This week “The Dallas Buyers Club” opens (you can read our review here), and it features a riveting, committed, physically gruelling and very likely-to-be-Oscar-nominated performance by Matthew McConaughey. If he is nominated, however, McConaughey will be at least a little in debt to the buzz that’s surrounded him of late as the newest member of what we could call the Comeback Club—that rarefied group of people who have, sometimes on a dime, turned their movie careers around and breathed new life into what was once moribund. It takes a great deal of luck to pull off this trickiest of acts, and for every actor who’s managed to hang onto their newly regained spot on top of the pile for a few years, there are ten who’ve briefly clambered all the way up only to topple off again a moment later. McConaughey’s recent string of impressive performances in critically acclaimed films (more on him below) is long enough to make us think that his career resurrection will have the staying power that many don’t, but only time can tell on that one.
Still it’s a fascinating phenomenon, the Hollywood second chance. For an industry so notoriously fickle and frequently cruel, there’s a kind of odd sentimentality at play when an actor beats the odds and stages a comeback. So here are twelve examples of actors who did just that—no matter how long their renaissances lasted, they can all give us a glimmer of hope: however definitively you may think your career has flamed out, poke around in the ashes a bit and you may just find a phoenix.
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? McConaughey never really had a serious dry spell, but he certainly went a long time without being treated like a serious actor. For the decade following his attention-getting lead role debut in 1996’s potboiler “A Time To Kill,” he mostly paid the bills with smaller roles in bigger pictures, bigger roles in bigger pictures that underperformed (“Reign of Fire,” “Sahara“) and thankless romantic comedies like “Failure To Launch” and “How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days.” But even that last well began to dry up, and his crowd-pleasing roles in “Fool’s Gold” and “The Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past” failed to please many crowds and showed a star in decline. By 2010, McConaughey was a leading man without a real showcase, one who had not garnered any major award nominations during his entire career, and who had already torpedoed a franchise with “Sahara.” In this industry, you can go from bankable to toxic real quick.
What Turned it Around? While not a major hit (and not nearly the franchise-starter all involved had hoped for), “The Lincoln Lawyer” showed that McConaughey was smart enough to play to his strengths: get in a suit, get serious and get busy. That was only the first of an avalanche of roles that were coming, all of which ignored his considerable good looks and usual asking price. Gone was the vanity that came from being a big star, as he popped up in low budget ensembles like “Bernie” and “Killer Joe,” showing an unexpected range and diversity that got him noticed by producers who had maybe written him off as a failed pretty-boy. Suddenly, “a Matthew McConaughey movie” was no longer something to fear.
How Well Has He Fared Since? McConaughey has only begun to build on his strong couple of years. He just missed out on his first Oscar nomination last year for “Magic Mike,” but is likely to get it this year with “The Dallas Buyers Club,” a long-time passion project. Beyond that, the future’s even brighter—he’s scored a role in the lead for the upcoming HBO series “True Detective” and has a showy supporting role in Martin Scorsese‘s “The Wolf Of Wall Street.” McConaughey’s visibility and industry rep have never been stronger, and that’s before he’s seen in the lead of Chris Nolan‘s next film “Interstellar.” Looking at the next year of McConaughey, it’s impossible to not tilt back your head and drawl, “Alright, alright, alright.”
What Has He Got To Say About It? “I’m not arrogant enough to look back on my career and criticize my choices. It’s really not my place.”
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? Things got pretty bad for Keitel, career-wise, with the majority of the 80s being something of a black hole. It’s not that he didn’t work, but the paycheck gigs he got were often in risible films that simply typecast him as a one-dimensional hoodlum. It was hardly fitting for a man who’d risen to prominence with his Scorsese pictures in the 1970s, and who had only just, it seemed, really cemented his bid for leading man status by starring in “Fingers,” in which he turned in one of the most impressive performances of his career, one that totally elevates the film. But after being replaced by Francis Ford Coppola on “Apocalypse Now” with Martin Sheen, due apparently to Keitel’s inability to “play [the character as] a passive onlooker,” Keitel’s prospects seemed to take a nosedive, and just a couple of years later he was appearing in “Saturn 3,” a turgid sci-fi mess (or hilarious sci-fi mess, depending on your capacity for ironic enjoyment) in which Keitel suffered the further indignity of being dubbed throughout by Roy Dotrice. Still, everything old is new again and the film’s attained enough cult status over the years (partly due to dialogue like “You have a great body. May I use it?”) to warrant a Blu-Ray release on December 3rd.
