BURIED IN A silver-plated coffin, Aaliyah Dana Houghton will be revived in movie theaters nationwide Friday in “Queen of the Damned,” in what must be one of the more macabre roles a dead star can have: a vampire.
When an overburdened twin-engine Cessna 402 crashed last August during take-off from the Bahamas, the promising career of the 23-year-old singer and actress was extinguished.
In Hollywood, though, death is no excuse. Despite her relatively small role, albeit as the film’s namesake, trailers and posters have mainly featured a sinuous, bikini-clad Aaliyah baring her extra-long incisors. The singer had finished filming her scenes before the accident, but not the redubbing. Warner Bros. hired her sound-alike brother Rashad to loop the dialogue.
Stuart Townsend, who stars as the vampire Lestat, canceled a press junket because of his reluctance to exploit his deceased co-star, but such delicacy is uncommon, given cinematic history. When it comes to raising the dead, Hollywood has resorted to stand-ins and technology to resurrect its stars not so long after they’re gone. Some efforts have been tasteful; “Gladiator” director Ridley Scott thought a dignified digital exit for Oliver Reed worth an additional $3 million. Other efforts have been less so, and actors like the late River Phoenix have mercifully escaped being trapped in a hellish theatrical afterlife.
A quick look at how some spent their last onscreen moments gives an idea of how far Hollywood will go to summon the spirit of stars past.
Lugosi’s roles spanned romantic leads to Dracula, but unfortunately, the actor ended his career with what has been dubbed the worst movie ever made. The actor had only done a few scenes in “Plan 9 From Outer Space” before he died of heart failure in 1956. Lugosi’s death did not daunt director Ed Wood, who wrapped his wife’s tall chiropodist in a cloak. Lugosi’s end could have been a depressing footnote in Hollywood trivia, but instead became fodder for Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” and delivered a best supporting actor Oscar for Martin Landau as Lugosi.
In 1955, James Dean drove his Porsche Spyder to a Salinas race and fatally assumed a car making a left turn in front of him would stop. “East of Eden” had made him a star and two posthumous releases, “Giant” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” solidified his cult status. He received the respect of his peers as well; Dean got Academy Award nominations for both “East of Eden” and “Giant.” The actor had finished “Giant” before his accident, but technical problems made one scene almost unintelligible. Co-star Nick Adams stuffed chewing gum in his mouth to sound like Dean and looped the dialogue.
“Something’s Got to Give” would have featured the blond bombshell’s first nude scene and role as a mother. Fox had fired and rehired her. Rumors blamed production delays on Monroe’s inconsistent attendance, but the studio was also trying to save money as the budget for “Cleopatra” ballooned enormously. After her death from a drug overdose, the 1962 movie was remade as “Move Over Darling” with Doris Day. The Monroe footage became the fodder of an AMC documentary for her 75th birthday anniversary.
The mysteries surrounding the Wing Chun master’s death — despite the final diagnosis as a cerebral edema, caused by an allergy to a prescription medicine to which he had reacted negatively once before — had a conspiratorial air. With the accidental on-set shooting of his son Brandon (see below), Bruce Lee’s death took on a further supernatural aura. His untimely demise occurred during the filming “Game of Death,” in which he played a martial arts master who faked his own passing. Faking later was done with old footage and substitute Kim Tai Jong, and Hollywood got “Game” seven years after Lee’s 1972 death. The macabre unwillingness to let him rest continues with South Korean filmmaker Chul Shin’s intent to make “Dragon Warrior” with computer generated image of Lee for 2004.
The Russian-American beauty had a long and established career by the time she accepted the role as a scientist in “Brainstorm.” During a filming break, she went boating with husband Robert Wagner and co-star Christopher Walken and drowned off Catalina Island under mysterious circumstances in 1981. She had only five days left to film, but that was enough for MGM to want to write off “Brainstorm” and take the insurance. Director Douglas Trumbull instead resorted to rewrites and doubles, but the 1983 movie proved a misguided effort.
With “The Crow: City of Angels,” the handsome actor planned to leave behind martial arts for the larger genre of action. But a real bullet had been inserted into a gun instead of blanks, and Lee was shot in what was supposed to be a flashback sequence of his character being murdered. Director Alex Proyas rewrote the script, kept some scenes silent and digitally attached Lee’s face to the stuntmen body doubles. While he had been pleased with the 1994 production, he was far less so with the sequel. “Just for once I would have liked to see Hollywood not try and cash in on something. Brandon Lee lost his life on that film and it should have been allowed to stay as a kind of tribute to him.” The 1996 sequel starred Vincent Perez, now a co-star in “Queen of the Damned.”
River Phoenix had established himself early as a promising actor in “Stand By Me” and earned a best supporting actor nomination by age 18 for “Running on Empty.” Mainstream success didn’t detract him from his individualist persona, whether in film choices like Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” or his anti-Brat Pack lifestyle as a vegetarian and activist. When Phoenix died in 1993 of a heroin and cocaine overdose at a nightclub co-owned by pal Johnny Depp, the 23-year-old had 11 days left before the movie “Dark Blood” was to wrap up. At the 1998 Berlin Film festival, Dutch director George Sluizer said that the negative of that movie was locked in a safe. “Until everything is settled between the lawyers and bankers, nobody will see it.”
As gladiator contest promoter Proximus, Oliver Reed was supposed to have the last word in “Gladiator.” However, the English actor died three weeks shy of the movie’s completion. Director Ridley Scott took three head shots, a body double and $3 million to give his character and Reed his final farewell. Scott dedicated the Oscar-winning picture to Reed but did not mourn much over his passing. “He went down flat on his back in a pub,” the director said in an interview. “It’s not a bad way to go, so you can’t be too sad about it.”
Ken Tipton, a stand-up comic and video store chain owner, had been invited to the set of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” The Missouri man was invited to be a stand-in when people noticed his resemblance to John Candy. Then, with the heavy-set comedian’s encouragement, Tipton decided to give Hollywood a try. His first SAG job ended up being a photo double inset for the deceased Candy, who died of heart failure at age 43 while on location for “Wagon’s East.” Computer technology also inserted Candy into several scenes, such as superimposing him in with a bunch of wagoneers fording through a river.