comfort and understanding. They have been cut off mid-sentence, and we press our ears to the ground, hoping to hear, in their posthumous work, some more resonant cadence. More often than not, the most we catch is a meaningful phoneme or two. At this point, we take what we can get. Existing at the fuzzy intersection of art and entertainment, films are seldom well-equipped to offer any real understanding, offering only more questions, more unfinished sentences.
A great posthumous performance, like Boseman’s, is given weight by the actor’s passing. Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight came to show just how powerfully a posthumous role can resonate with audiences. Even now, his mercurial, mannered, Academy Award-winning performance is miraculously undiminished by 15 years of imitation and parody. Ledger was at the heart of the film’s seismic box office success, and the actor’s shocking death, just months before release, made it seem even more momentous.
The Dark Knight was about as stark a reminder as you could possibly have of just what cinema had lost with Ledger’s passing. There can, however, be something unsettling about the reverence given to posthumous work, and our morbid fascination with it – about the way Ledger’s death and final role were spun into Hollywood mythology. This happened to an even greater extent decades before, with the death and posthumous films of James Dean. Rebel Without a Cause was released just shortly after Dean’s death in a car accident at 24 years old, and came to define his legacy. Its protagonist, a reckless, rebellious youth, was conflated forever with Dean’s own image and highly public death, bound up and preserved in the self-same myth.
But while Ledger’s comic-book swansong hit all the right notes, his second posthumous appearance, in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, was a far messier affair. Ledger’s death occurred only partway through production; the adjustments made to the finished film – casting Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as physically transformed versions of the same character – call attention to Ledger’s absence, make the film inextricable from the fact of his death. But not many actors are able to choose a role knowing it will be their last.
Take Philip Seymour Hoffman. Before his tragic death in 2014, at just 46, he was adored as perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, an unusual, versatile and multi-layered screen presence who gave, in films such as The Master and Synecdoche, New York, some of the finest performances of the past few decades. In the years after his death, while his fans grieved, he returned to screens in two separate Hunger Games films. There’s something insufficient in a top actor’s last appearance being in a franchise blockbuster; those hoping for meaning, or greatness, would simply find bland, earthly competence, a role offering a large franchise paycheque he probably never lived to spend.
There are far worse case studies than Hoffman’s, of course. Cinema is littered with first-rate actors who have ended their careers with ill-fitting postscripts, from John Candy’s Wagons East! to Bill Paxton’s turn in 2017’s insipid thriller The Circle. Marlon Brando’s final film role was in 2006’s regrettable Superman Returns, two years after his death – achieved through a mixture of archive footage and CGI.
A similar, though perhaps even more egregious, deployment of “cinema magic” was used to situate Carrie Fisher at the centre of 2019’s Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. Scenes were clunkily written to recontextualise line readings Fisher had recorded for previous films, garnished with the use of a body double and CGI effects.
Such devices were hardly new. Ridley Scott employed CGI to work around the loss of his Gladiator star Oliver Reed part-way through filming; Reed would receive a posthumous Bafta nomination for the role. Before the proliferation of CGI, body doubles and visual tricks were still sometimes used to disguise an actor’s mid-production death. Natalie Wood’s final performance, for example, came two years after her tragic death, with her scenes in sci-fi thriller Brainstorm supplemented by the use of a body double and camera tricks. In Rise of Skywalker, however, the illusion was jarring and ill-fated, reminiscent of the infamous scene featuring the late Nancy Marchand in her posthumous appearance on The Sopranos.
Fisher’s final, involuntary appearance as Leia could be considered an affectionate but misguided tribute to a collaborator, or a cynical attempt to capitalise on her image by the Disney franchise machine. It’s probably a little of both. But the very fact of its existence speaks to a deeper need among the public for closure and continuance in the face of grief. What Rise of Skywalker aimed to do, in depicting Leia’s death, was to help people process Fisher’s own passing.
To simply put out a great film is not enough. It must provide answers, or closure, give meaning to an artist’s death. Stanley Kubrick’s final work, Eyes Wide Shut, for example, is one of the legendary filmmaker’s very finest. But it is not a film that’s really about death, and especially not about Kubrick’s own death, which came shortly before the film’s release. Nonetheless, fans pore over Eyes Wide Shut to explain away his demise; the film sits at the heart of a number of far-fetched conspiracy theories involving Kubrick’s murder at the hands of the Illuminati.
Of course, at its best, cinema is capable of tackling humanity’s big questions – death being perhaps the biggest and most unknowable there is. Bob Fosse created one of cinema’s most inventive explorations of the subject in 1979, when he depicted his own fatal heart attack in the thinly veiled auto-biopic All That Jazz. Though Fosse would live for another eight years before dying of a massive heart attack in real life, the film has the uncanny sense of an artist wrestling with his own death as it’s occurring; a posthumous masterpiece that just happened to be prepared eight years in advance. Crucially, though, All That Jazz is such an affecting examination of death because it is filled with the stuff of life: music, dancing, movement, and heartbreak.
It can be bittersweet, or simply bitter, when a performer’s final role doesn’t reflect what made them so special. But while an actor’s death often seems to bring out an urge to impose significance onto their final roles, to glibly do justice to their recent death, it’s just not necessary.
The afterlife exists. Not necessarily in the form of clouds, cherubs, and pearly gates, but in celluloid, radio waves and data sticks. Though it’s true that any artform has the power to outlast the mortal confines of one’s own lifetime – that the mind of William Shakespeare, for instance, is as recognisably alive and at work onstage today as it was hundreds of years ago – it is especially true of cinema. Performances and moments are captured in perfect facsimile; in cinema, there is no such thing as death, just a final frame. We can sit down in front of Black Panther, now or 50 years from now, and see Chadwick Boseman with our own eyes, as charming and alive as he ever was.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is streaming now on Netflix