What Turned it Around? As much as we could have packed this list with actors that Tarantino “rescued” in “Pulp Fiction” and subsequent films, the first and still possibly most deserved comeback that he had a hand in was that of Keitel in “Reservoir Dogs.” Of course, Tarantino hardly knew that it was going to be the massive hit it was, and famously believed that the part of Mr. White was going to end up being played by his uncle or something. Let’s also not forget that in the years just prior, Keitel’s wilderness period had seemed to end anyway, yielding him supporting roles in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Thelma and Louise” and even his sole Oscar nomination for “Bugsy.” Initially it may have seemed like he was doing Tarantino the favor, but in Mr. White, he got a rare role that absolutely played to his strengths and also put him front and center of a strong ensemble, and at the heart of a hip new filmmaking sensibility that was going to take the world by storm.
How Well Has He Fared Since? Keitel immediately followed “Reservoir Dogs” with another showstoppingly brutal, tortured turn in Abel Ferrera’s “Bad Lieutenant” and an unexpectedly moving role in Jane Campion’s period drama “The Piano,” making this segment of his career a second pinnacle with regard to critical acclaim. And the rest of the 90s were pretty good to him too, with “Pulp Fiction,” obviously, but also strong performances in indies “Smoke” and “Blue in the Face” as well as underrated films like “Cop Land” and “Clockers” dotting his resume. Since then, though, meaty roles have been fewer and farther between, and while the 00s are hardly comparable to the 80s in terms of fallow-ness, here’s hoping we get something more than the odd Wes Anderson cameo and a recurring “National Treasure” role from him soon.
What Has He Got To Say About It? “I work hard on everything I do. Everything is a struggle, everything is hard, everything is difficult. I don’t care if it’s a one-line walk-on, or a lead in a movie, I work with the same intensity on the craft, on the creation, on the preparation.”
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? Neeson had always been acting steadily, but it was his Oscar-nominated performance as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg‘s “Schindler’s List” that really pushed him over into major stardom. After starring in a number of grand historical dramas like “Rob Roy” and “Michael Collins,” Neeson would finish out the decade with a performance that would weirdly define his career for a while: that of Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn in George Lucas‘ unreasonably anticipated “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.” The film was one of the biggest hits in box office history but was miserably received by critics, and fans of the franchise have all but dismissed it. For almost a decade afterwards, nearly all of Neeson’s most notable roles would be defined by his ‘Star Wars’ performance—that of a patient, benevolent master or father figure, who guides another character through a series of obstacles while imparting wisdom about the world at large via deeply soulful monologues. His Golden Globe-nominated performance in “Kinsey” even follows this model to a degree, as does his roles in “K-19: The Widowmaker,” “Batman Begins,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” and even his voice role as the lion in the ‘Chronicles of Narnia‘ movies. So it wasn’t that Neeson wasn’t getting exposure or money, but you could feel a creative boredom start to settle in. More importantly, it seemed like he wasn’t having much fun.
What Turned It Around? Oddly enough, a low budget European thriller called “Taken.” Neeson’s rebirth trajectory is the reverse of many others—he had stately and well-respected thesp down pat, and changed it up by going down-and-dirty genre. This movie wasn’t on anybody’s radar when it opened in the U.S., almost a year after it had premiered overseas, but it turned out to be a surprise blockbuster, and the biggest hit Neeson had ever had on his own. (The professional victory was marred by personal tragedy, as Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson, passed away after a freak skiing accident, around the time of the film’s release.) “Taken” proved that he could star in a hit movie by himself, without having to offer tutelage to a younger co-star, or intone anything more weighty than the now meme-ified “What I do have is a very particular set of skills…”
How Well Has He Fared Since? Since “Taken” took off, Neeson’s career has been remarkably steady. The actor has co-starred in a number of huge studio movies like “Clash of the Titans” (and its sequel “Wrath of the Titans“), “The A-Team,” and “Battleship,” that, if they aren’t the most challenging films in the world, at least maintain his presence in the cultural consciousness. Also, while he’s playing second fiddle in these bigger Hollywood movie, he’s able to outright star in smaller-scale hits like “Unknown” and the deeply under-appreciated “The Grey” (and, of course, “Taken 2“). He’s got a number of intriguing projects on the docket, including the airplane thriller “Non-Stop,” Seth MacFarlane‘s western comedy “A Million Ways to Die in the Way in the West” and a voice part in “The LEGO Movie.” Oh, and he’s about to get his biggest payday yet: $20 million, for “Taken 3.”
