If you’ve seen Gwyneth Paltrow’s brain dissected in Contagion, you know that Steven Soderbergh is willing to portray stars in a less than glamorous light. But in an interview with The Independent, the Oscar-winning director of Traffic and Haywire practically exuded blood lust for A-listers. Don’t worry, though: It’s all in the name of art!
“It’s always good to kill movie stars,” Soderbergh told the British newspaper. “I think that the two most important things that have happened to that aspect of movies in the last 50 years are Hitchcock killing off Janet Leigh in a way that nobody had ever dreamed of doing – taking his heroine and killing her off after 40 minutes – and… Mike Nichols casting Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. That changed everything.”
Obviously this means Soderbergh’s greatest dream must be to kill off a character played by Dustin Hoffman. In all seriousness, though, it’s easy to see what he’s getting at. Star power has traditionally acted as a kind of metaphysical protection onscreen. The bigger the name, the better the chances of that actor’s character surviving for the duration of the film. We take comfort in movie stars, those walking embodiments of our dreams and fantasies. If in the midst of a Julia Roberts everygirl rom-com, she suddenly gets her head blown off, we’d find it more than a little upsetting. Psycho rocked everybody’s world when Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane stepped into that shower because people still saw her as the actress they had known and loved in gentle movies like Little Women, Holiday Affair, or the Lassie movie Hills of Home.
Today, movie stars’ onscreen mortality rate is pretty darn high. (WARNING! Many, many SPOILERS ahead!) It’s hard to imagine John Wayne in They Were Expendable or Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory being offed as quickly or indiscriminately as Guy Pearce at the beginning of The Hurt Locker. Or Lauren Bacall suddenly getting blown up halfway through To Have and Have Not, like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s early exit as Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight. And I’d love to have seen Joseph von Sternberg try to get Marlene Dietrich, queen of the Vaseline-covered camera lens, to submit to a scene like Gwynnie’s autopsy in Contagion.
Soderbergh clearly got us thinking, so here are ten of our favorite unexpected movie-star death scenes since Psycho.
10. Deep Blue Sea (Samuel L. Jackson)—The tyranny of evil CGI sharks is visited upon righteous man Russell Franklin. Also see Jackson’s splatterific pre-fame demise in GoodFellas, and his lightning-assisted trip out a window in Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith.
9. L.A. Confidential (Kevin Spacey)—Preening celebrity cop Jack Vincennes is no longer cock-of-the-Hollywood-walk when corrupt Captain Dudley (James Cromwell) is done with him. For a similar dose of authority-figure-on-authority-figure violence, see Colin Farrell’s out-of-the-blue demise at the hands of Max von Sydow in Minority Report. There are few moments in recent cinema more exciting than seeing the star of Phone Booth blown away by the star of The Seventh Seal. Then, for a bit of cross-pollination, see Farrell wasted by Kevin Spacey in Horrible Bosses.