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

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Dec. 22 2009 6:59 AM

Final Cut

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

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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.)

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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.