What Has He Got To Say About It? When AskMen.com asked Neeson to describe his career, around the time that “Unknown” was opening, Neeson shot back: “Lucky. Very lucky.”
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? Hopper literally re-invented Hollywood when he starred in and directed “Easy Rider.” But his followup, “The Last Movie,” couldn’t even get the idiosyncratic multi-hyphenate arrested. Hopper continued to have a career of ups and downs, dropping off the grid to do European art films overseas in the seventies, though Francis Ford Coppola rescued him briefly for a pivotal role in “Apocalypse Now.” Still, Hopper’s drug abuse was an obstacle to him establishing a consistent presence, one that kept him out of major movies well into the 80’s despite the reputation of “Apocalypse Now.”
What Turned it Around? If it wasn’t for 1986, Hopper likely would not have made it. In a year where Hopper would mega-act his way through “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” he outdid even himself as the maniacal Frank Booth in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” chewing the scenery with perverse relish as he provided the twisted moral compass for that unforgettably strange picture. In addition to that, Hopper earned an Academy Award nomination for his role in “Hoosiers,” finally getting him back in the good graces of the establishment.
How Well Has He Fared Since? Hopper’s ’86 only cemented his status as an undeniable onscreen talent, though he was slow to capitalize on the heat, working under the radar for a number of smaller filmmakers. By the time he was back working with major studios, it was as a stock villain in expensive films like “Super Mario Bros.,” “Waterworld” and “Speed,” pictures that represented the establishment Hopper had long ago fought. However, Hopper was healthier, more successful and older, and his political shift was also mirrored by a cleaned-up lifestyle. Hopper aged into a healthy career as a supporting player, and his last onscreen role was in 2008’s “Elegy” before he passed away at the age of 74.
What Has He Got To Say About It? “I should have been dead ten times over. I’ve thought about that a lot. I believe in miracles. It’s an absolute miracle that I’m still around.”
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? It’s hard to countenance now that Brando was ever less than a towering figure in Hollywood, but while he owned the 50s (Oscar nominated for his second-ever film “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and Oscar-winning three years later, in 1954 for “On the Waterfront”) by the early 60s, his cachet was eroding fast. He was blamed for ballooning budgets on both his first (and last) directorial outing “One-Eyed Jacks” and 1962’s “Mutiny on the Bounty,” (which also featured Brando affecting possibly the feyest British accent ever to grace a film). His erratic personal life started to make as many headlines as his acting (weird side note: he divorced the mother of his two children Movita, an actress who’d starred in the 1935 production of “Mutiny on the Bounty” to marry and have two children with Tarita, who starred in his version). Anyway, he began to get a reputation for unreliability and arrogance and also for a fluctuating waistline, none of which were appreciated as the cost of his particular genius by a studio system that wasn’t as embracing of his maverick style as the more independently-minded 70s would be. So while the rest of the 60s did find him working, and occasionally on pretty decent films, he also showed up in more tedious titles like “The Appaloosa” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” and had lost a lot of his firebrand relevance by the end of the decade.
What Turned it Around? “The Godfather,” simply put. As indelible and definitive as Brando’s appearance now feels, his status as “unbankable” at the time made his casting a hard sell for Coppola. But the director prevailed, and Brando, embracing middle age (playing older, in fact) and a “character” role, won his second Oscar and reestablished his claim to the Greatest Actor of All Time trophy in one fell swoop.
How Did He Fare After? That Brando’s resurrection brought him an entire new generation (or two) of fans, cemented his legacy and led to a couple of other iconic, brilliant roles is inarguable. But what he did with it outside of his Coppola collaborations (and we should remember that a huge amount of the stress and drama of the “Apocalypse Now” shoot was due to Brando) is a little more dubious. Showing his ambivalent, not to say contradictory attitude to fame, Brando took a ten-year break at the height of his comeback, and the ten-odd titles he made subsequent to “Apocalypse Now” and prior to his death in 2004 show vastly diminishing returns, with the nadir being “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery,” “Free Money” or “The Island of Dr. Moreau” depending on who you talk to. In fact, Free Money is an apt descriptor of this last period in Brando’s career—with many of these final titles seemingly more about a cash infusion than a love of the material. But perhaps if our laurels were as assured as his were by this point, we’d have phoned it in too.
