Final Cut

Heath Ledger, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and what to do when the star of your movie dies.

Actor Heath Ledger in 2006.
Heath Ledger

Had tragedy not befallen The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam’s new spin on the Faust legend would be just another entry on the director’s checkered latter-day résumé. The movie is overstuffed and understructured, lurching between squalid reality (in this case, a rain-soaked, neo-Victorian London) and a strenuously whimsical fantasy world. (The mind reels at the challenge of summing up Gilliam’s aesthetic, but here’s a try: “Jules Verne meets Sid and Marty Kroft for a dinner of peyote and sweetbreads under a threadbare East End circus tent modeled on the Palace of Versailles.” It’s not always as fun as it sounds.)

But Imaginarium (opening Dec. 25) will be forever defined as not a Terry Gilliam film but a Heath Ledger film: It captured the actor’s last screen performance before he died of an accidental overdose in January 2008. The loss of Ledger also made Imaginarium part of a small, sad category of movies that sustained the death of a principal actor during production. None of these unlucky works is a masterpiece; some are testaments to the filmmakers’ resourcefulness under terrible circumstances, while others never should have seen the light of day. But each holds a degree of fascination as a memento mori in a medium that creates immortals out of its stars.

Category 1: Almost Seamless
If you didn’t know about the circumstances that blighted the science-fiction drama Brainstorm (1983) and the first segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), you’d have little indication that each lost a lead actor before its completion. After Natalie Wood accidentally drowned on a weekend off from shooting Brainstorm, director Douglas Trumbull relied on rewrites and creative editing to paper over scenes the actress had not yet shot. It’s unclear whether those necessary improvisations contributed to the film’s choppy pacing and too-abrupt ending, but Wood’s death does add a bizarre layer of interest—even suspense—to Trumbull’s clumsy direction. For example, when Wood’s character stands smack in the center of the frame with her back to the camera (about 3:55 into this clip), a pressure valve of tension releases when the beautiful actress finally turns her face our way: Yes, it’s really Natalie Wood! It’s not the gaffer in a good wig!

Likewise, the naked eye can’t discern any obvious lacunae in John Landis’ dreadful contribution to the omnibus Twilight Zone, despite the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two child extras in a helicopter accident as cameras rolled. (The book Outrageous Conduct makes a strong case that Landis’ on-set behavior contributed to the crash.) The plot has racist schmo Bill Connor (Morrow) unleash a barroom rant against Jews, blacks, and Asians, only to be mistaken for Jewish, black, and Asian when he’s transported Zone-style into Nazi-occupied France, the KKK-occupied Deep South, and U.S.-occupied South Vietnam, respectively. (In Landis’ Max Fischer Players vision of war-torn Vietnam, American troops blast “Purple Haze” while on nighttime swamp patrol.) With no usable footage of the segment’s intended climax—the reformed Connor heroically rescuing Vietnamese children from a burning village—Landis retooled the segment as a blunt object lesson on “karma is a bitch.” (Landis’ detractors might argue that karma is inconsistent in this instance: Not long after the Twilight Zone catastrophe, noted child-welfare advocate Michael Jackson tapped Landis to direct the Thriller video.)

Category 2: Fixer-Uppers
Just as notorious as the Twilight Zone incident was the accidental fatal shooting of Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow (1994), which cast a long shadow over a story of an avenging angel settling scores in the afterlife (an afterlife where he can recover almost instantly from bullet wounds, no less). Lee’s death required the obvious use of a stand-in and some computer-generated fudging for several scenes, including the pivotal flashback to the hero’s murder. But Alex Proyas’ big Goth cheeseball of an action-melodrama is so soaked in the mid-’90s MTV aesthetic of stuttering-strobe edits and smeary, lurid palettes that Proyas can blur and obscure the gaps with relative ease.

The same can’t be said for the posthumous movies of Brandon Lee’s father, Bruce: The absurd Game of Death is slapped together using extant footage of the late martial-arts master and multiple body doubles—one of them cut from cardboard. (You’d have to look to “world’s worst director” Ed Wood for a more doltish exploitation of dead-star footage: the shots of Bela Lugosi grafted onto Plan 9 From Outer Space, later lovingly re-created in Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood.)

In the elder Lee’s case, though, only the performer’s image needed to be approximated—the absence of his master’s voice was no problem. The dubbing of the late Oliver Reed in one scene from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) doesn’t quite evoke the comically inexact lip-synching that was long a hallmark of kung fu pictures, but the shaky matchup between the dialogue and the creepy CGI superimposition of Reed’s face onto a stand-in’s body does provide a jarring reminder that the old hellraiser had succumbed to a heart attack before finishing his scenes. The patch job on the race-track comedy Saratoga (1937) after Jean Harlow’s death from uremic poisoning was far more low-tech: a passable imitation of Harlow’s singular sarcastic chip, plus a set of camouflaging accessories (binoculars, a big floppy hat, etc.). Nick Adams’ dubbing of James Dean’s final, drunken speech in Giant (1956) is conspicuous not for its timbre so much as its pitch and pronunciation: Since Dean spends most of his other scenes mumbling and muttering Method-ly into his collar, his character’s valedictory ramblings—delivered as they are from the bottom of an empty barrel of gin—sound suddenly too full-throated and articulate.

Category 3: Sacred Ruins
Then there are the lost movies: those that suffered the deaths of their stars too early to be salvaged with mimics and enormous hats. Footage from Dark Blood, the movie left incomplete after River Phoenix’s death in 1993, has become something of a holy grail for Phoenix’s fans (bits and pieces of it have popped up on YouTube in recent years). Something’s Got To Give (1962) is significant not only as Marilyn Monroe’s last, unfinished movie but the first to feature a prominent actress—Marilyn, no less!—in a nude scene (included with other material shot for the aborted film on the DVD Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days).

Immediately after Heath Ledger’s overdose, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus looked to be a lost movie, too. But Gilliam was able to rescue his project with an almost eerilyneat solution. The devil’s bargain in Parnassus requires that handsome charlatan Tony (Ledger) act as a pied piper to lure five souls through a magic mirror into an alternate universe. With the bulk of the movie’s drab-London scenes in the can, Gilliam recruited Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to play versions of Tony through the looking-glass, with the plotline alternating between the two realms. (The alt-Tony played by Depp beckons one soul toward a magic river of immortality that preserves the eternal youth of James Dean, Rudolph Valentino, and Princess Diana—a rather literal-minded nod to Ledger’s death that’s allayed by Depp’s customary deadpan grace.)

Parnassus thus exists in two interlocking halves: one made before Ledger died, one after. So perhaps it’s apt to be of two minds about the endeavor as a whole. Like its fellow death-haunted productions, it can be seen as a show-must-go-on tribute to a fallen colleague or as a clever but unseemly exercise in improv necromancy. It somehow both mitigates and intensifies the sadness overhanging the film that a heartbreaking loss was also what made its niftiest trick possible.