A good comeback is like a great third act in American lives; it's the triumphant return, the end of the story. James Cagney retired in 1961, then made a triumphant comeback in 1981 with Ragtime. But a good movie never deals with the aftermath of the comeback. Just as often as not, the comeback leads to nothing. Cagney died a few years after the hubbub. Though we all love a good comeback, the following is a list of comebacks that weren't the end of the story, and didn't provide the inspiring coda that they could have.
1. Sylvester Stallone in Cop Land (1997)
Stallone's is one of the most fascinating, dramatic careers in cinema. His fame is so huge that his name and face -- or at least his characters -- are known the world over. He had a fairytale rise to fame with Rocky (1976), complete with tales of writing it in a weekend. He has a lot of charisma, and earned an Oscar nomination for acting. He has directed eight feature films and contributed to the screenplays for nearly twenty. People whisper about how smart and savvy he is behind the scenes.
Yet he has made more expensive flops than just about any other actor, alive or dead, and he's difficult to take seriously anymore; his image is that of a monosyllabic dope. In 1997, James Mangold wrote a terrific role for him, which required him to play sad, saggy, dragging rather than pumped up and heroic.
He pulled it off spectacularly, even if the rest of Mangold's film doesn't quite live up to its centerpiece. Stallone should have gone on to bigger and better things, but instead, he reverted right back to brain-dead action duds like Get Carter and Driven. Interestingly, he had another small comeback recently with Rocky Balboa (2006), but again squandered it with the follow-up, this year's Rambo. Regardless, Stallone's life will someday make a great book.
2. Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
Grier was a box office star in another dimension, in the drive-ins and inner city theaters during the Blaxploitation days; she could "open" a movie better than most mainstream stars at the time. When that run ended, her career floundered, and she was relegated to supporting roles in forgettable films (one of her high points was in a Steven Seagal film). When Tarantino wrote this rich role for her, it looked as if his magic would work again as it had for John Travolta.
She stepped up and gave an astonishing performance, exhausted, but wise. But Jackie Brown didn't draw the crowds, and Grier was unjustly overlooked during the year-end awards (although, frankly, so was Robert De Niro). And after that, the parts just didn't come in, though she did appear in Jane Campion's bizarre, breathtaking Holy Smoke (1999). On a side note, Michael Keaton (who was a big star for a brief period in the late 1980s) also appeared in this movie, and also failed to benefit from it.
3. Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights (1997)
What was it about 1997 that brought all the old stars back in interesting roles? Perhaps everyone was trying for a Tarantino/Travolta repeat. Reynolds was once a favorite of Peter Bogdanovich and Robert Aldrich, and, of course starred in Deliverance. He was the number one box office star for five years in a row in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but mainly in substance-free films. (How many Smoky and the Bandit or Cannonball Run sequels did we really need?)
Years later Paul Thomas Anderson saw that Reynolds could project a kind of fatherly tough love in his tale of a tight-knit group of porno filmmakers; he was good enough that he landed his first and only Oscar nomination (usurped by Robin Williams). Since then, he has worked steadily, but mainly in junk like The Dukes of Hazzard and the soulless 2005 remake of his own great 1974 film The Longest Yard. This year, he has worked with Uwe Boll (!) and appeared in the universally despised Deal. Is it possible that he's not quite as savvy as Stallone?
4. Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream (2000)
This is an example of how it usually goes in Hollywood. In the 1970s, Burstyn was among the very best available, a combination of sexy and tough, but high-quality, with memorable roles in films like The Last Picture Show, The Exorcist and Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, not to mention winning an Oscar and several other nominations. But as soon as she started to show the slightest sign of maturity, the roles began drying up.
She appeared in more and more television, while her male co-stars kept working and younger actresses landed the big roles. Years later, Darren Aronofsky gave her another chance to shine with her dazzling, desperate performance as a dumpy housewife addicted to diet pills. She received her sixth Oscar nomination, but what followed? The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood (bleh) and more TV. When the same thing happened to Bette Davis's career, she at least wound up with an interesting second life in exploitation and horror films (thanks to her comeback hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?).
5. Bela Lugosi in Ninotchka (1939)
One can argue that Lugosi, in Dracula (1931), is one of the most famous faces in movie history. But Lugosi's career after that slid drastically downhill, embodied by a number of increasingly cheap horror and exploitation films, eventually ending with his trio of Ed Wood flicks. His only break came in 1939 when the celebrated, irreplaceable director Ernst Lubitsch cast him in Kommissar Razinin, in this legendary comedy opposite Greta Garbo (and written by Billy Wilder).
The film was a huge success and was nominated for four Oscars. I've never come across anyone who wrote much about Lugosi in this film, and I doubt he got much consideration for it, especially since his other roles the same year included Son of Frankenstein (as Ygor), the Ritz Brothers comedy The Gorilla and the sci-fi serial The Phantom Creeps. The following year, his career continued as before, and all hope of Ninotchka leading to bigger things was lost.
6. Marlon Brando in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris (both 1972)
Despite having been a brute force in the 1950s, Brando was practically unemployable by 1971. His reputation as a demanding troublemaker sent financiers running for cover. These two films made a huge impact both critically and financially and Brando received Oscar nominations for both (Tango was released in America the following year). However, this comeback did nothing to restore Brando to his former glory. Rather, although he was now a box office draw, he continued on his stubborn, difficult streak.
His performances were unnecessarily showy (The Missouri Breaks) or expensive (Superman, Apocalypse Now) or both, his films flopped as often as they hit (Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, The Island of Dr. Moreau) and some were deemed un-releasable (The Brave, Free Money). On the other hand, I find that Brando in this late period found a new kind of warmth and lightness missing from his early work, especially in comedies like The Freshman and Don Juan DeMarco and in lightweight entertainments like The Score. He also earned his eighth and final Oscar nomination in 1989 for A Dry White Season. So maybe a little humility was a good thing!
7. Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy (1983)
Jerry Lewis was one of the top U.S. box office draws in the 1950s (with Dean Martin) and in the 1960s (solo). He directed some of the most visually inventive comedies of that period, with The Bellboy (1960), The Ladies Man (1961) and The Nutty Professor (1963), among others. At some point toward the end of the decade, his career simply crashed. Lewis attempted to direct again in the early 1980s with Cracking Up, and though the French loved it (they viewed him as an auteur), it flopped here.
But at the same time, Martin Scorsese showed that Lewis could still be a powerful presence, taking his sense of humor and veering it toward darkness. The King of Comedy is an undisputed classic today, and if it had been understood as such back then, things might have been different. Lewis might have had the chance to participate more directly in things like the 1996 Nutty Professor remake, or better still, to keep making his own films. On the plus side, he has continued to turn up sporadically in interesting things like Arizona Dream (1993) and Funny Bones (1995).