What Did He Have To Say About It? “Acting is an illusion, a histrionic form of sleight of hand… it’s a bum’s life”
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? Like most child stars, career troubles were a walk in the park for Lane, who struggled with combative parents at a young age to the point where she had to seek emancipation from the courts. Nevertheless, she appeared to be taking a step into the big-time in the eighties, racking up credits as an adult actress in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumble Fish” and “The Outsiders.” But a brief retirement followed the twin failures of “Streets Of Fire” and “The Cotton Club,” as the then-19 year old seemed burnt out on the industry. She would later return to the big screen after an Emmy nomination for her work on TV’s “Lonesome Dove,” though she was usually merely an accessory in thankless roles like the ones offered in “Judge Dredd” and another Coppola collaboration, “Jack.”
What Turned it Around? Lane found herself gravitating to the indie world, and in 1999 she received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for “A Walk On The Moon.” Not only did this place her back on the map, but it also established her as a sultry older woman, carving out an interesting and strangely underpopulated niche for herself as Hollywood’s go-to “woman approaching middle age who could still be sexy” (yes, we know she was 34 but this is Hollywood). While a showy role in mega-hit “The Perfect Storm” followed, Lane earned her strongest plaudits with an Academy Award-nominated turn in steamy thriller “Unfaithful,” a surprise given that the film was fairly soapy material that received mixed reviews from critics, but a mark of how popular she was becoming among her peers.
How Well Has She Fared Since? Lane continued to work steadily, though her age has relegated her to a very narrow field of roles for a lead actress, and she has often found herself in supporting turns instead. She was front-and-center for middling pictures like “Under The Tuscan Sun,” “Untraceable,” and “Secretariat,” but she was probably seen by more audiences as slightly more mature window dressing in blockbusters like “Jumper” and this year’s “Man of Steel.” Her failure to rise to the A-List says less about her talent and likability (she received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her 2011 cable movie “Cinema Verite”) and more about the cruelty of the industry towards women her age (Lane turns 49 in January).
What Has She Got To Say About It? “I think the secret to happiness is having a Teflon soul. Whatever comes your way, you either let it slide or you cook with it.”
Robert Downey Jr.
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? It’s a testament to Robert Downey Jr.’s enduring talent and popularity that even at the height of what were some pretty serious substance abuse issues, he still enjoyed a career that many B-list actors would consider themselves blessed by, and even turned in consistently good performances from “Wonder Boys” and in his Globe-winning stint on “Ally McBeal”. But then it’s also a testament to just how much A-list potential he always had that second and third leads in things like “U.S. Marshals” “The Gingerbread Man” and “In Dreams” always seemed beneath his abilities, and that’s not even mentioning possible career low point, 1996’s “Danger Zone,” starring Billy Zane. But more than many on this list, Downey Jr. did it to himself, sliding into addiction and being frequently arrested and occasionally incarcerated for drug use. By the time of his being fired from “Ally McBeal” in 2001, the cycle of rehab followed by relapse had made him uninsurable, and therefore all but unhireable.
What Turned it Around? Most importantly, Downey Jr. got sober, and had enough friends in the business that were willing to take a flier on him whatever his insurance status—starting ironically with Mel Gibson who put up the bond himself to cover Downey Jr. for “The Singing Detective” Gradually he worked his way back to the kind of profile he’d enjoyed prior to his arrests, but this time the crucial difference was in the quality of roles he was taking—from well-received indies like “A Guide to Recognizing your Saints” and “Good Night and Good Luck,” to small but impressive roles in big films like “Zodiac” and of course, showing the early glimmering of his trademark wisecracking but flawed hero in our beloved “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” People had noticed that Downey Jr., now back, was better than ever, and the big break seemed inevitable, but how many could have guessed it would be as big as it was? 2008 was Downey Jr.’s epochal year, when he outstripped the term “comeback” and established himself as a bigger star than he had ever been before, with both a brilliantly hilarious turn in “Tropic Thunder” and a career-defining role as Tony Stark in “Iron Man”.
