The Greatest Career Renaissance Roles in Movie History
Throughout the history of cinema, Hollywood has continually shown that it loves a comeback story for a great actor teetering on the edge of irrelevance almost as much as it loves an actor turning their life around after a drug addiction, and slightly less than it loves a thousand superhero movies. Guess which one of Robert Downey Sr.’s children will come up in this thread.
Searching for success in entertainment is as torrid and temperamental an affair as serving as any A-list actor’s personal assistant — it’s full of ups and downs, unexpected fallouts and more than one declaration that you’ll never work again in this town shortly before you find yourself back in good graces for seemingly no reason at all. Even at the highest level, a career in screen acting can find itself on the brink of extinction on a moment’s notice, only to turn around with an Oscar-worthy opportunity owed entirely to serendipity.
The popular film appreciation account @TheCinesthetic recently polled its Twitter followers for examples of actors who were seemingly at the end of their careers before a single fantastic film role pulled them back into the spotlight. Here are some of the top picks…
John Travolta in ‘Pulp Fiction’
One of the Church of Scientology’s original golden boys, Travolta was among the most sought-after multi-hyphenate actors of the 1970s. He was a singing, dancing, hit-making machine whose performances in Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy cemented his status as a generational star. Then, a series of financial flops in the early 1980s threatened to sideline him from superstar status. Even a reunion with Olivia Newton-John in the 1983 rom-com Two of a Kind couldn’t shake his label as a critical and commercial poison, and the next 10 years of his career were nearly unrecognizable compared to his peak.
Then, of course, Quentin Tarantino wrote his magnum opus in Pulp Fiction and couldn’t book his Reservoir Dogs buddy Michael Madsen for the gig, opening the door for Travolta to win the role of Vincent Vega after offering to do the film on a discount. Suddenly, Danny Zuko was back in the driver’s seat.
Robert Downey Jr. in ‘Iron Man’
The most obvious and obligatory entry in the list, Downey Jr.’s comeback performance as the wise-cracking, cave-dwelling, box-of-scraps building Tony Stark in the 2008 film is perhaps the most impactful and widely appreciated return to form in all of movie history. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, the former teen star found himself in constant trouble with the law and his own brain chemistry, once famously telling a judge of his struggle with hard drug addiction, “It's like I have a shotgun in my mouth, and I've got my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal."
Then, in the late 2000s, Downey Jr. got clean and grew a goatee, suddenly catapulting himself into a higher stratum of superstar than he ever enjoyed before as his universally applauded performance launched the defining film franchise of the 21st century.
Mickey Rourke in ‘The Wrestler’
The professional boxer-turned-actor has experienced numerous peaks and valleys throughout his multiple careers, and, following what could have been his final success with 2005’s Sin City, you wouldn’t fault any movie-goer or film critic for thinking that the gruff, rugged action star had reached the apotheosis of his time as the stock brawny brawling tough guy in movies too gritty for their own good.
Then, in 2008, Darren Aronofsky offered Rourke the role of Robin Ramzinski, aka Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a past-his-prime professional wrestler who finds raw, emotional redemption in The Wrestler, fully deconstructing the macho man archetype in award-worthy fashion. It wouldn’t take long for Rourke to rejoin the big-budget movie business when he partnered with our last entry in the ultimately disappointing Iron Man 2.
Michael Keaton in ‘Birdman’
The highest level of Hollywood comeback is, of course, the metatextual tour de force. Though the cynical may call the practice “stunt casting” or “Oscar-bait,” there is an undeniable romance to the director selecting a lead actor whose own life story connects to that of their character. For years after retiring from the role, Keaton was synonymous with Batman, and though he continued to put out powerhouse performances in supporting roles, it seemed like his leading man days were behind him by the time arthouse darling director Alejandro González Iñárritu recruited him to play a former superhero superstar turned sensitive stage actor in 2014, netting Keaton his first Golden Globe win and Academy Award nomination.
Three years later, Keaton was back in the superhero business, playing the delightfully multifaceted antagonist Vulture in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Call it the Unexpected Virtue of Irony.