What Happens to Movies After the Star Dies?

BySharon Knolle

Aug. 29, 2001 -- The tragic early death of promising singer-actress Aaliyah came in the midst of an accelerating career that included several upcoming movie projects and her just-released self-titled third album.

A talented singer who showed every sign of becoming an accomplished actress, she seemed poised to conquer every aspect of the entertainment world. Aaliyah was "beyond happy" to have landed a role in the Matrix sequels, she told Access Hollywood before her death; now that role will likely be a career-booster for another young star.

Aaliyah leaves behind one unreleased completed film, Queen of the Damned, in which she plays the title role of Akasha, a sultry vampire matriarch. The Warner Bros. film had already been pushed back to a 2002 release before Aaliyah's death. At this point, it's not clear exactly when her last movie will be released, or how the studio will handle the daunting task of promoting a film whose star is dead.

Record labels have previously had to deal with the sudden deaths of artists like Tupac Shakur (who also had a budding film career) and the Notorious B.I.G., whose music still needed videos and promotion.

Sometimes, as in the case of slain Tejano singer Selena, sudden death can propel a budding star overnight to another level of bittersweet fame. Coincidentally, the movie Selena was a launching pad for the career of another singing and acting superstar, Jennifer Lopez.

James Dean's Early Death

Dying young has made icons of stars like James Dean, whose fame — and cult status — spread greatly after his death at age 24 in a fiery car crash in 1955. At the time, two of his three major films, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, had not yet been released, and studio executives were unsure how to market a film with a dead star.

What they didn't count on was that Dean — already a star thanks to East of Eden — would become a cult figure, just as his raw, brooding performance made him an icon for his generation and generations of tortured teens to come. Dean received consecutive posthumous Academy Award nominations for Eden and for Giant, which was released a year later.

The Death of Brandon Lee

More recently, the 1993 death of Brandon Lee, whose role in The Crow would likely have been the one to kick-start his career, made watching the completed film an eerie experience. The actor was killed when a real bullet was accidentally loaded into a gun instead of blanks. Tragically, the scene he was filming was a flashback sequence in which his character is murdered.

To complete The Crow, director Alex Proyas used existing footage to digitally add Lee to scenes, a process later used on Gladiator after the death of Oliver Reed and on The Sopranos, following Nancy Marchand's death.

When The Crow was a hit, Proyas said, "I was pleased for Brandon's sake that it got to a wide audience and people were complimentary of his work," but the director wasn't involved in the sequel, which came out in 1996. "I was actually quite offended that they proceeded," Proyas said of The Crow: City of Angels. "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."

In a bizarre coincidence, Lee's father, martial arts legend Bruce Lee, died before his final film, Enter the Dragon, could be released. It was the film that cemented his status as an international superstar, but he didn't live long enough to enjoy his newfound fame.

Studios May Cut Films After Star Dies

After the horrific 1982 death of Vic Morrow and two child actors during the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie, the scene in which they were killed by a helicopter in a stunt gone horribly wrong was understandably cut from the film.

The untimely deaths of other actors have also led studios to cut scenes that might have taken on a new, unwelcome light. After Phil Hartman was shot and killed by his wife in 1998, a scene in Small Soldiers, in which a soldier aimed at a gun at the actor's head, was deleted prior to release.

A line in To Be or Not to Be in which Jack Benny asks, "What can happen in a plane?" was cut after the film's wisecracking beauty Carole Lombard died in a 1942 plane crash while returning from selling war bonds. The release of the poignant comedy was delayed to allow a period of mourning for the popular star, who was hailed as a national heroine.

Aaliyah was undeniably on the path to superstardom, and her role in The Matrix Reloaded could certainly have shot her career into the stratosphere. Now, sadly, she takes her place along might-have-been actors like Brandon Lee or Selena, who never got to realize their full potential.

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