How Well Has He Fared Since? Well, he’s one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, so we’d say he’s doing okay. The lynchpin of Marvel’s most successful franchises (“Iron Man” and “The Avengers”) it’s perhaps now getting to the stage where we’d like to see him do something other than trade quips and blows with other superheroes, and sure enough, his next two films are due to be next year’s comedy “The Chef” for Jon Favreau and thriller “The Judge” with Robert Duvall. In fact, if anyone were to write the book on managing a career resuscitation (in 2008 he cancelled plans for a memoir and returned the advance incidentally), it should be Robert Downey Jr. Except he’s probably too busy.
What Has He Got To Say About It? This is a quote from RDJ at the 2011 American Cinematheque Awards. It’s about Mel Gibson, but it says as much about him: “I humbly ask that you join me—unless you are completely without sin, and in which case you picked the wrong fucking industry—in forgiving my friend of his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate that you have me and allowing him to continue his great and on-going contribution to our collective art without shame.”
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? Affleck was one of Hollywood’s golden boys, having risen from seeming obscurity to win an Oscar for writing “Good Will Hunting” (alongside his childhood pal and creative partner Matt Damon). After that, Affleck would mix in the odd prestige pic every once in a while (like “Shakespeare in Love“) but more or less went for the gold: high concept, big-budget studio movies with diminishing results (things like “Armageddon,” “Forces of Nature,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Reindeer Games“). He seemed to be saying “yes” more than saying “why?” In 2001 he entered rehab for alcohol abuse and by all accounts got clean. Not that it changed his regrettable string of professional decisions, which continued with “Daredevil,” “Gigli,” “Paycheck” and “Jersey Girl” (a movie that its director, Kevin Smith, won’t even defend). If this string of decision-making had continued, Affleck was ripe for the role of the handsome, talented, smart leading man who just fades into obscurity, a dude of whom people would ask “Whatever happened to…?”
What Turned It Around? Affleck started directing. In switching over to the other side of the camera (often times while still maintaining a presence in front of it), Affleck got a creative second wind. It’s been pretty exciting to watch; for many years the exploits Affleck would get into in his personal life (lovingly chronicled by every gossip magazine and tabloid in the land) were more interesting than what he was doing in the movies. But all that changed. And in his self-directed roles, he’s given himself the best material he’s had as an actor for years.
How Has He Fared Since? Starting with 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone” and continuing with 2010’s “The Town” and last year’s Best Picture-winning “Argo,” Affleck has honed his craft as a filmmaker while putting in supporting roles in smaller movies (things like Joe Carnahan‘s “Smokin’ Aces” and Terrence Malick‘s “To the Wonder“). For a while Affleck was everywhere—not just at the movie theaters but in the checkout aisle at the grocery store, too, and now every time he pops up as a director or actor, it feels like something to prize. Not that every decision he makes is golden; the online gambling thriller “Runner Runner” released this fall, after he’d directed and starred in the gripping, Best Picture “Argo,” proved to be a nearly historic bomb. Still: the future looks bright for him as an actor too. Next year he’ll star in director David Fincher‘s hotly anticipated adaptation of the literary phenomenon “Gone Girl” and don the cape and cowl for Zack Snyder‘s untitled “Man of Steel” sequel. If that wasn’t enough, he’ll either be prepping or shooting his next directorial effort, an adaptation of Dennis Lehane‘s historical mystery “Live by Night.” If the renaissance of Affleck the actor hasn’t quite happened yet, it sure feels like it’s about to.
What Has He Got To Say About It? In a Hollywood Reporter cover story last year, Affleck summed things up succinctly: “I was frustrated with the movies that I had done. I knew that I had something to offer. I said: ‘Here are the things I’d like to do: I want to direct movies, and I want to be in a movie that I’m enormously proud of. I want to have kids.’ I set out goals. It was a bold thing because when one is accustomed to falling short, as I had been, one becomes fearful of making predictions. But I did.”
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? Barrymore was a beloved child actress, from a dynasty of acting royalty, but the industry tends to treat those so very gently, and her struggles soon became the overmedicated kind. The young topliner of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Firestarter” coasted through her teenage years as an admitted substance abuser. She ended up checking herself into rehab at the tender age of 14.
