Soderbergh: 'It's always good to kill movie stars.'
If you’ve seen Gwyneth Paltrow’s brain dissected in Contagion, you know that Steven Soderbergh is willing to portray stars in a less than glamorous light. But in an interview with The Independent, the Oscar-winning director of Traffic and Haywire practically exuded blood lust for A-listers. Don’t worry, though: It’s all in the name of art!
“It’s always good to kill movie stars,” Soderbergh told the British newspaper. “I think that the two most important things that have happened to that aspect of movies in the last 50 years are Hitchcock killing off Janet Leigh in a way that nobody had ever dreamed of doing – taking his heroine and killing her off after 40 minutes – and… Mike Nichols casting Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. That changed everything.”
Obviously this means Soderbergh’s greatest dream must be to kill off a character played by Dustin Hoffman. In all seriousness, though, it’s easy to see what he’s getting at. Star power has traditionally acted as a kind of metaphysical protection onscreen. The bigger the name, the better the chances of that actor’s character surviving for the duration of the film. We take comfort in movie stars, those walking embodiments of our dreams and fantasies. If in the midst of a Julia Roberts everygirl rom-com, she suddenly gets her head blown off, we’d find it more than a little upsetting. Psycho rocked everybody’s world when Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane stepped into that shower because people still saw her as the actress they had known and loved in gentle movies like Little Women, Holiday Affair, or the Lassie movie Hills of Home.
Today, movie stars’ onscreen mortality rate is pretty darn high. (WARNING! Many, many SPOILERS ahead!) It’s hard to imagine John Wayne in They Were Expendable or Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory being offed as quickly or indiscriminately as Guy Pearce at the beginning of The Hurt Locker. Or Lauren Bacall suddenly getting blown up halfway through To Have and Have Not, like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s early exit as Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight. And I’d love to have seen Joseph von Sternberg try to get Marlene Dietrich, queen of the Vaseline-covered camera lens, to submit to a scene like Gwynnie’s autopsy in Contagion.
Soderbergh clearly got us thinking, so here are ten of our favorite unexpected movie-star death scenes since Psycho.
10. Deep Blue Sea (Samuel L. Jackson)—The tyranny of evil CGI sharks is visited upon righteous man Russell Franklin. Also see Jackson’s splatterific pre-fame demise in GoodFellas, and his lightning-assisted trip out a window in Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith.
9. L.A. Confidential (Kevin Spacey)—Preening celebrity cop Jack Vincennes is no longer cock-of-the-Hollywood-walk when corrupt Captain Dudley (James Cromwell) is done with him. For a similar dose of authority-figure-on-authority-figure violence, see Colin Farrell’s out-of-the-blue demise at the hands of Max von Sydow in Minority Report. There are few moments in recent cinema more exciting than seeing the star of Phone Booth blown away by the star of The Seventh Seal. Then, for a bit of cross-pollination, see Farrell wasted by Kevin Spacey in Horrible Bosses.
8. Drive (Christina Hendricks)—There are a lot of quease-inducing moments in Nicholas Winding Refn’s thriller, but the most shocking is undoubtedly due to our cozy familiarity with Hendricks’ Mad Men alter ego, Joan Holloway. When we see our favorite redhead’s noggin blown off by a sawed-off shotgun in a sleazy motel bathroom, it packs a punch.
7. The Departed (Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Sheen)—DiCaprio’s heart certainly doesn’t go on after his brains splatter the inside of an elevator midway through Martin Scorsese’s crackling Beantown caper, while Sheen’s pious cop takes a free fall off a high-rise.
6. No Country for Old Men (Josh Brolin)—Llewellyn Moss is our indefatigable, endlessly resourceful hero in the Coen brothers’ grittily existential adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. So after 100+ minutes of watching him scurry away from Javier Bardem’s terminator-in-the-flesh, Anton Churgurh, Moss’ random offscreen death at the hands of a posse of Mexican drug dealers is like a cosmic joke.
5. Pulp Fiction (John Travolta)—Kind of a cheat, since Quentin Tarantino’s pretzel-shaped plot has Vincent Vega seemingly resurrect to witness a miracle with Jules Winfield, deal with the Bonnie Situation, and discuss the personality-to-cleanliness ratio of dogs and pigs, respectively. But unknot QT’s narrative threads, and, after all the diner philosophy and Chuck Berry dance contests, Vega’s still a dead man.
4. The Godfather (James Caan)—Four words: Sonny Corleone. Toll booth.
3. Scream (Drew Barrymore)—Wes Craven’s more than a little obvious homage to Psycho has presumed Scream star Drew Barrymore offed in the opening scene.
2. Bonnie and Clyde (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway)—It’s not so shocking that they died. Unlike these others, it happened at the end of Arthur Penn’s game-changing outlaw romance, for maximum dramatic impact. It was how they died—their spasming bodies flailing about when met with a hail of bullets. Movie-god glamour would never be the same.
1. Once Upon a Time in the West (Jack Elam/Woody Strode)—Jack Elam and Woody Strode could have carried their own Western. Had carried their own Westerns. So when Charles Bronson’s Harmonica showed up after a languid eight-minute prologue featuring Elam and Strode, then promptly dispatched them (along with Al Mulock) to their Maker, it wasn’t just a shock. It was maestro Sergio Leone’s mission statement that he was about to rewrite everything you thought you knew about the Old West.
Do you think Soderbergh has a point? What are some of your favorite onscreen movie-star death scenes?