Nine Films Seen By Notable People Before Their Deaths

The Piano: The last film Kurt Cobain ever saw?

Recently I read an article in The New Yorker, written by Oliver Sacks, about the troubled last years of actor/monologist Spalding Gray (Swimming to Cambodia). Sacks noted that, on January 11, 2004, Gray saw the Tim Burton movie Big Fish a few hours before drowning himself in New York's East River. I was reminded of the Heaven's Gate suicide cult, and how, before poisoning themselves in wait for a comet, many of them went to see the Mike Leigh film Secrets and Lies. Such specific, poignant details remind us that, for each of us, there will be a Last Movie We See Before We Die. Finding this exact information within the biographies of historic figures requires a fine-tooth comb, and there are many uncertainties. But read on...

  1. TOM JONES, watched by John F. Kennedy on November 16, 1963. According to the diaries of White House projectionist Paul Fischer, the last film that he screened for the Kennedys was the since-forgotten Charlton Heston-Ava Gardner vehicle 55 Days at Peking on November 10th. However, it's likely that JFK's final film was Tom Jones, which he caught at a private screening in Palm Beach.
  2. WAR IS HELL, watched by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22, 1963. Not long after JFK's death, Oswald was arrested inside Dallas's Texas Theatre, where he had ducked into (without paying) to evade the police. He couldn't have seen more than 15 minutes of this 1961 programmer before the cops swooped in.
  3. MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, watched by John Dillinger on July 22, 1934. It's well known that the legendary mobster was gunned down by the FBI outside of Chicago's Biograph Theatre. But what movie had he just seen? This crime drama about a murder-happy casino owner (Clark Gable) and his best friend, the Governor of New York (William Powell). "Melodrama" indeed.
  4. THE PIANO, watched by Kurt Cobain on April 3, 1994(?). Cobain's actions between April 1st, when he fled rehab in Malibu and returned to Seattle, and April 5th, the likely day of his suicide (his body was found on April 8th), are hard to track. The most likely scenario has Cobain scoring heroin at a motel, eating at a Southwestern restaurant named Cactus, and possibly catching Jane Campion's Oscar winner before popping in at Linda's Bar, one of his standard hangouts. He was never seen alive again.
  5. STROSZEK, watched by Ian Curtis on May 17, 1980. For all we know, Cobain spent his final day on Earth watching Abbott & Costello movies. But it's almost certain that Joy Division singer Curtis saw Werner Herzog's 1977 film on the night that he killed himself. The BBC confirms that Stroszek aired that evening at 9pm, and Curtis's widow Deborah wrote of his plans to watch the film at their house while she was out (he was staying with his parents while separating from Deborah, but didn't want to watch the depressing Stroszek with his father). One snag: the BBC also showed the original 1962 Cape Fear that night at 11:45pm, and a letter Curtis wrote to his wife shortly before his death suggested that he survived until dawn on the 18th. That's a long stretch; he could very well have watched Cape Fear.
  6. THE LIGHTHOUSE BY THE SEA, watched by Anne Frank on June 14, 1942. Frank wrote about watching this 1924 Rin-Tin-Tin movie with her friends as part of her 13th birthday celebrations (her diary, actually an autograph book, was a birthday gift). The film was a 1924 silent that Otto Frank had gotten hold of and screened at home that weekend. The Franks went into hiding less than a month later, on July 6th; Anne did not write of seeing any other movies before then.
  7. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, watched by Elvis Presley on August 12, 1977. Four days passed between this date, when the King rented out a movie theater in Memphis to watch this Bond entry with his daughter, his fiancée, and some friends, and the moment he died at home from heart failure. It's extremely likely that Presley watched some TV in the interim, perhaps catching some movies. But The Spy Who Loved Me is the final film he saw at the cinema. (He had tried to obtain a print of Star Wars around this time, but failed.)
  8. REMEMBER THE TITANS, watched by Steve Jobs on September 30, 2011. Apple CEO Tim Cook has spoken about going to his predecessor's house, five days before Jobs's death, to watch this Denzel Washington football drama with him. With Jobs's health permanently failing just a day or two later, it's safe to say that he didn't have the wherewithal to sit through another movie before succumbing to pancreatic cancer on October 5th.
  9. TO THE WONDER, watched by Roger Ebert on or around March 30, 2013. It's ironic, writing this list, that I didn't include anyone who actually worked in motion pictures. There are contenders: Charlie Chaplin supposedly saw Rocky before he died in 1977 (no one has said exactly when); Peter Sellers watched the 1975 John Wayne movie Brannigan on TV one day before his fatal heart attack in 1980. That's about all I could find out. So instead I'll close with film critic Ebert, whose final published review, a positive one, was for Terrence Malick's divisive drama. Did he see any more movies before he died of cancer on April 4th? Well, it's Roger Ebert, so probably. But until his widow Chaz confirms anything, who can say?