What Turned it Around? Cheesecake ended up being Barrymore’s salvation. At 17, she was a standout in the thriller “Poison Ivy,” a role that gave her the sort of attention usually reserved for slightly older actresses (precocity had always been a stock in trade). The film wasn’t a massive hit (despite a number of cheeseball sequels without her) but it showed that Barrymore was a formidable screen presence, and over the years she would log enough supporting roles in major films like “Boys On The Side” and “Batman Forever” that she was no longer the little-girl-lost that the tabloids depicted her as. But it was a showy cameo in “Scream,” that got her more attention than most actresses would earn for a lead role, that really kicked things up a gear for her, and by the time she was co-starring in “The Wedding Singer” with Adam Sandler, Hollywood had begun to notice she was a bankable leading actress.
How Well Has She Fared Since? Starring roles were landing on Barrymore’s plate, but she was smart enough to diversify, moving behind the camera as a producer on hit starring vehicles like “Never Been Kissed,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “Donnie Darko.” Even though she alternated hits and bombs on the big screen, she had developed a well-liked rep within the industry, and she earned plaudits for her directorial debut, “Whip It.” Barrymore actually hasn’t had a hit for a couple of years now, but her recent marriage and child seem to have become a higher priority. In a curious footnote, Barrymore has also hosted “Saturday Night Live” six times, more than any other female performer, which is indicative of the level of decades-long goodwill toward her following that rough stretch in her childhood.
What Has She Got To Say About It? “If I ever start talking to you about my ‘craft,’ my ‘instrument,’ you have permission to shoot me.”
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? Travolta rocketed to superstardom on the cusp of a pair of movies that more or less defined the ’70s: “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever” (released just a year apart from one another). For the latter he became one of the youngest actors ever nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and inspired an entire generation of grease-balls to style their hair a certain way and walk with an almost otherworldly strut. After “Urban Cowboy,” however, Travolta made a string of mad decisions, turning down a number of roles that turned out to be huge hits (he supposedly rejected both “American Gigolo” and “An Officer and a Gentlemen” among others, so Richard Gere owes him a drink) and chose to star in a number of films that were both critical and commercial nonstarters (things like the aerobics-set drama “Perfect,” the underwhelming “Saturday Night Fever” sequel “Staying Alive,” and “Two of a Kind,” a movie that reunited him with his “Grease” costar Olivia Newton-John and featured angels or something). His best role from this period, in Brian De Palma‘s 1981 thriller “Blow Out,” was a box office disaster; a downbeat ’70s movie released in the upbeat, spend-spend-spend ’80s. And at the other end of that decade, “Look Who’s Talking” grossed nearly $300 million, making it his biggest hit since “Grease,” but it was a lame comedy about talking babies, with Travolta then faced with the indignity of two sequels (the first released the following year!). Also in that period: a forgettable period musical called “Shout” and a terrible TV movie called “Chains of Gold” that Travolta also co-wrote. Travolta might have been under the impression that his raw charisma could carry projects that just weren’t there or maybe he was being guided by factors outside of himself (we have no idea what influence the powerful Church of Scientology holds over his career choices), but whatever the reason, he signed onto half-baked premises and lousy scripts time and time again.
What Turned It Around? Two words: “Pulp Fiction.” The film’s director, Quentin Tarantino, was a diehard Brian De Palma fanatic (in addition to “Blow Out,” Travolta also had a brief but memorable role in “Carrie“) and was adamant about casting Travolta in the lead of his multilayered crime comedy (at the time, Travolta was “as cold as you could get,” according to Tarantino’s manager). It was a genius move and resulted in Travolta being nominated for everything from a Best Actor Oscar to an MTV Movie Award for Best Dance Sequence. Tarantino might have shown balls (and a certain kind of brilliance) in casting him, but Travolta’s performance is absolutely dynamite. It was the kind of thing that made people (especially people who don’t see movies about talking babies) wonder where he’d been for so long.
