10 Unexpected Comebacks in Cinema

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After a few box office bombs, M. Night Shyamalan has made a successful return to theaters this weekend with his latest film, The Visit. Our own Jason Bailey wrote about the horror tale that finds one family’s life taking a dark turn after a visit with the grandparents.

“I’m as surprised as you are,” he wrote. “It’s a legitimately entertaining and engaging picture that veers unexpectedly yet confidently from horror to black comedy to genuine pathos — in other words, showing a command of form and tone that has eluded the filmmaker for well over a decade. The result is an object lesson in career rehabilitation; Shyamalan shows an awareness of his missteps, and created a film that allowed him, in many ways, to get back to basics.” We present other filmmakers and film stars who made an unexpected return after career hurdles, or just a long hiatus, below.

Alejandro Jodorowsky

Alejandro Jodorowsky dominated the midnight movies during the 1970s and ‘80s with trippy epics that united surreal visuals, mystic narratives, and his own avant-garde aesthetic. El Topo and The Holy Mountain are pillars of cult cinema, but his failed production of Dune and the poorly received Tusk, Jodorowsky’s successes came in fits and starts. It didn’t help that his greatest works weren’t widely available on DVD and Blu-ray until recently. He was unable to find the backing for his El Topo sequel and wound up focusing much of his attention on graphic novel projects. But a retrospective of Jodorowsky’s cinematic legacy at the Museum of Arts and Design in 2010 introduced his films to new audiences, leading to another exhibition at MoMA. Since then, the filmmaker has released his widely praised The Dance of Reality , an autobiographical story of his early years growing up in Chile. The film was likened to the success of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord. Endless Poetry is his newest movie, currently wrapping up a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Laurie Anderson

Experimental artist and musician Laurie Anderson made headlines recently, following the death of her husband, Velvet Underground vocalist Lou Reed, who passed away in 2013. Anderson’s career has continued to evolve since her ’70s-era performance pieces. She’s released a steady stream of albums and conceived of experimental instruments and theatrical works. Anderson just released her first film in nearly 30 years, a unique tribute to her beloved pet called Heart of a Dog. “Heart of a Dog contrasts the absurdities of modern times with sweeping observations that dwarf such concerns,” wrote Indiewire. “Using a personal style reminiscent of Chris Marker’s diary films, Anderson develops an eloquent treatise on the nature of canine obsession that dovetails into post-9/11 anxieties, ruminations on the afterlife, and the fragility of every waking moment.”

Tom Cruise

Last year, journalist Amy Nicholson published a fascinating essay about Tom Cruise called How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star . She’s since released a book titled Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor . Between Cruise’s far-out Scientology beliefs, highly publicized divorce from Nicole Kidman, Oprah couch stunt, and tabloid frenzy surrounding his relationship (and birth of his child) with Katie Holmes, it seemed like the former box office hitmaker was unraveling — as the Nicholson pieces discuss. But Cruise has shifted his image from blue-eyed babe to admirable action star thanks to the Mission Impossible series, performing his own dangerous stunts, successfully reshaping his image.

Ben Affleck

Nobody really understands the whole Ben Affleck and J. Lo stinker that is Gigli, but Affleck made a Hollywood comeback as a filmmaker — a bit of an unexpected turn for the smart, but bro-y star. Gone Baby Gone and The Town were well received, but it was his political thriller Argo, which he directed, produced, and starred in, that won Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards. He aced his role as the clueless husband in Gone Girl and got bulked up to play Batman. Of course, Affleck is in the news as we write this for having an affair with his nanny, so perhaps we spoke too soon.

Winona Ryder

Winona Ryder, ‘90s icon and convicted shoplifter, has thankfully not faded away following a rough personal patch during the early aughts. She joined the voice cast of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and played a deranged, aging ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Her recent starring role in HBO’s public housing drama Show Me a Hero finds Ryder playing a Yonkers City Council president. Winona forever.

Robert Downey Jr.

From Brat Pack heart throb and tabloid headliner to Iron Man, Robert Downey, Jr. cleaned up his act, got off drugs, and brought his snark and sass to the Marvel Comics series, playing the superhero playboy — so very fitting for the actor.

Michael Keaton

Read what our own Jason Bailey had to say about Michael Keaton’s big return in the autobiographical Birdman:

Much of the advance word has focused, and rightfully so, on star Michael Keaton, playing—if you can believe this—an actor who disappeared from the limelight after starring in one of the first smash superhero movie franchises. Now, he is trying to prove his legitimacy by starring in a Broadway play, which he directed and adapted (from Raymond Carver, no less). A framed poster of him former self, in full “Birdman” garb, lambasts him from the dressing room door, a voice in his head with what sounds an awful lot like Christian Bale’s Batman growl. That inner dialogue makes for some of the most nakedly confessional acting this side of JCVD. “You were a movie star, remember?” demands the voice. “I was fucking miserable,” he insists. “What’re you trying to prove, that you’re an artist?” it taunts. “I’m a fucking Trivial Pursuit card!” he declares, pinpointing the end of his superstardom at 1992. (Fun fact: Batman Returns was released in 1992.) But the role isn’t just autobiography; it’s a whirligig of emotional pyrotechnics, a character who spends the entirety of the picture on the brink of financial, professional, and psychological ruin, and who may be utterly crazy to boot. “It was really, really difficult, but I like that,” Keaton said Saturday. “I like difficult, most of the time.”

Kathryn Bigelow

Former painter Kathryn Bigelow explored the gritty world of bikers and vampires in The Loveless and Near Dark, which led to a career of action thrillers like Point Break, blending a fast-paced Hollywood filmmaking style with an artist’s eye. In a sadly sexist and too-familiar move, the uniqueness of her Strange Days was largely credited to her ex-husband James Cameron, who co-wrote the movie. After a few bombs, Bigelow returned with The Hurt Locker, a war thriller that helped Bigelow become the first woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Director.

George Miller

After languishing in development hell for decades, there was a giant question mark hanging over George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. But the filmmaker made a powerful return with his feminist post-apocalyptic actioner. Our Jason Bailey writes:

It’s a sequence of intense ingenuity and constantly shifting power dynamics, and it brings the picture to life for one simple reason: first we were just looking at machines, but now we’re looking at people. And understanding those people makes the subsequent scenes of their machines matter more. Yet that’s not all that makes Miller’s work as an action director so stunning, and what separates him from the monotonous bigger-louder-faster likes of Michael Bay or the Furious artiste of your choice. It’s that he understands, and employs in his set pieces, such inchoate yet frequently absent principles as geography, rhythm, and tempo. Much has been made of the ferocity of the editing — 2700 cuts, per the filmmaker. But it doesn’t feel as choppy and discombobulated as, say, a Transformers movie, because those films seem cut to disorient while creating the impression of speed and excitement, while Miller (and his editor, and wife, Margaret Sixel) situate the viewer within the sequence to create actual speed and excitement. And, even more revolutionarily, they vary that speed throughout the picture, shifting gears like the drivers of those big rigs, which goes a long way towards keeping viewers from feeling like they’ve been bashed in the head with a fucking hammer for 120-plus minutes

Oprah Winfrey

“It was the only time in my life that I was ever depressed, and I recognized that I was depressed because I’ve done enough shows [on the topic],” Oprah Winfrey said of her NAACP Image Award-nominated role in the 1998 box office failure Beloved. Oprah has done voice acting since then, but she made a big, recent return in Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Ava DuVernay’s Selma, both of which won her multiple award nominations.