12 Movie Stars Who Experienced Career Resurrections

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by The Playlist Staff
October 31, 2013 4:27 PM
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Drew Barrymore
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? Barrymore was a beloved child actress, from a dynasty of acting royalty, but the industry tends to treat those so very gently, and her struggles soon became the overmedicated kind. The young topliner of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Firestarter” coasted through her teenage years as an admitted substance abuser. She ended up checking herself into rehab at the tender age of 14.
What Turned it Around? Cheesecake ended up being Barrymore’s salvation. At 17, she was a standout in the thriller “Poison Ivy,” a role that gave her the sort of attention usually reserved for slightly older actresses (precocity had always been a stock in trade). The film wasn’t a massive hit (despite a number of cheeseball sequels without her) but it showed that Barrymore was a formidable screen presence, and over the years she would log enough supporting roles in major films like “Boys On The Side” and “Batman Forever” that she was no longer the little-girl-lost that the tabloids depicted her as. But it was a showy cameo in “Scream," that got her more attention than most actresses would earn for a lead role, that really kicked things up a gear for her, and by the time she was co-starring in “The Wedding Singer” with Adam Sandler, Hollywood had begun to notice she was a bankable leading actress.
How Well Has She Fared Since? Starring roles were landing on Barrymore’s plate, but she was smart enough to diversify, moving behind the camera as a producer on hit starring vehicles like “Never Been Kissed,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “Donnie Darko.” Even though she alternated hits and bombs on the big screen, she had developed a well-liked rep within the industry, and she earned plaudits for her directorial debut, “Whip It.” Barrymore actually hasn’t had a hit for a couple of years now, but her recent marriage and child seem to have become a higher priority. In a curious footnote, Barrymore has also hosted “Saturday Night Live” six times, more than any other female performer, which is indicative of the level of decades-long goodwill toward her following that rough stretch in her childhood. 
What Has She Got To Say About It? “If I ever start talking to you about my ‘craft,’ my ‘instrument,’ you have permission to shoot me.”

John Travolta
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? Travolta rocketed to superstardom on the cusp of a pair of movies that more or less defined the '70s: "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever" (released just a year apart from one another). For the latter he became one of the youngest actors ever nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and inspired an entire generation of grease-balls to style their hair a certain way and walk with an almost otherworldly strut. After "Urban Cowboy," however, Travolta made a string of mad decisions, turning down a number of roles that turned out to be huge hits (he supposedly rejected both "American Gigolo" and "An Officer and a Gentlemen" among others, so Richard Gere owes him a drink) and chose to star in a number of films that were both critical and commercial nonstarters (things like the aerobics-set drama "Perfect," the underwhelming "Saturday Night Fever" sequel "Staying Alive," and "Two of a Kind," a movie that reunited him with his "Grease" costar Olivia Newton-John and featured angels or something). His best role from this period, in Brian De Palma's 1981 thriller "Blow Out," was a box office disaster; a downbeat '70s movie released in the upbeat, spend-spend-spend '80s. And at the other end of that decade, "Look Who's Talking" grossed nearly $300 million, making it his biggest hit since "Grease," but it was a lame comedy about talking babies, with Travolta then faced with the indignity of two sequels (the first released the following year!). Also in that period: a forgettable period musical called "Shout" and a terrible TV movie called "Chains of Gold" that Travolta also co-wrote. Travolta might have been under the impression that his raw charisma could carry projects that just weren't there or maybe he was being guided by factors outside of himself (we have no idea what influence the powerful Church of Scientology holds over his career choices), but whatever the reason, he signed onto half-baked premises and lousy scripts time and time again.
What Turned It Around? Two words: "Pulp Fiction." The film's director, Quentin Tarantino, was a diehard Brian De Palma fanatic (in addition to "Blow Out," Travolta also had a brief but memorable role in "Carrie") and was adamant about casting Travolta in the lead of his multilayered crime comedy (at the time, Travolta was "as cold as you could get," according to Tarantino's manager). It was a genius move and resulted in Travolta being nominated for everything from a Best Actor Oscar to an MTV Movie Award for Best Dance Sequence. Tarantino might have shown balls (and a certain kind of brilliance) in casting him, but Travolta's performance is absolutely dynamite. It was the kind of thing that made people (especially people who don't see movies about talking babies) wonder where he'd been for so long.
How Well Has He Fared Since? For a while it looked like Travolta would be able to maintain the momentum and intensity of his "Pulp Fiction" role for the foreseeable future: right after "Pulp Fiction" he starred in Barry Sonnenfeld's wonderfully wacky Elmore Leonard adaptation "Get Shorty," and in box office hits like "Michael," "Phenomenon," and "Broken Arrow" (for director John Woo). There were some missteps along the way ("White Man's Burden," "Broken City"), but Travolta was able to delicately balance commercial fare like Woo's "Face/Off" with more dramatic stuff like "A Civil Action" or artier fare like Terrence Malick's "Thin Red Line." And then came 2000's "Battlefield Earth," a passion project for the actor for a number of years and based on the early science fiction work of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, that was both a critical and commercial boondoggle, a film widely regarded as one of the worst, most financially disastrous, movies in the history of Hollywood. Travolta has limped along since, starring in the occasional blockbuster (like Disney's "Wild Hogs") and occasionally giving really great performances (like in "Hairspray") but nothing to match the critical and commercial shot-in-the-arm of "Pulp Fiction." Especially when he's doing trash like this year's almost-direct-to-DVD "Killing Season."
What Has He Got To Say About It? Travolta is largely quoted as having said that "Saturday Night Fever" and "Pulp Fiction" were the "pillars" of his career. And in a lot of ways this seems to be the literal truth, propping up the rest of his filmography, and his considerable star power, on their strength alone.

