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.”