Present Tense: Death Scenes

William Holden, “Sunset Boulevard”

For my next “Present Tense” column at Film Comment, I wrote about a long-time obsession – which I have covered from time to time here on my site: Actors performing death scenes. And a tribute to those who do it really really well.

Death scenes discussed:

Brian Blessed’s hard to top death scene in I, Claudius
Janet Leigh in Psycho
The child dying in the street in Once Upon a Time in America
William Holden in Sunset Boulevard
Marlon Brando in The Godfather
Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running
Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde
Meryl Streep in Ironweed
Jensen Ackles throughout Supernatural
James Cagney in Roaring Twenties (my #1 favorite death scene)

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6 Responses to Present Tense: Death Scenes

  1. Jessie says:

    What a fun one! Loved reading it.

  2. Barb says:

    Great piece! I am continually in awe of good actors’ abilities to withdraw into themselves during death scenes. The Brian Blessed quote about feeling his brain start to switch off is chilling to think about.

    • sheila says:

      Barb – right? It was great to read that interview with him – it gave me some insights into how it all went down, and also what it felt like for him. It’s an amazing feat of acting – you just can’t believe how long it’s going on!

      Interestingly enough – Jim Beaver left a really informative comment on my FB page about doing death scenes – “It’s a living” he joked – and said that dying with your eyes closed is actually more difficult than dying with your eyes open, because your eyes twitch around behind your eyelids – sometimes involuntarily – and that’s the give-away – it’s hard to stop – whereas if you have your eyes open, it’s much easier to unfocus them and stare vacantly. Interesting!

      He also said it was very challenging to die when Jared Padelecki keeps squeezing your toes off-camera. lol

      These are all public comments so I feel okay sharing them.

      • Jessie says:

        Hahahaha! Yeah, all good for Meryl Streep to go around winning Oscars and acclaim when there’s not a ten-foot tall troll pinching her toes off-camera.

  3. I don’t know if it’s technically a death scene, but the first one that always pops into my mind is Bob Hoskins’ long ride at the end of The Long Good Friday, where he sees death coming and keeps trying to figure out how he’s going to cheat it…and finally. finally, finally, realizes he won’t. All the more impressive because I usually have no sympathy at all for gangsters and other psychopaths.

    But the one that hit the hardest was MacLaine’s in Some Came Running. It’s one of those movies that, so far, I only had to see once. I can’t bear to go near it again.

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