Is Tarantino Right? Do Directors Get Worse as They Age?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 16 2012 3:57 PM

Is Tarantino Right? Are Old Directors Terrible?

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Quentin Tarantino last week

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for BAFTA

In a recent Playboy interview, Quentin Tarantino discussed his career plans following his upcoming film, Django Unchained, and said he plans to stop directing before he hits his AARP days. “Directors don’t get better as they get older,” he says. “Usually the worst films in their filmography are those last four at the end. I am all about my filmography, and one bad film fucks up three good ones.”

Putting aside the question of how, exactly, “one bad film fucks up three good ones” (does Jack mean that the first two Godfathers and The Conversation don’t count?), we decided to look into this supposed Final Four curse. Tarantino doesn’t specify which directors’ careers he had in mind, but we have a hunch about at least a few of the likely suspects. Does his claim have any merits? Are the last four features by directors frequently their worst?

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Tarantino probably had Hitchcock in the back of his mind when speaking of “those last four at the end.” The British auteur’s fifth-to-last film is the now venerated Marnie—whose shot of a nurse walking down a corridor inspired a copycat perspective in Tarantino’s Kill Bill—while its two follow-ups, Torn Curtain and Topaz, are duller affairs. But Frenzy has a fresh and frightening brutality and Family Plot accomplished “something new for Hitchcock,” in Roger Ebert’s words: a “macabre comedy.” Are these the worst four of his career? Probably not, but one could at least make a plausible argument for the claim.

Kubrick is another likely suspect for Tarantino’s claim. Pauline Kael, whom Tarantino reveres, is the most famous critic to have turned against Kubrick’s later work. The director’s final four include the over-long period piece Barry Lyndon, the horror classic The Shining, the war film Full Metal Jacket, and the messy Eyes Wide Shut. The last may be the most polarizing film of Kubrick’s career, and some consider it his worst. But The Shining is widely and rightly regarded as a classic, so any perception of a “final four curse” with Kubrick seems wrongheaded.

Altman is another director who Tarantino may have had in mind: His last four films include Dr. T & the Women and The Company. But his final film, A Prairie Home Companion, was well received, and Gosford Park  is excellent. When you consider that Altman’s output was always inconsistent (Popeye, anyone?), his final four hold up well with the rest of his career.

Some deem the 1975 existential thriller The Passenger Antonioni’s last classic—his final three films have divided and generally disappointed its reviewers. While not as panned as his 1970 flop Zabriskie Point—a strange time capsule that simultaneously evokes Bonnie and Clyde and North by NorthwestThe Mystery of Oberwald, Identification of a Woman, and Beyond the Clouds all suffered from what appeared to be half-hearted experiments with narrative or, worse, imitation of his masterpieces. While you can’t say his last four films are his worst, his last three? Not unreasonable. 

Fellini’s works grew more playful and comedic as he grew older, inciting mixed, but mostly positive, reviews from critics. In his last four films, he crafted a story without plot (And the Ship Sails On), chronicled aging tap dancers (Ginger and Fred), and explored the medium of the mock documentary (Fellini’s Intervista and The Voice of the Moon) with utter indifference to those saying his time was over. Was it, though? You could make that case.

Wilder’s last four films found him working with familiar collaborators: William Holden in Fedora  and Jack Lemmon in Avanti!The Front Page, and Buddy Buddy. With the exception of The Front Page, these films could plausibly be considered the worst of Wilder’s career.

Hawks created classic films across several genres over a nearly 50-year career. The end of his run included a forgotten race car drama starring a young James Caan (Red Line 7000), and three other movies that rehashed better work from his salad days: The minor Rock Hudson comedy Man’s Favorite Sport? was an homage of sorts to Bringing Up Babywhile El Dorado and Rio Lobo were the final films in a John Wayne trilogy that began with Rio Bravo. Are these the worst films in Hawks’ career? Hard to say, given how many movies he made. But they’re not among his best.

It’s hard to go anywhere but down when you make the best film of all time (or second-best) at the age of 25. And yet if you don’t count Welles’s television work, his final four films are remarkably strong. Touch of Evil is a classic and Welles nailed Falstaff in the brilliant Chimes at Midnight. He also created a modest success out of Franz Kafka with The Trial, and finally made a terrific, genre-bending documentary with F for Fake. He became less productive in his final years, but what work he finished is terrific.

Charlie Chaplin had a rough go of it in the final years of his career. His bold portrayal of a murderer, Monsieur Verdoux, didn’t go over well with contemporary viewers—though it’s better nowadays—and A King in New York didn’t even make it to American screens. Though his final work, A Countess from Hong Kong, boasted both Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, the New York Times recommended that Chaplin fans “draw the curtain fast on this embarrassment and pretend it never occurred.” We prefer to take Roger Ebert’s recommendation to regard the fine Limelight—tellingly, about a clown fallen from fame—as Chaplin’s “farewell.” That film, at least, is not among the worst of his career.

Ozu died at the relatively young age of 60, so perhaps it is unsurprising that his last films sustain the excellence he established earlier. Floating Weeds is widely regarded as one of the director’s greatest works. And while Variety found An Autumn Afternoon too leisurely paced, too sentimental in design,” others, like the New York Times’ Roger Greenspun, delighted in the director’s honing of his unique sensibility, which, he said, “had become very modest, lucid, and lovely.”

Truffaut’s final four films include the last of the  Antoine Doinel movies, a winner of 10 César Awards(The Last Metro), the acclaimed The Woman Next Door, and the Hitchcockian Confidentially Yours. These later films may not have been as cinematically daring or satisfying as his earlier work, but they are hardly a stain on his filmography.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is widely considered a masterpiece, but some contemporary critics are also fond of Cheyenne Autumn and 7 Women, two self-reflexive films that portray characters often suppressed in Ford’s previous work—Native Americans and women. As Stanley Crouch wrote in Slate, “Ford was surely patriotic but not in a simple way; his best work always contains a celebration of the nation and of its mythologies as well as a rough-and-tumble listing of its inherent troubles.” The trouble-in-paradise comedy Donovan’s Reef did not probe so insightfully into American values—but it did offer some laughs by featuring John Wayne in Kauai. (Note: we’re not counting the documentary Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend.)

Kurosawa’s creative output hardly suffered from any age-related weakening. While his last two films—Rhapsody in August, about the atomic bomb dropping, and Not Yet, about aging and death—are not venerated as much as his earlier work, the two just before those are beloved. Ran, Kurosawa’s take on King Lear, is one of his most ambitious films, and Dreams is a magical story crafted around the director’s actual dreams.

Lean’s final four films may be the ultimate counter to Tarantino’s claim. They begin with Lawrence of Arabia, the pinnacle of Lean’s career, which was followed by Doctor Zhivago, another classic. Granted, the commercially successful Ryan’s Daughter was considered by many critics to be an overblown creative failure, but A Passage to India was one of the most highly praised films of its year.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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