8 Great Hollywood Comeback Stories
Here, we’ve compiled eight of our favourite comeback stories in Tinseltown’s history.
Helen Mirren gave me a puzzled look from across the table in a hotel room in downtown Toronto. I’d just asked her if she felt that her Last Station co-star Christopher Plummer had experienced a career renaissance in recent years – topped by his Oscar win in 2012 for Best Supporting Actor in Beginners – and clearly she didn’t view his professional trajectory in the same way I did.
“No, absolutely not,” she laughed, almost consolingly. “No, Chris’ career has been absolutely constant … But the thing is he was always an incredibly substantial theatre actor and big theatre star … Your film career, for whatever reason, because you don’t want to do film for two or three years and then you come back and you do a film – your career, over a long period of time, fluctuates. But no, I would say Chris’ work, life work as an actor, has been a constant thing. And also, I would say mine.”
And so there you have it – Christopher Plummer is not a comeback story. There are, however, a number of Hollywood heavyweights who did rebound from tough times, personal problems and bad reviews to rejuvenate their careers. And especially today, when franchise films rule the box office and younger stars often prove interchangeable, these older Hollywood legends remained, and in some cases still remain, in demand and bankable on their own merits, without the need for a superhero or sexy vampire franchise to lure in fans.
Click through for eight of our favourite comeback stories in Tinseltown’s history.
The Backstory: Gloria Swanson was a huge star of silent film and among the actresses vying for the very first Academy Award for Best Actress. She made the transition to talkies with an Oscar-nominated performance in The Trespasser, though it was slim pickings after that. A slew of film flubs followed and soon Swanson was living in New York working in a patent company she founded. She did help a number of people escape Europe during the Second World War, however, which is obviously far more important than acting.
Cue the Comeback: Twenty years after The Trespasser the former silent film star hoping for a comeback hit it big when she signed on to play Norma Desmond, a … well … former silent film star hoping for a comeback in the classic 1950 noir film Sunset Boulevard. The film catapulted Swanson back into the public consciousness and even earned her another Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
From then on…: Swanson made the move into television and theatre, hosting her own TV specials and appearing on other popular shows when she wasn’t lighting up the Great White Way.
The Backstory: Pin-up sensation and star of the silver screen in the 1940s, Rita Hayworth was one of the most famous movie stars on the planet when she married Prince Aly Khan in 1949. The newly minted princess lived with her husband in France, where the couple had one daughter. Unhappy with her life as a princess and the reported philandering of her husband, she left France and headed back to Tinseltown in the early 1950s.
Cue the Comeback: Affair in Trinidad, the 1952 movie that starred Hayworth opposite her Gilda co-star Glenn Ford, became known as the actress’ comeback film. It was a hit at the box office and Hayworth picked up where she left off as one of the biggest silver screen stars going.
From then on…: Hayworth would slip off the radar again in the ensuing years following her marriage to Dick Haymes. When she did return to film in the late 1950s she found some success but never truly reached the heights she’d seen in the past. In the coming decades she moved into theatre and television before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1980.
The Backstory: With a résumé that includes A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, On the Waterfront and Sayonara, among other films, and a list of award nominations a mile long, it’s easy to see why the handsome young Marlon Brando was considered among the top tier talents in Hollywood. But the 1960s were not kind to the screen star’s success at the box office, and the screen star wasn’t always kind to those who had to work with him. The result was a decline in roles and popularity for the once revered actor. That is, until Francis Ford Coppola made Brando an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Cue the Comeback: Despite the fact that Paramount Pictures didn’t want him for the film and a number of conditions the temperamental Brando was forced to agree to in order to take the part, the actor landed what some would argue was his most famous role – Don Vito Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather. Brando, in his late 40s, had to be aged for the role, but he ultimately created one of the most enduring characters in film history. The part earned him his second Oscar for Best Actor and, more importantly, announced to Hollywood that, as both a star and a bankable box office draw, Marlon Brando was back.
From then on…: Not everything Brando touched from then on turned to gold but high profile and critically acclaimed roles in films like Last Tango in Paris, Superman, Apocalypse Now and A Dry White Season ensured Brando remained relevant in Hollywood for most of the rest of his life.
The Backstory: A theatre actress turned Oscar-winning screen star, Hepburn’s films flopped so badly in the mid-1930s that she was pegged “box office poison.”