How Well Has He Fared Since? For a while it looked like Travolta would be able to maintain the momentum and intensity of his “Pulp Fiction” role for the foreseeable future: right after “Pulp Fiction” he starred in Barry Sonnenfeld‘s wonderfully wacky Elmore Leonard adaptation “Get Shorty,” and in box office hits like “Michael,” “Phenomenon,” and “Broken Arrow” (for director John Woo). There were some missteps along the way (“White Man’s Burden,” “Broken City“), but Travolta was able to delicately balance commercial fare like Woo’s “Face/Off” with more dramatic stuff like “A Civil Action” or artier fare like Terrence Malick‘s “Thin Red Line.” And then came 2000’s “Battlefield Earth,” a passion project for the actor for a number of years and based on the early science fiction work of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, that was both a critical and commercial boondoggle, a film widely regarded as one of the worst, most financially disastrous, movies in the history of Hollywood. Travolta has limped along since, starring in the occasional blockbuster (like Disney‘s “Wild Hogs“) and occasionally giving really great performances (like in “Hairspray“) but nothing to match the critical and commercial shot-in-the-arm of “Pulp Fiction.” Especially when he’s doing trash like this year’s almost-direct-to-DVD “Killing Season.”
What Has He Got To Say About It? Travolta is largely quoted as having said that “Saturday Night Fever” and “Pulp Fiction” were the “pillars” of his career. And in a lot of ways this seems to be the literal truth, propping up the rest of his filmography, and his considerable star power, on their strength alone.
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? God, Mickey Rourke was pretty back in the day, and with his sulky, 1950s-style rebel persona and charisma to burn, the world was briefly, for a spell in the mid to late 80s, his oyster. But, like with Brando and with less reason, a degree of arrogance and petulance started to creep into his MO, and as he veered erratically from good material (“Angel Heart,” “Barfly”) to mediocre or just plain bad, with seemingly little recognition of the difference, he picked up the reputation for being difficult. Add to that a series of duds: “Wild Orchid“—less “steamy” than “steaming” which gained notoriety mainly for the rumor that Rourke and Carre Otis were doing it for real in the film; “Desperate Hours” and then “Harley Davison and The Marlboro Man” both the latter of which gained him Razzie nominations. But it wasn’t just critics and audiences who weren’t impressed—soon after, Rourke took a break from acting to pursue a boxing career (he’d been a boxer from an early age) because he could feel himself “self-destructing … (and) had no respect for (himself as) an actor.” Despite Rourke’s return to acting a few years later (and the first in a what would become a long series of cosmetic surgeries undertaken, initially at least, to correct the damage done in the ring), the job offers didn’t come in quite as thick and fast as he clearly expected. He even turned down the Bruce Willis role in “Pulp Fiction” because, as he put it ”I was out of control and did not think the party was going to end. I could stay in any hotel, buy anything I wanted—I once bought six Cadillacs for cash and then gave them all away.” So instead of Tarantino waving his comeback wand over Rourke back then, the actor spent the rest of the 90s taking ever smaller roles in often rubbish films. “Shergar,” anyone?
What Turned it Around? Perhaps it needed almost every vestige of Rourke-the-heartthrob to have been cosmetically eradicated before anyone could be convinced of his acting chops again, but when Robert Rodriguez cast him, under heavy prosthetics, as Marv, maybe the closest thing “Sin City” has to a hero, this time Rourke seized the opportunity. The best thing about the film by miles, Rourke brought a real note of broken-down desperation to the comic book milieu, far surpassing the one-note villains he’d been making his stock in trade. But whatever real-life parallels he brought to Marv, soon after that he was cast in “The Wrestler” for Darren Aronofsky, a film so peculiarly suited to him and his life that his performance is almost hard to watch. An Oscar nomination, and obligatory high-profile badass duties on “The Expendables” and “Iron Man 2” beckoned.
How Well Has He Fared Since? Arguably a role like “The Wrestler” with its real-life resonance and pathos is kind of a one-off, and it’s hard to see how Rourke is going to maintain that level of critical admiration in the anonymous, and somewhat interchangeable genre films he’s made since, with attempts to do anything outside that largely falling flat (“Passion Play”). However he’ll return to slightly more interesting territory when he reprises Marv in “Sin City 2,” and if the Aronofsky film proved anything, it’s that given the right material and director, Rourke can be as charismatic and as committed as ever. But he needs another vehicle in which he can show that off soon, if he doesn’t want to slip back into the same doldrums whence he came.
What Has He Got To Say About It? “All that I have been through…[has] made me a better, more interesting actor…my best work is still ahead of me.”
