Five Movie Comebacks That Worked (and Five That Didn’t)

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“RETIREMENT IS FOR SISSIES!” roar the posters for The Last Stand (seriously? “Sissies?” In 2012? But I digress…), the first starring role for Arnold Schwarzenegger since stepping away from the silver screen for a, shall we say, problematic stint in the California governor’s mansion. Its mid-January release date doesn’t exactly scream box-office or critical confidence, but who knows; Mr. Schwarzenegger has been underestimated before, and usually comes out ahead. Either way it goes, we thought it would be interesting to run down some of the other big-name actors who hit rough or absent patches and tried to work their way back into the spotlight with a well placed role; after the jump we’ll take a look at five comeback vehicles that took, and five that didn’t quite get the job done.

Marlon Brando THE VEHICLE: The Godfather (1972) THE PITCH: Brando led a revolution in screen acting in the 1950s, but by the next decade, he was a risk that studios no longer wanted to take; films like The Chase, Burn!, Candy, and The Appaloosa had underperformed, and his moody temperament was blamed for cost overruns on projects like Mutiny on the Bounty and One-Eyed Jacks. But Francis Ford Coppola badly wanted Brando to play the patriarchal Don Vito Corleone in his adaptation of Mario Puzo’s bestseller The Godfather (even though the actor was only in his forties at the time), and though Paramount insisted they wouldn’t approve the casting, Coppola finally got the okay when he convinced Brando — who would never submit to such a thing — to do a videotaped screen test, which Coppola told him was merely a make-up test. THE CRITICS SAY: “Brando interiorizes Don Vito’s power, makes him less physically threatening and deeper, hidden within himself… he gives the story the legendary presence need to raise it above gang warfare to archetypal tribal warfare.” –Pauline Kael, The New Yorker AWARDS: The Academy Award for Best Actor — but that’s a whole other story. AFTERMATH: Brando immediately followed The Godfather with the triumph of Last Tango in Paris that same year, and while his work over the rest of his life was sporadic and erratic (including such dogs as The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Formula), he turned in winning performances in Apocalypse Now, A Dry White Season, and The Freshman, and made history with his giant paycheck and top billing for a tiny role in Superman.

John Travolta THE VEHICLE: Pulp Fiction (1994) THE PITCH: Though Saturday Night Fever made him a cultural icon and an Oscar nominee, the 1980s had been a rough era for Travolta; he started the decade with perhaps his finest performance (in De Palma’s Blow Out), but ended it with the talking baby comedy Look Who’s Talking. By 1993, that series had devolved into talking dog comedies, so Quentin Tarantino was taking a big risk by casting Travolta in the leading role of his comic crime triptych. (He reportedly made Travolta’s casting a condition of his deal with Miramax.) Travolta was paid SAG minimum for his work on the film: $100,000, with the actor later figuring that, between his travel and expenses at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, he actually lost money on the picture. THE CRITICS SAY: “Travolta is doughier than in his Saturday Night Fever days, but even playing a junkie reptile he exhibits amazing grace. His slow dance with Mia to a Chuck Berry oldie exudes down ‘n’ dirty eroticism and unexpected romantic longing. Travolta makes a spectacular comeback with this brilliant, intuitive performance.” –Peter Travers, Rolling Stone AWARDS: Nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars and the Golden Globes. AFTERMATH: The Travolta story is pretty much the gold standard for modern comeback wishful thinking. His first post-Pulp project, Get Shorty, netted him a cool $6 million (nearly the entire budget for Fiction); by the time he made Face/Off three years later, he was commanding $20 million a picture. His recent projects haven’t exactly set the world on fire, be he remains a bankable and well-paid movie star, and a far cry from the unemployable relic he’d become, pre-1994.

Gloria Swanson THE VEHICLE: Sunset Blvd. (1950) THE PITCH: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!” Fallen silent screen siren Norma Desmond is one of the cinema’s most memorable characters, and director/co-writer Billy Wilder wanted to cast an actress with more than a passing resemblance to the role. Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, and Pola Negri were all considered before Wilder settled on Swanson, a silent superstar who had struggled to make the transition to talkies. Swanson had only appeared in one film since 1934, but she dug into the role of Norma with relish. “There was a lot of Norma in her, you know,” Wilder said in 1975. THE CRITICS SAY: “Miss Swanson, required to play a hundred percent grotesque, plays it not just to the hilt but right up to the armpit, by which I mean magnificently.” –James Agee, Sight and Sound AWARDS: Nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars; Won Best Actress at the Golden Globes AFTERMATH: Though she only made three more films after Sunset, she was a frequent presence on series television and in documentaries on the silent era up until her death in 1983.