Mickey Rourke
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? God, Mickey Rourke was pretty back in the day, and with his sulky, 1950s-style rebel persona and charisma to burn, the world was briefly, for a spell in the mid to late 80s, his oyster. But, like with Brando and with less reason, a degree of arrogance and petulance started to creep into his MO, and as he veered erratically from good material ("Angel Heart," "Barfly") to mediocre or just plain bad, with seemingly little recognition of the difference, he picked up the reputation for being difficult. Add to that a series of duds: “Wild Orchid"—less “steamy” than “steaming” which gained notoriety mainly for the rumor that Rourke and Carre Otis were doing it for real in the film; “Desperate Hours” and then “Harley Davison and The Marlboro Man” both the latter of which gained him Razzie nominations. But it wasn't just critics and audiences who weren't impressed—soon after, Rourke took a break from acting to pursue a boxing career (he’d been a boxer from an early age) because he could feel himself “self-destructing ... (and) had no respect for (himself as) an actor.” Despite Rourke’s return to acting a few years later (and the first in a what would become a long series of cosmetic surgeries undertaken, initially at least, to correct the damage done in the ring), the job offers didn’t come in quite as thick and fast as he clearly expected. He even turned down the Bruce Willis role in “Pulp Fiction" because, as he put it ”I was out of control and did not think the party was going to end. I could stay in any hotel, buy anything I wanted—I once bought six Cadillacs for cash and then gave them all away.” So instead of Tarantino waving his comeback wand over Rourke back then, the actor spent the rest of the 90s taking ever smaller roles in often rubbish films. “Shergar,” anyone?
What Turned it Around? Perhaps it needed almost every vestige of Rourke-the-heartthrob to have been cosmetically eradicated before anyone could be convinced of his acting chops again, but when Robert Rodriguez cast him, under heavy prosthetics, as Marv, maybe the closest thing “Sin City” has to a hero, this time Rourke seized the opportunity. The best thing about the film by miles, Rourke brought a real note of broken-down desperation to the comic book milieu, far surpassing the one-note villains he’d been making his stock in trade. But whatever real-life parallels he brought to Marv, soon after that he was cast in “The Wrestler” for Darren Aronofsky, a film so peculiarly suited to him and his life that his performance is almost hard to watch. An Oscar nomination, and obligatory high-profile badass duties on “The Expendables” and “Iron Man 2” beckoned. 
How Well Has He Fared Since? Arguably a role like “The Wrestler” with its real-life resonance and pathos is kind of a one-off, and it’s hard to see how Rourke is going to maintain that level of critical admiration in the anonymous, and somewhat interchangeable genre films he’s made since, with attempts to do anything outside that largely falling flat (“Passion Play”). However he’ll return to slightly more interesting territory when he reprises Marv in “Sin City 2,” and if the Aronofsky film proved anything, it’s that given the right material and director, Rourke can be as charismatic and as committed as ever. But he needs another vehicle in which he can show that off soon, if he doesn’t want to slip back into the same doldrums whence he came. 
What Has He Got To Say About It? "All that I have been through...[has] made me a better, more interesting actor...my best work is still ahead of me."