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? It’s been theorized that British actor Christopher Lee has more screen credits than any actor in the history of the medium. While that’s probably hard to quantify, it might actually be true. Lee got his first big break starring as Dracula in a series of horror films for Hammer while working steadily in genre films and historical dramas (in 1970 alone he’s credited with having starred in ten films). 1973’s “Wicker Man” offered a bit of a career resurgence thanks to its artfulness and “cult” status, and next year he starred as a James Bond bad guy in “The Man with the Golden Gun” but after that slipped into the habit of steadily working without doing anything really extraordinary, appearing in everything from Disney‘s “Return from Witch Mountain” to Steven Spielberg‘s disastrous “1941.” More often than not the projects he was involved in were beneath him and slightly embarrassing. How could an actor of his character, grace, and wit really put in a performance in “Police Academy: Mission to Moscow?” Lee was proof positive that just because you appeared in everything doesn’t mean people would remember you for anything.
What Turned It Around? The children that used to thrill to Lee’s creaky exploits in those old horror classics were now filmmakers themselves and more than willing to give Lee a second chance. If you want to get specific, it was probably Lee’s role as the villainous wizard Saruman in Peter Jackson‘s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy that really turned things around. Lee is an avid fan of Tolkien’s text and even met with the author about appearing as Gandalf in an eventual movie version of the books (he was the only person in the crew to have met him). Hot on the heels of “Lord of the Rings,” George Lucas also cast him in the latter two installments of his “Star Wars” prequel trilogy (Lucas is a noted Hammer fan and has cast many of the original actors in his films). For a while Lee was in the two highest grossing movies in any given year.
How Well Has He Fared Since? Lee continued this post-‘Rings’ winning streak by re-teaming with director Tim Burton (whom he had worked with on “Sleepy Hollow“) for several more films—”Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Corpse Bride,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Frankenweenie” (sort of) and “Dark Shadows” and collaborating with Martin Scorsese and John Landis. Not only did he get to revive his Saruman performance for Jackson’s three “Hobbit” films but in 2011 got to film a sequel to “The Wicker Man” called “The Wicker Tree” and made “The Resident,” which marked his first Hammer movie since 1976’s “To the Devil a Daughter.” Lee is now 91 years-old and truly unstoppable.
What Has He Got To Say About It? When the U.K.’s The Telegraph asked Lee earlier this year about reports that his friend Johnny Depp would be retiring from films, Lee responded: “There are frustrations—people who lie to you, people who don’t know what they are doing, films that don’t turn out the way you had wanted them to—so, yes, I do understand. I always ask myself ‘well, what else could I do?’. Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life. I have some interests outside of acting—I sing and I’ve written books, for instance—but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose. I’m realistic about the amount of work I can get at my age, but I take what I can, even voice-overs and narration.”
If you’ve noticed the white male bias in the above list, well, so have we, but aside from maybe Eddie Murphy‘s “Dreamgirls” role, which didn’t exactly lead to a long-term movie career renaissance outside of fat suits and “Shrek”spin-offs, we were hard pushed to think of many black or other minority actors who have made this kind of comeback (though there are several whose careers have been resuscitated by TV shows.) Similarly, while we feature two women in this sampler, other examples are rare—Demi Moore arguably managed to grab a moment of spotlight back after her hiatus by looking unfeasibly hot in “Charlie’s Angels 2” but that hasn’t translated into ongoing movie success, and the movie blows so we didn’t want to talk about it. So conclusion: Hollywood more likely to proffer second chances to white males above any other demographic. Also, water wet.
In fact in general we avoided actors who’ve been reborn on TV, as they’re becoming too many to number and could certainly do with their own list someday, as could those actors, outside of the likes of Travolta and Keitel, who owe whatever green shoots their careers are showing to Quentin Tarantino’s trademark penchant for nostalgia casting. However, whether many of them actually continued to grace our screens after their QT moment faded is highly debatable. Elsewhere Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer have both experienced late-career resurgences, but while both have done some crap in their time, neither was ever really consistently on the outs enough to make latter-day success seem like anything more than a natural, if happy evolution.
Still, if there’s someone you wish we’d covered, feel free to shout them out below. And tell us too who you think is most likely to be the next actor fortune smiles upon in the endless game of Hollywood hot-or-not.—Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro