On The Comeback Trail For Actors

By: Daniel Reynolds

If you haven’t seen it already, go and watch Birdman (Or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It’s director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s great comedic take on ego and culture and How We Live Now. It’s also a technical marvel of a film. In a few months, because of Birdman, you’ll be hearing the name Michael Keaton. A lot. He’s the star of Birdman and will surely be nominated for many awards due to his winning and heartfelt performance. If you are a fan of the classic Tim Burton Batman movies (or Multiplicity, I guess), this will be a good thing. But others, young people and Christopher Nolan disciples mostly, may be left scratching their heads. And, it’s a fair question to ask: why the hell should we care about Michael Keaton in 2014?

In honour of Keaton’s real return in Birdman this year, I figured I’d ask: what other actors have popped up in 2014 for another kick at the can of success? There are some who continue to grind out comeback movements started years earlier. Others are definitely grasping. Most are on the downward slope of the age curve – but that’s Hollywood for you.

We’ll review each case with a WIN or BIN (as in, chucked in the DVD discount bin) decision.

Michael Keaton comebacking in a big way.

Michael Keaton comebacking in a big way.

Jackie Earle Haley

You know Jackie Earle Haley? His comeback trail actually began with an Oscar nomination for his supporting performance in 2006’s Little Children. Haley played a sexual deviant. It’s the kind of role that gets you kudos, but doesn’t exactly scream “leading man!” But that’s OK. Haley cut his teeth as a child actor (Bad News Bears) and, well, he’s aged into the body of a small, bald man with beady eyes. That’s good for a turn as Rorshach in Watchmen and a part in this year’s Robocop but I think he’s hit his ceiling.

Decision: Haley’s career is basically the best possible outcome. Success as a child actor rarely translates into anything but trouble, so to see Haley become a sought after character actor is comforting. WIN

Reese Witherspoon

Fair point, Witherspoon never really went away. Since her Oscar win in 2005 – a bizarre death knell for some actors – she’s been in a movie every year. In 2012, she was even in two. But ask yourself: did you care about any of them? Are there some serious Water For Elephant stans? Are people stumping for How Do You Know (itself a poorly received James L. Brooks comeback)? For goodness sakes, she made a movie with Atom Egoyan! It’s not quite bottom of the barrel, but Witherspoon could definitely see the wood grain. Even if Mud was obscuring it.

Still, in 2014, Witherspoon gets serious. She’s already attached herself to a different rising Canadian director (Philippe Falardeau) to make The Good Lie. It disappeared without a trace, but I have this feeling that has more to do with the handling of the marketing, than with the presumed “toxic” presence of Witherspoon. Then, she jumped into the psychedelic melting pot that is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Honestly, I have no idea what to expect. And most significantly, Witherspoon is walking tall with another Canadian director (Jean-Marc Vallee, arguably one of the best going right now) to make Wild. And how about that: considerable Oscar buzz is mounting. This is a solid 2014.

Decision: I’ve stayed away from mentioning any of Witherspoon’s less than flattering moments in the press. A role like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, a woman on a journey dealing with tragedy, is just the kind of winning narrative that boosts a wanton actress back up the mountain. WIN

Mel Gibson

Somewhere around the time when we realized that Gibson wasn’t much of a director and perhaps wasn’t as charming as we believed, his career flew off a cliff. This may have something to do with a bunch of drunken rambling over the past decade. Moving on. His “true” comeback attempt was The Beaver, a film that embraced its damaged star and attempted to rehabilitate him in the eyes of the public. It didn’t take. Since then Gibson has been doing action movies and B-schlock. It fits in with where he began his career (Mad Max! Lethal Weapon!), but feels desperate today. In 2014 we’re left with a role in the extinction event The Expendables.

Decision: This failure feels both deserved and sad. Being a Gibson fan in 2014 feels dirty in retrospect, like we were all conned into believing he was kind of a good guy. BIN

Hey Mickey, how's the comeback going?

Hey Mickey, how’s the comeback going?

Mickey Rourke

More than almost any other actor Mickey Rourke does not give a shit. You want somebody to play Marv in Sin City? Sure. How about a gangster in Passion Play who lords over an actual angel fallen to earth? OK! And who wouldn’t want to be Whiplash in an Iron Man movie? Of course. For a comeback that reached its apex in the most inauspicious way (twinned as it was with Darren Aronofsky’s own mission to get back in the good books of Hollywood), Rourke sure has a penchant for fettering it all away. In 2014 he reprised his role as Marv, the spot that garnered him some renewed attention in the first place. Unfortunately, Sin City as an idea is about five years too late. Like many characters in it, Marv is as nihilistic as they come. It was the role only Rourke could play.

Decision: For his performance in The Wrestler – perhaps the most perfect pairing of actor and material – Rourke’s return gets a WIN. For almost everything else: straight BIN

Hilary Swank

With Hilary Swank you’re always left asking: where have you been? In 1999 she explodes onto the scene with Boys Don’t Cry and wins an Oscar. She makes almost nothing of note for five years (though she was in Nolan’s Insomnia, remember that?) before resurfacing in 2004 for Million Dollar Baby. She wins a second Oscar. Then she spends a solid decade floating through films that are clearly beneath her (P.S. I Love You, The Reaping) and failed prestige pictures (ConvictionAmelia). Still, she’s popped up again to anchor Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman. Perhaps she’s a bit of a long shot for any award nominations this time around. But, on the other hand, would you be surprised?

Decision: Swank seems to just keep ploughing away, working on films she believes in and turning in performances that are almost always note-perfect. The Homesman has her playing a version of the same dogged woman in the old west. WIN

Edward Norton

And so we come full circle back to Birdman. As the second male lead, and most charismatic foil for Keaton, Norton easily reminds us why he is one of the best actors alive today. He also plays, essentially, a version of himself: an actor so supremely talented and confident that he can’t help but impose his will on whatever production he’s involved in. This is the man who stuck a finger in the eye of almighty Marvel. He could have been making Hulk money now! Instead, Norton has popped up on Modern Family, and Wes Anderson films. He’s been mostly forgotten in Stone and Pride and Glory. He even played twins in Leaves of Grass. It feels like in Birdman he is at least slyly acknowledging the facts of his downfall from top tier movie star to supporting role player. For Norton, having the talent appears to be enough.

Decision: With a potential Oscar nomination coming his way, let’s give Norton the WIN – though he definitely would tell me to F off.

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