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‘Final Curtains’ class explores movie stars’ last performances

If all the world’s a stage and we are all merely players, it helps to ponder what kind of stage exit we want to make.

I’m not talking about dying, but how and when to leave a fitting capstone to one’s legacy or career.

Ron Miller of Blaine, a retired TV editor and syndicated columnist, has studied the final performances of numerous movie stars, and his review leads him to this assessment: “A lot of people don’t know when to quit.”

While some movie stars ended their careers with stellar, even award-winning, performances, many others exited the world of film with efforts that range from merely disappointing to memorably atrocious.

Miller will present his findings, with movie clips, in a two-part class called “Final Curtains,” through the Academy for Lifelong Learning, a community education program at Western Washington University. The deadline to register is April 11.

Critic and author

Miller, 76, was TV editor for the San Jose Mercury News from 1977 to 1999 and was a nationally syndicated columnist. A former president of the Television Critics Association, he co-wrote a book about Masterpiece Theatre and wrote “Mystery! A Celebration,” about the PBS television series.

He and a fellow columnist are currently polishing their collection of interviews with movie stars from the 1920s to the 1950s for a book in the “Screen Classics” series from the University Press of Kentucky.

Miller moved to Blaine in 2001, and has kept busy teaching about movies and television at Whatcom Community College and at Western.

The envelope please

Miller’s nominees for the best complete final performance by a leading star in a movie or TV miniseries are:

• John Wayne in

“The Shootist.”

Miller calls Wayne’s performance in the 1976 western a poignant finish to his career. Wayne played a legendary gunfighter dying of cancer, and it’s generally thought that Wayne was already fighting his own losing battle with cancer.

• Ingrid Bergman in

“A Woman Called Golda.”

The winner of three Academy Awards won an Emmy for her performance as Israel’s prime minister Golda Meir in the 1982 TV miniseries.

• Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in

“The Misfits.”

Gable and Monroe both made their final film in director John Huston’s 1961 movie, with Gable as an aging cowboy and Monroe as a divorced woman.

“‘The Misfits’ was really something where she got her teeth into the role,” Miller said.

Miller’s nominees for stinkiest final performance, whether partial or complete, are:

• Bette Davis in

“The Wicked Stepmother.”

The two-time Oscar winner performed capably in

“The Whales of August,”

her next-to-last movie. She died two years later after walking out during the filming of “The Wicked Stepmother,” what Miller calls a “ghastly horror movie.” To rescue the project, filmmaker Larry Cohen revised the script by adding a supernatural element to explain Davis’ disappearance and her replacement by a younger actress. The film didn’t have a ghost of a chance.

• John Barrymore in


Perhaps America’s best Shakespearean actor of his day, the alcoholic star finished his career in the 1941 comedy about a washed-up ham actor trying to find a way to pay his back taxes.

“He humiliated himself,” Miller said.

• Bela Lugosi, star of the 1931 classic


became addicted to drugs and died while making his final film. Ed Wood finished it with a stand-in for Lugosi holding a cape over his face. The result,

“Plan 9 From Outer Space,”

is famous for being one of the worst movies of all time.

Of course, it’s easy to avoid career-ending stinkers with the benefit hindsight, but life doesn’t work that way. So the moral may be to keep your goals high and your head clear.

“Maybe you should always think you have more to give, and more will come out,” Miller said.