At age 63 and after a near-40-year career, Michael Keaton is enjoying ecstatic reviews for his Oscar-buzzy performance in “Birdman,” about a washed-up actor who once played an onscreen superhero and who is now seeking career redemption on the Broadway stage. His performance is being called a comeback, but he hasn’t really been away.
What it means is that the character actor who has of late shined in supporting roles (“The Other Guys,” for instance) got another shot at a leading role and knocked it out of the park. Suddenly there are listicles on social media touting his essential films and film festivals are bestowing lifetime achievement awards. His will be one of the feel-good stories of the upcoming Oscar season.
The history of movies is filled with such, for want of a better word, comeback stories; actors adrift in mediocre films or who are written off by short-sighted studio execs. Then the right project comes along and lightning strikes again. Some, like Burt Reynolds, squandered their found-again cachet; while others like Robert Downey, Jr. have managed to make the most of their second chance (he is now the highest paid actor in Hollywood).
Here is a roll call of actors whose careers were rejuvenated:
Ben Affleck: Next to Robert Downey, Jr., Affleck’s is perhaps Hollywood’s most triumphant comeback kid. “Daredevil.” “Gigli.” Bennifer. It’s hard to bounce back after this little hat trick of horrors. But beginning with his vanity-free performance in “Hollywoodland” and his acclaimed directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone,” followed by “The Town,” Affleck compelled Hollywood (and audiences) to take another look. “Argo’s” Best Picture win cemented his return to the A-list and he is currently earning praise for his co-starring role in “Gone Girl.”
Marlon Brando: “Candy.” “The Night of the Following Day.” “Burn!” “The Nightcomers.” These were the films Marlon Brando made before “The Godfather.” Such was the state of his career that Paramount did not want him for the role of Don Corleone. He was forced to test for the part that would earn him an Academy Award. He followed “The Godfather” with “Last Tango in Paris.”
Katharine Hepburn: The original "Gone" girl. Katharine Hepburn was considered box office poison, but “The Philadelphia Story” put her back on the map. “
Neil Patrick Harris: With a career on life support following his star-making turn as “Doogie Howser MD,” NPH first unleashed his sheer awesomeness with his self-deprecating appearances in the “Harold and Kumar” franchise. His stint on “How I Met Your Mother” his recent Tony-winning appearance on Broadway and his bravura turns as the host of the Tony and Emmy Awards (next year, the Oscars!) have made his comeback legen—wait for it—dary.
Matthew McConaughey: Matthew McConaughey’s second act has its own name: McConaissance. Beginning with “Magic Mike,” he has succeeded in “unbranding” himself from a rom-com beefcake. His Oscar-winning turn in “The Dallas Buyers Club,” his riveting Emmy-nominated performance in “True Detective” and his upcoming role in Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated “Interstellar” find him seemingly incapable of making a false move (never mind those enigmatic Lincoln car commercials).
John Travolta: “Once you’re gone, you can never come back,” John Travolta has more than once proved Neil Young’s lyric wrong. He got a career bump with the first “Look Who’s Talking,” lost his strut, and then gained it back with Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”
Your turn: What actor do you think is due for a comeback?