Cue the Comeback: Hepburn didn’t wait for the studios to figure out what to do with her. Instead, she broke out on her own and after a successful run in the stage play The Philadelphia Story she obtained the film rights and sold them to MGM in exchange for the chance to star in the picture. In 1940 it was a huge success and launched Hepburn back into the Hollywood fold.
From then on…: Hepburn went on to reinvent herself numerous times in the decades to come, in film, television and even as a Shakespearean actress. She worked into her late 80s and is considered among the best film actresses in history.
The Backstory: From teen idol to cool crooner to Hollywood star, Sinatra had done it all when, in the 1950s, his star began to fade. Sure he landed in Las Vegas and led the Rat Pack on some swinging adventures in the desert, but he still longed for a Tinseltown comeback.
Cue the Comeback: Remember the scene in The Godfather when the movie producer finds the horse head in his bed and subsequently casts Corleone family friend Johnny Fontaine in his comeback picture? That whole situation is rumoured to be based on Frank Sinatra’s comeback, which landed him in the Burt Lancaster film From Here to Eternity and eventually on the Oscar stage to accept his Best Supporting Actor award.
From then on…: Sinatra became the Chairman of the Board we all know and love. In the early 1970s he staged another comeback, coming out of retirement to tour and record while regularly performing in Las Vegas.
The Backstory: After runs on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show, Mama’s Family and numerous game shows, White landed her most famous role – Rose Nyland on the hit TV series Golden Girls. But when the series ended in 1992 and a spinoff didn’t take off, White seemed to fade from public consciousness. She appeared in guest roles on TV, landed a part on The Bold and the Beautiful and even won an Emmy for a guest spot on The John Larroquette Show, but she wasn’t a cultural phenomenon until a 2010 Snickers Super Bowl commercial changed everything.
Cue the Comeback: The Snicker’s commercial, which sees White playing football in the mud with a bunch of young people (the original “you’re not you when you’re hungry” ad) triggered a swell of online petitioning for White to host Saturday Night Live. She eventually did and then went on to star in the hit sitcom Hot in Cleveland.
From then on…: She’s been a pop culture mainstay ever since and even landed another TV series – the prank show Betty White’s Off Their Rockers – in 2012, as well as the cover of Zoomer magazine in 2014.
The Backstory: Rocky and Rambo made Stallone a household name and his career has remained fairly steady, with hits in every decade since the 1970s. While he cooled off slightly when he took a stab at different genres, overall Stallone has maintained his A-list cred for most of his career. His “comeback,” however, is his resurgence as an action star – during which he arguably created the “geriaction” genre – long after it was thought his days as Rocky and Rambo were over.
Cue the Comeback: It started with Rocky Balboa in 2006, the hugely successful follow-up to the disappointing Rocky V. Stallone took another stab at Rambo in 2008 with Rambo, which also proved a box office hit. But Stallone’s real resurgence, and the creation of the geriaction genre, came with The Expendables in 2010. The idea of rounding up a bunch of “over the hill” 1980s action heroes for one final run proved a massive hit, spawning multiple sequels. Stallone made it cool for folks over 50 to portray butt-kicking action heroes and, at age 69, he’s still blasting away bad guys all the way to the bank.
From then on…: Stallone’s most recent success is his turn as an aging Rocky Balboa in Creed, which earned him countless award honours and nominations including a record-setting Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor – 39 years after his first Oscar nomination for playing the same character in the original Rocky film.
The Backstory: Oscar-winning actress, fitness video pioneer, stage star and feminist leader – Jane Fonda did it all from the late 1950s until the early 1990s, when she announced her retirement from acting. She’d married billionaire Ted Turner and was enjoying the fruits of her labour until 2005 when, a few years after her divorce from Turner, she decided to return to the big screen.
Cue the Comeback: In 2005, Fonda returned to acting opposite Jennifer Lopez in the comedy Monster-in-Law while, four years later, she ended a near-50 year Broadway drought by returning to Broadway.
From then on…: Fonda’s worked steadily on stage, screen and television since her return to acting. At 78, she currently stars alongside Lily Tomlin in the Netflix comedy-drama Grace and Frankie. And, of course, she graced the cover of Zoomer magazine in 2015.