Robert Downey Jr. THE VEHICLE: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) THE PITCH: Downey was clearly one of the most talented young actors of the 1980s, and his promise seemed solidified by his remarkable (and Oscar-nominated) leading role in Chaplin, but he had a rather rough go of it in 1990s. Between ill-received vehicles like Hearts and Souls and In Dreams and his considerable personal troubles — including several arrests and stints in rehab — his star had fallen, and though he’d done memorable supporting work in films like Wonder Boys and One Night Stand, he was considered too big a risk. Mel Gibson managed to get him cast in 2003’s The Singing Detective, and secondary roles in Gothika and the indie films Eros and Game 6 followed. Finally, Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black cast Downey in the leading role of his directorial debut, the smart-mouthed action/comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. THE CRITICS SAY: “The sort of movie that believes coolness is next to godliness, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang trades heavily and successfully on Downey’s unflappable likability.” –J. Hoberman, The Village Voice AWARDS: Well, none, but to hell with awards AFTERMATH: Due primarily to Warner Brothers’ utter inability to figure out how to market it, Kiss Kiss didn’t make much of a bang bang at the box office. But it proved Downey could carry a movie, and his marvelous performances (in roles big and small) in the films that followed — Good Night and Good Luck, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac — paved the way for his twin franchise builders: Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes.

Ingrid Bergman THE VEHICLE: Anastasia (1956) THE PITCH: Bergman was a Hollywood favorite throughout the 1940s, thanks to her iconic performances in the likes of Casablanca, Notorious, and The Bells of St. Mary’s. But scandal hit in 1950, when she traveled to Italy to star in director Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli and ended up carrying his child. (Both were married to other people at the time.) If you think we’re obsessed with movie stars and their personal lives now, chew on this: Bergman was denounced from the floor of the US Senate by Sen. Edward C. Johnson (D-Colorado), who called her “a powerful influence for evil.” The backlash was so severe that Bergman remained in Europe for the next six years, making Neorealist films with Rossellini; she didn’t return to Hollywood until she was offered the lead in Anastasia. THE CRITICS SAY: “Miss Bergman’s performance as the heroine is nothing short of superb… It is a beautifully molded performance, worthy of an Academy Award and particularly gratifying in the light of Miss Bergman’s long absence from commendable films.” –Bosley Crowther, The New York Times AWARDS: She got that Academy Award Crowther suggested (her second), as well as a Golden Globe and New York Film Critics Circle award. AFTERMATH: Bergman continued to work in television and in films, on projects big and small, domestic and foreign, winning a third Oscar for her supporting turn in Murder on the Orient Express and receiving another nomination for her leading role in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata.

Pam Grier THE VEHICLE: Jackie Brown (1997) THE PITCH: When Quentin Tarantino set about directing his first feature after Pulp Fiction, film fans wondered who would get the “Travolta treatment” this time around. The answer was an easy one, for anyone who knew Tarantino’s taste: in adapting Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, he transformed white leading character Jackie Burke into black protagonist Jackie Brown, and cast 1970s blaxpoitation superstar Pam Grier in the role. (The film also marked a comeback for ‘70s and ‘80s exploitation player Robert Forster, who played the male lead.) THE CRITICS SAY: “A true icon of the ’70s, Grier, who has aged beautifully, may not have the widest range, but her tremendous poise, visible at once in the opening shots of her arriving at LAX, serves her exceedingly well, and she does have two or three big moments to sink her teeth into.” –Todd McCarthy, Variety AWARDS: Nominated for a SAG Award and Golden Globe for Best Actress AFTERMATH: In the years between Coffy and Jackie Brown, Hollywood couldn’t figure out what to do with Grier — and after it, they still couldn’t. Aside from an interesting supporting performance in Jane Campion’s bananas Holy Smoke!, Grier found herself slumming in the likes of the listless Heathers rip-off Jawbreaker and the Snoop Dogg horror film Bones.

Burt Reynolds THE VEHICLE: Boogie Nights (1997) THE PITCH: No star shone brighter in the 1980s than Burt Reynolds, but by the decade’s end, he’d worn down his brand with an increasingly low-quality string of half-assed, single-word-titled action flicks (Heat, Stick, Malone, etc.) By the mid-‘90s, he was playing second fiddle to a cute kid in the family throwaway Cop and a Half, and though he turned in an inspired comic performance in Striptease, the picture itself was such a stinker that no one noticed. Reynolds wasn’t rising filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson’s first choice to play porn impresario Jack Horner (he’d talked to Warren Beatty, Albert Brooks, and Sydney Pollack about the role), but he ended up being the right one. THE CRITICS SAY: “His speeches, in which he lays out his vision of being the first porno auteur, are among the funniest things here, and Reynolds delivers them sensationally. But there’s nothing ridiculous about the slightly weary, irreducible dignity Reynolds brings his character. Reynolds played the smart-ass insider so long that he often wasn’t given credit for being an actor. This performance has real stature, and it’s the best work he’s ever done.” –Charles Taylor, Salon AWARDS: Golden Globe and New York Film Critics Circle awards for Best Supporting Actor, Academy Award nomination AFTERMATH: Reynolds didn’t do himself any favors by badmouthing Boogie Nights before the accolades started rolling in — or by exhibiting his customary lack of choosiness in the roles he selected after it (in 1998, for example, he appeared in two direct-to-video Universal Soldier sequels). There’s been a good role or two since (mostly on television, with appearances on My Name is Earl and Archer), but the bulk of his post-1997 filmography has consisted of exactly the kind of C-level dreck he’d have ended up doing had he not worked with Anderson.

Sylvester Stallone THE VEHICLE: Cop Land (1997) THE PITCH: Stallone had done the “comeback movie” thing once before, when he returned to action films with 1993’s Cliffhanger and Demolition Man after an ill-advised sojurn to the world of movie comedy. But his subsequent vehicles (including The Specialist, Judge Dredd, and Assassins) had bombed badly, and he needed a jump start. Enter Miramax, home of Pulp Fiction, offering Stallone a Travolta special: for a fraction of his usual salary, he’d get the leading role in a Serious Drama, surrounded by pretty much everyone who’d ever done a Scorsese movie (Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Cathy Moriarty, Frank Vincent). THE CRITICS SAY: “Watching Stallone quietly hold his ground with Robert De Niro in this film’s best confrontation scenes, it’s not immediately apparent who was lauded as his generation’s greatest brooding film star and who was once the overmuscled joke.” –Janet Maslin, The New York Times AWARDS: None, sadly AFTERMATH: Stallone packed on forty pounds for the role and delivered in it, turning in a performance of genuine pathos and sensitivity. But Maslin’s prediction that he would come out “with a shrewdly revitalized career in store” proved false; though reviews were good and box office was respectable, serious offers were not forthcoming. “It was the beginning of the end, for about eight years,” Stallone said in 2008, by which time he’d figured out the real key to a comeback: endless capitalizing on ‘80s nostalgia. First came 2006’s Rocky Balboa, then 2008’s Rambo, and then The Expendables movies, which basically amount to The Cannonball Run for action stars past their primes.

Mickey Rourke THE VEHICLE: The Wrestler (2008) THE PITCH: Mickey Rourke had one of the weirder careers of ‘80s leading men; his performances were often compelling, but he passed on big hits like Beverly Hills Cop, 48 HRS., and Platoon for the likes of Year of the Dragon and Johnny Handsome. In 1989, after writing and starring in the boxing movie Homeboy, he announced he was going to quit acting and become a boxer; he didn’t, but his subsequent work was increasingly off-the-radar. However, he was championed years later by director Robert Rodriguez, who used his brute presence and increasingly bizarre physical appearance to great effect in Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Sin City; Tony Scott cast him in supporting roles in Man on Fire and Domino. But it was Darren Aronofsky who got Rourke’s career-best performance, in the intimate and powerful The Wrestler. THE CRITICS SAY: “Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler is one of the all-time exalted examples of an actor meeting a character and of each redeeming the other.” –Mick LaSalle, The San Francisco Chronicle AWARDS: Golden Globe and Independent Spirit awards for Best Actor; Academy Award nomination AFTERMATH: Rourke used his Oscar buzz and great reviews to land big-paycheck gigs in Iron Man 2 and the aforementioned Expendables, but his subsequent choices have been as bewildering as ever: most have either gone direct-to-video (The Courier, Dead in Tombstone) or should have (13, Black Gold), and Rourke, ever the loose cannon, himself warned viewers from seeing his 2011 Bill Murray/Megan Fox co-starrer, Passion Play.

Lindsay Lohan THE VEHICLE: Liz & Dick (2012) THE PITCH: Few young stars were more promising a decade or so ago than Lohan, who seemed to have made the transition from child star (The Parent Trap) to young actress, thanks to well-received work in Mean Girls and A Prairie Home Companion. But a series of ill-advised vehicles (Just My Luck, I Know Who Killed Me, Chapter 27) and her tabloid-bait personal life derailed that career, turning her from a rising star to a punch line. The Lifetime network figured they could spin those cons into pros when they cast Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor in the TV movie Liz & Dick (opposite Grant Bowler as Richard Burton), and mounted an ad campaign comparing the star and subject’s scandal-ridden lives. THE CRITICS SAY: “The performances range from barely adequate to terrible. That would be Bowler in the ‘barely adequate’ slot and Lohan, well, in the other one.” –David Wiegand, The San Francisco Chronicle AWARDS: Um, no AFTERMATH: Liz & Dick’s premiere generated lower than expected ratings — surprising, considering that everyone on our Twitter feed appeared to be hate-watching and live-razzing it. Whatever hopes there might’ve been for a Lohan comeback died as soon as viewers and critics saw the film. But no worries; Lohan’s got a movie coming out later this year from Bret Easton Ellis, and we can’t imagine how that could go wrong.