Credit: Alicia Gbur
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Nobody wants to join the list of actors whose last movies were released after they died — but you’ve got to admit that the company is good. And as of today, that unfortunate club has another illustrious member: Whitney Houston, star of the Jordin Sparks vehicle Sparkle. (Not to be confused with Marian Carey’s Glitter, though both are lustrous tales of up-and-coming singers.)

EW’s Owen Gleiberman wasn’t a huge fan of Sparkle; he gave the film a B- in EW this week, calling it “an overheated mediocrity.” He does, however, praise Houston, applauding her “gravelly conviction” in his review. “This could have been the first step not merely in a comeback but in a major re-invention,” he continues. “She had the instincts of a superb character actress.”

So Whitney’s last movie isn’t exactly Oscar material — but could she still enter the pantheon of stars who gave especially memorable posthumous performances? Let’s take a look at some of her competition:

James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

The brooding heartthrob died in a car crash just one month before Warner Brothers released one of his final films. The movie became a cultural touchstone — largely because of Dean’s intense, mesmerizing screen presence. Just look at how he smolders:

Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon (1973)

Lee died under mysterious circumstances in July 1973 — six days before Enter the Dragon was released in Hong Kong. (Producer Raymond Chow said in 2005 that the official cause was an allergic reaction to the painkiller Equagesic.) But he’ll live forever as Shaolin martial artist Lee, a fighter with brains to match his brawn.

Peter Finch, Network (1976)

If you’ve seen the first episode of The Newsroom but haven’t yet watched Network, you’re missing out on one of the best movies of the ’70s. (And that wasn’t exactly a decade that lacked for great movies.) It wouldn’t be the same without Finch’s poor, doomed Howard Beale, a mad prophet with anger issues. No wonder he won the first-ever posthumous acting Oscar. (Finch was alive when the film was released, but died a few months before the 49th Academy Awards ceremony, so I’m still going to count him.)

Adrienne Shelly, Waitress (2007)

This sweet, uplifting comedy has an incredibly sad back story — writer, director, and co-star Shelly was murdered fewer than three months before it premiered at Sundance. But audiences were still charmed by her sunny tale, as well as her supporting performance.

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008)

What’s left to say about Ledger’s fierce, hilarious, terrifying Joker? Not much; his Oscar-winning performance really speaks for itself.

Jill Clayburgh, Bridesmaids (2011)

This Academy Award nominee’s last role was as Kristen Wiig’s kooky mom in last summer’s biggest comedy. Sure, it’s not as iconic as Dean’s performance, or Ledger’s — but Clayburgh still deserves recognition for making the most out of a small part. (There’s no footage of Clayburgh in Bridesmaids on YouTube, but here’s a clip of her Love and Other Drugs costar Jake Gyllenhaal paying tribute to her.)

Think Houston has what it takes to make this list? And which other posthumous performers would you add?

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  • Paul Feig