Christopher Lee
How Bad Did Things Get And Why? It's been theorized that British actor Christopher Lee has more screen credits than any actor in the history of the medium. While that's probably hard to quantify, it might actually be true. Lee got his first big break starring as Dracula in a series of horror films for Hammer while working steadily in genre films and historical dramas (in 1970 alone he's credited with having starred in ten films). 1973's "Wicker Man" offered a bit of a career resurgence thanks to its artfulness and "cult" status, and next year he starred as a James Bond bad guy in "The Man with the Golden Gun" but after that slipped into the habit of steadily working without doing anything really extraordinary, appearing in everything from Disney's "Return from Witch Mountain" to Steven Spielberg's disastrous "1941." More often than not the projects he was involved in were beneath him and slightly embarrassing. How could an actor of his character, grace, and wit really put in a performance in "Police Academy: Mission to Moscow?" Lee was proof positive that just because you appeared in everything doesn't mean people would remember you for anything.
What Turned It Around? The children that used to thrill to Lee's creaky exploits in those old horror classics were now filmmakers themselves and more than willing to give Lee a second chance. If you want to get specific, it was probably Lee's role as the villainous wizard Saruman in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy that really turned things around. Lee is an avid fan of Tolkien's text and even met with the author about appearing as Gandalf in an eventual movie version of the books (he was the only person in the crew to have met him). Hot on the heels of "Lord of the Rings," George Lucas also cast him in the latter two installments of his "Star Wars" prequel trilogy (Lucas is a noted Hammer fan and has cast many of the original actors in his films). For a while Lee was in the two highest grossing movies in any given year.
How Well Has He Fared Since? Lee continued this post-'Rings' winning streak by re-teaming with director Tim Burton (whom he had worked with on "Sleepy Hollow") for several more films—"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "The Corpse Bride," "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," "Alice in Wonderland," "Frankenweenie" (sort of) and "Dark Shadows" and collaborating with Martin Scorsese and John Landis. Not only did he get to revive his Saruman performance for Jackson's three "Hobbit" films but in 2011 got to film a sequel to "The Wicker Man" called "The Wicker Tree" and made "The Resident," which marked his first Hammer movie since 1976's "To the Devil a Daughter." Lee is now 91 years-old and truly unstoppable.
What Has He Got To Say About It? When the U.K.'s The Telegraph asked Lee earlier this year about reports that his friend Johnny Depp would be retiring from films, Lee responded: “There are frustrations—people who lie to you, people who don’t know what they are doing, films that don’t turn out the way you had wanted them to—so, yes, I do understand. I always ask myself 'well, what else could I do?’. Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life. I have some interests outside of acting—I sing and I’ve written books, for instance—but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose. I’m realistic about the amount of work I can get at my age, but I take what I can, even voice-overs and narration."

If you've noticed the white male bias in the above list, well, so have we, but aside from maybe Eddie Murphy's "Dreamgirls" role, which didn't exactly lead to a long-term movie career renaissance outside of fat suits and “Shrek”spin-offs, we were hard pushed to think of many black or other minority actors who have made this kind of comeback (though there are several whose careers have been resuscitated by TV shows.) Similarly, while we feature two women in this sampler, other examples are rare—Demi Moore arguably managed to grab a moment of spotlight back after her hiatus by looking unfeasibly hot in “Charlie’s Angels 2” but that hasn’t translated into ongoing movie success, and the movie blows so we didn’t want to talk about it. So conclusion: Hollywood more likely to proffer second chances to white males above any other demographic. Also, water wet.

In fact in general we avoided actors who’ve been reborn on TV, as they’re becoming too many to number and could certainly do with their own list someday, as could those actors, outside of the likes of Travolta and Keitel, who owe whatever green shoots their careers are showing to Quentin Tarantino’s trademark penchant for nostalgia casting. However, whether many of them actually continued to grace our screens after their QT moment faded is highly debatable. Elsewhere Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer have both experienced late-career resurgences, but while both have done some crap in their time, neither was ever really consistently on the outs enough to make latter-day success seem like anything more than a natural, if happy evolution.

Still, if there’s someone you wish we’d covered, feel free to shout them out below. And tell us too who you think is most likely to be the next actor fortune smiles upon in the endless game of Hollywood hot-or-not.—Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro

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10 Comments

  • Leslie | November 15, 2013 9:03 PMReply

    Julia Roberts' comeback after My Best Friend's Wedding and wasn't Katherine Hepburn famously "box office poison" for some portion of her career?

  • Richard | November 14, 2013 11:21 AMReply

    Josh Brolin surely worth a mention.

  • luke | November 7, 2013 4:22 PMReply

    The Phantom Menace was well received by critics when it was released, with many praising the effects, designs and action,. Critics mainly blasted the weak plot and the inclusion of Jar Jar Binks, as well as Jake Lloyds acting skills. Fan reaction was at first mixed to positive but steadily worsened over time into becoming somewhat of a joke in Star Wars fandom. Neesons career wasn't ruined by the film-in fact it was a a further boost in his career as he became more of a household name.

  • nico | November 2, 2013 7:20 PMReply

    ellen burstyn! she made kind of a comeback with "requiem for a dream"

  • BRYAN MILLS | November 1, 2013 5:58 AMReply

    Neeson was never fu**d up like rourke or travolta

    comeback ?

    he was never gone to begin with

  • Juan Meyer | November 1, 2013 12:45 AMReply

    As strange as it might sound, although she has never been away, Meryl Streep made a comeback. During the Nineties she worked hard to turn around her career with comedy, She Devil, Defending your Life, Death Becomes Her and even action The River Wild. She was admired but not loved. The Bridges of Madison gave her a break. But I would say she didn't really explode till The Devil Wears Prada, when she finally became bankable.

  • Sven | November 1, 2013 5:10 AM

    I agree!

  • Anonymouse | October 31, 2013 9:59 PMReply

    I think Mickey Rourke's is the most heartbreaking and most likely to return to his prior destructive tendencies. I think he was robbed of the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in The Wrestler. Kudos to Sean Penn for acknowledging so during his speech.

  • DUDDI | October 31, 2013 8:36 PMReply

    It's "Mad City" (co starring the great Dustin Hoffman) for Travolta not "Broken City" (2013; starring Wahlberg & Crowe)

  • Tim | October 31, 2013 7:16 PMReply

    Jack: As good as it gets?

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