Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler (2008)
What is incredible about Mickey Rourke’s performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is that his character’s story so closely mirrored his own life: Like Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Rourke left his glory days (in his case a successful ’80s acting career) behind to chase an impossible dream (becoming a boxing champ), ending up physically and emotionally broken. Rourke had attempted comebacks in the past; Terrence Malick gave him a substantial role in 1998’s The Thin Red Line but then cut it, and his part in 2005’s Sin City failed to fully revive his career. His Oscar-nominated turn in The Wrestler, however, has put Rourke in high demand — last year, he joined a stacked cast of aging action stars in box-office hit The Expendables and currently has no fewer than six projects in progress.
John Travolta, Pulp Fiction (1994)
Back in 1994, John Travolta wasn’t a punchline because of his belief in Scientology or wild stories about his alleged homosexual trysts — the former Grease and Saturday Night Fever heartthrob was a joke because he was making crappy films. In the previous five years, he had made three Look Who’s Talking movies and a few other stinkers you wouldn’t remember if we listed them. Everything changed when Quentin Tarantino cast the 40-year-old star as mafia hitman Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction and, brilliantly, included a retro, disco scene where his character dazzles Uma Thurman’s on the dance floor. Although he supposedly only received around $100,000 for the performance, Travolta’s monetary sacrifice paid off. All of a sudden, he was cool again. Lead roles in Get Shorty, Primary Colors, A Civil Action, and other high-profile films followed. Travolta’s star has fallen somewhat since the early ’00s, but we won’t deny that he made a surprisingly satisfactory Divine stand-in in 2007’s Hairspray remake.
Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock (2006)
It’s not like Alec Baldwin’s career was in the toilet before he took on the role of 3o Rock‘s Jack Donaghy. He has always been the most successful Baldwin brother, after all. But in the years since his early peak, with movies like 1990’s The Hunt for Red October and 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross, he was taking smaller roles and doing a lot of voice work. In 2003, he appeared in the live-action Cat in the Hat movie (although it’s unfair to mention that without adding that he was also part of The Aviator‘s all-star cast the next year). What 30 Rock did, in 2006, was to re-cast Baldwin as an excellent comic actor — and a celebrity who didn’t take himself too seriously. Soon, he was starring opposite Meryl Streep and Steve Martin in It’s Complicated, as well as co-hosting the Academy Awards. As of now, Baldwin has six movies in the works and, uh, may run for mayor of New York.
Anna Chlumsky, In the Loop (2007)
Unlike most of the other actors on this list, child star Anna Chlumsky actually made a conscious decision to end her acting career. After her early-’90s, My Girl-related heyday, she quit acting, went to college, and worked some entry-level publishing jobs. Her nearly decade-long absence from the big screen ended in 2007, when she followed up a 3o Rock guest appearance with a major role in the hilarious British political satire In the Loop that proved she had the talent to make it as a grown-up actress. She’s been working tirelessly since then, and the folks behind In the Loop liked her so much, they cast her in their forthcoming HBO series, Veep.
Paul Reubens, Blow (2001) and the new Pee-wee Herman Show (2010)
Few actors have had careers as rocky as Paul Reubens. After a decade of playing film and TV’s beloved Pee-wee Herman, Reubens kicked off the ’90s with an arrest for doing, well, exactly what you might expect a lonely guy to do in a porn theater. Although he popped up in a series of small roles throughout the decade (remember him in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie?), he stayed largely out of the spotlight, aside from a recurring gig on Murphy Brown and a role in 1999’s disappointing Mystery Men. What really brought back Reubens was his excellent performance as a fey, drug-dealing hairdresser in 2001’s Blow.
Unfortunately, before he could enjoy a true revival, he was implicated in a child pornography case and once again had his name dragged through the muck before being cleared of any wrongdoing. Reubens made another retreat from public life after that ordeal, spending the next few years caring for his dying father. But by the end of the decade, he had pulled off the ultimate comeback: In 2010, Reubens brought Pee-wee Herman to the stage for wildly successful runs in LA and New York, culminating in an Emmy-nominated HBO special.
Winona Ryder, Black Swan (2010)
From her breakout role in 1988’s Beetlejuice through 1999’s Girl, Interrupted, Winona Ryder was Hollywood’s favorite angsty teen. But her disaffection got a little too “real” in 2001, when she was caught ripping off $5,500 worth of clothing from Saks. Although she was only sentenced to probation, Ryder faded from the public eye for several years, turning up here and there throughout the second half of the decade in smaller films like Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and Rebecca Miller’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. She didn’t regain national attention until last year, when she stole scenes as fragile, temperamental prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre in Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-nominated Black Swan. There was something campy about her performance (and the movie as a whole) that made it feel a bit like stunt casting, but it was still wonderful to see Ryder back to being bratty on the big screen.
Tom Cruise, Tropic Thunder (2008)
Yes, the obvious Tropic Thunder comeback is Robert Downey Jr.’s — and, coupled with the release of Iron Man that same year, it was a very successful one. But we find Tom Cruise’s role in this comedy even more interesting. His stock had been plummeting for years, as his support for Scientology grew ever more vocal and, well, demented-looking. Beginning with 2005’s infamous “couch-jumping” episode on Oprah, he’d also managed to convince much of America that his relationship with Katie Holmes was either out of control or a sham. So, to prove that he was good for more than the occasional, mediocre Mission Impossible sequel, and that he was a totally normal, cool guy with a great sense of humor about himself, Cruise made a highly publicized appearance in Tropic Thunder as hairy, balding, gold chain-sporting studio executive Lev Grossman. His performance pretty much split the difference between funny and sociopathic, and, as a result, didn’t do much to change the way most people thought about him.
Katie Holmes, The Kennedys (2011)
Speaking of Katie Holmes, she also experienced a decline in popularity around the time she became one half of the obnoxiously nicknamed TomKat. Add to that the birth of Holmes and Cruise’s daughter, Suri, in 2006, and she had her hands full, mostly avoiding the spotlight after 2005’s Batman Begins and Thank You for Smoking. She finally made news for her acting — rather than her famous family — when she took on the daunting role of Jackie O. in The Kennedys. Although the series was originally intended for cable’s History Channel, they and several other networks passed up the opportunity to air it. Eventually, it showed on the somewhat more obscure ReelzChannel, garnering terrible reviews. The Hollywood Reporter had the following to say about Holmes’s performance: “Every time Katie Holmes comes onscreen as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, you think, ‘That’s Katie Holmes.’ Or, ‘That’s Katie Holmes having the damndest time with Jackie’s accent.'” Ouch.
Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence, Melissa and Joey (2010)
We don’t have to break this one down for you, do we? It’s just that we expected more from you, Clarissa.
Mel Gibson, The Beaver (2011)
The American public may forgive you for pleasuring yourself in public, swiping a few expensive dresses, or behaving like an escaped mental patient on national TV. But can we find it in our hearts to re-embrace a man who’s now more famous for his homophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, alcoholism, and domestic violence than for his acting or directing? Mel Gibson’s long-time friend Jodie Foster wagered that we would, casting him as a depressed executive who takes to talking through a hand puppet in The Beaver. Despite decent reviews, many of which spoke highly of Gibson’s performance, the film tanked, earning less than a million dollars at the box office. Perhaps the problem was merely that the premise was ridiculous, but it sure looks like moviegoers aren’t crazy about the idea of a Mel Gibson comeback.