For film buffs and fans of film acting, there is a persistent wish for a favorite actor to go out with a bang, for his or her final film to be something magnificent that equals or surpasses earlier work. Many movie stars either choose to retire or fade out in a slow succession of increasingly peripheral roles. In the 1970s, many great stars of the Golden Era seemed to literally go down with the ship or the plane, in all-star disaster films, usually playing parodies of themselves. So though occasionally a performance might come close, it is unlikely that an actor will ever give a last performance with the stunning emotional resonance of Edward G. Robinson’s work in 1972’s Soylent Green.
Sol: (Edward G. Robinson) There was a world, once, you punk.
Det. Thorn: (Charlton Heston) Yes, so you keep telling me.
Sol: I was there. I can prove it.
Det. Thorn: I know, I know. When you were young, people were better.
Sol: Aw, nuts. People were always rotten. But the world ‘was’ beautiful.
The film is an environmental parable and, along with Planet of the Apes, could be considered the granddaddy of the “dystopian future” genre that has, with few exceptions, become a cliché. But in 1972 the notion of a world destroyed by pollution, overpopulation, and food shortages was frightening and fresh. The fact that every ill depicted in Soylent Green (set in the then-distant world of 2022) is actually coming to pass has only made the film seem prescient and increasingly emotional.
Edward G. Robinson plays Sol Roth, the partner, friend, and father figure to Charlton Heston’s Detective Thorn, a cop who is tasked with saving the world. As a man who remembers the Earth’s beauty before it was compromised, Robinson’s Sol symbolizes nothing less than humanity itself and is given scene after scene where he conveys the wonder and longing for a world that exists only in his memory. These moments—Robinson remembering, for example, how food used to taste when he was young, are both chilling and touching.
That Robinson was dying of brain cancer during filming makes his rich performance even more psychologically intricate. In real life, Robinson died two weeks after filming ended—and he dies in the film as well. (The actor is so good in this scene that it actually elicits the only semi-reality-based reaction shots Heston delivers in the entire picture; the viewer, if only for a moment, believes that Heston is responding to something other than his own enchantment with Being Charlton Heston). Soylent Green imagines Sol Roth’s elective euthanasia scene as the final word in personalized shopping. After making his A/V preferences for his final journey, Roth is escorted to a large room where he lays in a gurney, imbibes some sort of (presumably) fatal drink, and begins what can only be described as one of the most poetic and powerful death scenes in film history.
As the soundtrack plays an assortment of elegiacal Beethoven and Tschikovsky, Robinson’s Sol watches a 1972-version of an IMAX screen project the breathtaking beauty of the vanished world: sunsets, birds, oceans, plains, flowers. Director Richard Fleischer gives the actor a series of wonderful close-ups, and what Robinson is able to convey with only his eyes is stunning in both its precision and economy. In these close-ups, the actor is able to wordlessly communicate a great many things: the richness of the late silent-period; the scope of his personal struggles; the totality of his expansive body of work—all with an incredibly light, unmannered touch. For me, it is simply one of the most deeply resonant moments in film history.
Once seen, Edward G. Robinson’s performance in Soylent Green is never forgotten and remains the gold standard of cinematic farewells. Though he was inexplicably overlooked for an Oscar nomination for this film (and, indeed, for his entire career), he was awarded a richly deserved posthumous Oscar for lifetime achievement. Remarkably, Soylent Green was Robinson’s 101st film. Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson.
An abridged version of this piece appeared in the column “Standing Ovation,” in the April 3rd editon of Backstage Magazine.