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When the Dim Star Shines Again: A History of Hollywood Comebacks

Who hasn’t dreamt of making it big at least once in their life? Many desire a career in the entertainment industry though it’s haunted by instability. All it takes is one mistake or one injustice…and one’s career may cease for good. While not all stars who try to revive their career succeed, those truly passionate prove the world otherwise - it is never too late to begin again.

While Hollywood seems to be experiencing a boom of career comebacks lately, it is not a new concept for the film industry. Rather, there have been numerous comebacks within Hollywood’s history, though these recent resurgences reflect cultural shifts in the industry. Before that, however, let’s look at how some actors managed a career renaissance in the past.

When the name Marlon Brando is mentioned, many automatically think of one of the best actors of the twentieth century or even one of the best actors of all time. The method actor started acting on stage in the 1940s, with his big break in 1951 with Elia Kazan’s adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, for which Brando secured his first Academy Award nomination. Over the next decade, he played roles such as Mark Anthony (Julius Caesar), Emiliano Zapata (Viva Zapata!), and Napoleon Bonaparte (Désirée). However, in the ‘60s, the career of one of Hollywood’s starlets tumbled when he starred in the commercially unsuccessful Mutiny on the Bounty. After that, Brando’s career was tainted for the remainder of the ‘60s. It wasn’t until a decade later a second chance at his career took the form of a test screen for Francis Coppola’s The Godfather. Considered a cinematic masterpiece, The Godfather reclaimed Brando’s glory, winning him his second Academy Award. Following his newfound success, he starred in more iconic films, like the 1978’s Superman and 1979’s Apocalypse Now.

Credit: Picryl

With the rise of independent cinema in the 1990s, more films were produced, with more actors getting their time to shine but also burn. A notable example of an actor whose turbulent life turned him into Hollywood’s outcast is Robert Downey Jr.. With his acting debut at the mere age of 5 years old, his whole life has revolved around films. Alongside starring in feature films, he was part of the Brat Pack or Saturday Night Live. Yet, his first critically acclaimed role came in 1992 when he played Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin, earning him his first Academy Award nomination. However, while he had a promising career, his personal life took a toll. Between 1996 and 2001, Downey’s drug problems led to multiple arrests, unsuccessful treatments and jail time. This caused him to lose numerous roles, including the beloved character ‘Larry’ in the TV series Ally McBeal. After five years of escapades, he was ready to start from scratch, landing a role in Elton John’s video clip for the single “I Want Love”. Though Downey began appearing in several films again, including David Fincher’s nuanced thriller Zodiac, it wouldn’t be until 2008 that he would land the role of a lifetime as Tony Stark in Iron Man. Catapulting him to global fame, he became one of Hollywood’s most popular and highest-paid actors.

Another star of the late 80s and 90s whose personal life turned their career upside down is Winona Ryder. Known for her versatility, Ryder rose to stardom via her performance as Lydia in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, which led to other prominent roles in films like Heathers, Edward Scissorhands or Little Women. Just a year after receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, solidifying her celebrity status, Ryder got caught in a shoplifting incident, which resulted in three-year probation and fines. Following the court case, she took a break from acting, describing the period as a “rough time” in a 2022 interview with Harper’s Bazaar. Ryder didn’t know “if that part of [her] life was over” until playing a leading role in the 2006 adventure-comedy The Darwin Awards alongside a few more indie films. Though she gained positive attention once again when she appeared in the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, it was her remarkable performance as Joyce Byers in Netflix’s Stranger Things that retrieved her popularity in Hollywood.

While the Hollywood comebacks of the past have been mostly about letting go and forgiving those who made mistakes, the new age of comebacks uncovers the grim reality of Hollywood itself.

Without a doubt, one of the most powerful comebacks of 2022 is Ke Huy Quan. Known as ‘Short Round’ in Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom and Data in Goonies, Quan’s career was just starting before, besides a few other TV roles or small roles in films like Breathing Fire or Encino Man, the momentum of his career slowed down. While still passionate about films, he retreated from the spotlight due to the lack of opportunities for Asian actors in Hollywood. However, he didn’t abandon the industry completely. Graduating from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, he worked as a stunt & fight choreographer and as an assistant director on Wong Kar Wai’s 2046. But what prompted him to want to return in front of the camera? In an interview for GQ, he stated:

“For a long time I thought I was at peace with it, but something was missing, and I really didn't know what it was until Crazy Rich Asians came out. I saw my fellow Asian actors up on the screen, and I had serious FOMO because I wanted to be up there with them.”

Once Quan realized there were more opportunities for Asian actors, he took the chance and was cast in the massively successful Everything Everywhere All At Once, which received eleven Academy Award nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Quan. In fact, during awards season, Quan won over sixty awards, including a Golden Globe and SAGA award, becoming the first Asian actor to win in that category. Being cast in the TV series Loki and American Born Chinese and the film The Electric Slate, directed by the Russo brothers, audiences will get to see more of Quan’s acting abilities in the future.

Similarly to Quan, Brendan Fraser withdrew from the spotlight due to unfortunate circumstances beyond his control. While he found success with the 1992 comedy Encino Man, it wouldn’t be until George of the Jungle and The Mummy franchise that he would become one of Hollywood’s action star heart-throbs. Moreover, he proved himself to be versatile in his skills, receiving acclaim for his roles in dramas like Gods and Monsters and Crash.

His action roles took a toll on him though, as the various stunts he performed caused him to undergo multiple surgeries. Alongside that, he was sexually assaulted in 2003 by HFPA member Philip Berk. Fraser first disclosed this information in 2018’s GQ interview, admitting that he thought of making the information public when it happened but deciding to not disclose it because he “didn't want to contend with how that made [him] feel, or it becoming part of [his] narrative”. The shocking encounter, however, stuck with him, leading to depression. On whether he believes it affected his career he said: “I don't know if this curried disfavor with the group, with the HFPA. But the silence was deafening”.

Credit: Flickr

With the injuries, the assault, depression, divorce and the loss of his mother too, Fraser faded into the background, though he stayed involved within the industry, working on small-budget and indie films. In 2021 however, he got cast in Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of The Whale, for which he received praise from critics and various nominations including Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. He also got a Golden Globe nomination but decided to not attend the ceremony due to his negative experience with the HFPA. In the future, he is set to star in Martin Scorcese’s Killers of the Flower Moon and Max Barbakow’s Brothers.

While seeing these comebacks an inevitable question raises - what does it say about the ethical integrity of Hollywood and the film industry? In the case of actors like Brando, Ryder or Downey Jr., it took years for Hollywood to take them seriously as actors again due to either the movies they were part of or their personal affairs. Yet, the cases of Quan and Fraser are vastly different. Quan’s experience is eye-opening for many as they finally begin to realize the extent of Hollywood’s lack of diversity and how soul-crushing it must be for those who are passionate but are simply not given the opportunities. While Fraser’s retreat from the spotlight was caused by a combination of things, the assault played a significant part in it. As it happened in 2003, way before the #MeToo era, disclosing such information to the public could have damaged his career even further. Yet, while abusers like Harvey Weinstein have been exposed to the public, not everyone is believed about their experiences. Do these two comebacks suggest that Hollywood is experiencing a shift and a bright future for disadvantaged actors? Let’s hope so.

Edited by Barney Nuttall, Film and TV Deputy Editor