Not many things build more momentum for a movie than a comeback performance does. While some actors can find this term offensive – i.e., Johnny Depp for his role as Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, some actors yearn for it in the hope of reigniting their careers. Often, actors can churn out stellar performance after stellar performance, but the overall quality of the movie is letting them down. Maybe it has a weak script, terrible pacing, strange editing choices, or no chemistry between supporting actors. But every once in a while, these actors rise from the ashes and blow us away with a comeback performance that catapults them straight back to the front of the A list!
In the vein of Hollywood’s latest comeback – Brendan Fraser in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale – here are five comeback performances you don’t want to miss!
1. John Travolta – Pulp Fiction
Having shot to fame with Saturday Night Fever in 1977 and immediately following up with the classic musical Grease the following year, Travolta was destined to be the next big thing. By the early 90s, however, he had already begun to fade away from such roles and wasn’t quite in the eyes of the critics anymore, starring in movies such as the Look Who’s Talking trilogy. While these movies may hold some nostalgia in your heart if you were a kid in that era, they weren’t exactly on par with his Oscar-nominated performance over a decade prior.
Lucky for Travolta, though, there was a hip new filmmaker on the scene who was dead set on casting him in his new movie. Fresh off the success of his ultra-violent, groundbreaking first entry into the movie industry, Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino devised his wish list of actors he wanted for his next movie, Pulp Fiction. Having starred in one of Tarantino’s favorite movies of all time, Blowout, Travolta was top of that list to play the lead role of Vincent Vega.
Despite what the fat cats with the money said, Tarantino, stuck to his guns and fought for Travolta to get the role of Vega, and boy, did he deliver! Pulp Fiction became an instant classic, creating its sub-genre of crime films. It bagged two Oscars and gave Travolta his first nomination since his breakout performance in Saturday Night Fever.
After the success of Pulp Fiction, Travolta’s fire was well and truly lit once again! He kept the mobster theme going and played Chili Palmer, a gangster who has a change of heart and penetrates the film industry in Get Shorty. In addition, he starred alongside Nicolas Cage in John Woo’s action epic Face/Off and played Governor Jack Stanton in Mike Nichols’ critically acclaimed drama Primary Colors.
While some might say he has never delivered a performance quite as nuanced and electrifying as Vincent Vega, it’s safe to say this man is as talented as they come. It just so happens that his comeback performance may be one that will forever define him. But who’s complaining? Many actors never get that role of a lifetime!
2. Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler
Just like his filmmaking peer, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky also gives solid actors the comebacks they deserve. Fourteen years before The Whale, Aronofsky gave us The Wrestler, a heartbreaking tale of a once-famous wrestler battling with life outside of the ring as he tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter.
Penned to be the next big thing after starring roles in movies such as Diner, Angel Heart, and the steamy erotic thriller 91/2 Weeks in the 80s, Rourke was quickly starring in low-budget actions like Double Team and Point Blank by the late 90s. Unfortunately, this promising actor had faded from the limelight and even took a questionable career change!
Feeling like he was self-destructing and having no respect for himself as an actor, Rourke thought his only route was to return to boxing. Although he had quite an impressive record, scoring 12 consecutive first-round knockouts at one point, Rourke suffered some pretty extreme boxing injuries. He broke his nose twice, split his tongue, and suffered a compressed cheekbone forcing him to undergo several reconstructive surgeries. It’s safe to say that this affected his career in Hollywood and then some. While many won’t admit it, Hollywood is a very vain place. People are favored for their looks, and many take extreme measures to combat this and get ahead in a highly competitive environment.
After some supporting roles in movies such as Man on Fire, opposite Denzel Washington, and alongside Bruce Willis in Sin City, Rourke finally landed the role he had been waiting years for as Randy’ The Ram’ Robinson in The Wrestler. Understated and reserved, subtle yet volatile, Rourke’s performance was beautiful and haunting. The story of a man seeking redemption, analyzing his life, and clawing for a second chance has been done many times before but rarely as perfectly as this. A performance so perfect it got Rourke his first Oscar nomination and won him his first BAFTA.
Wrestling fan or not, The Wrestler is a must-see and will have you binging Mickey Rourke movies for weeks after viewing! Rourke went on to star in movies like The Expendables, Iron Man 2, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.
3. Nicolas Cage – The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
While blowing us away with actioners like Con Air, The Rock, and Gone in Sixty Seconds, Nicolas Cage has proven fantastic dramatic chops! Winning an Oscar for his role as an alcoholic screenwriter in Leaving Las Vegas and garnishing another nomination for his lead role in Adaption., we can’t argue that this man can act. However, he has taken some questionable roles across his career and is known for being somewhat particular and often interfering in the movie’s creative process. Whether it be a string of straight-to-DVD roles that went massively under the radar or demanding to play a role as a white Jamaican man, Cage can explain his reasons for all of this.
Talking with GQ earlier this year, Cage was the first to admit that some of his movie choices over the last few years have not quite been on par with that of his earlier work. While the odd gem like Mandy has snuck through, Cage admits most of them didn’t work. After opening up about his struggles, Cage stated that he made up to four movies a year to keep his mother from being institutionalized. Cage’s mother had reportedly suffered from mental health issues for most of her life. Cage told GQ, “I’ve got all these creditors and the IRS, and I’m spending $20,000 a month trying to keep my mother out of a mental institution..”
As well as all this, Cage has been paying off a mountain of debt to the IRS and just trying to keep his head above water. So when the chance to play a fictionalized version of himself came along, he jumped at it and gave us the performance of a lifetime! Not only did it give him the money he needed to clear his debt, but it also allowed him to explore the wacky sides of his personality that he is so famous (or infamous) for!
In The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Cage plays Nic Cage, the once super famous Con Air and Face/Off star. Grappling with an existential crisis and trying to assemble some relationship with his daughter and ex-wife, he takes one last job as a special guest appearance at a party in Mallorca. While on the island, Cage bonds with super-fan Javi, the man who hired him. The two become inseparable, like two peas in a pod. But that comes crashing down when the CIA hires Cage to spy on Javi, believing him to be a dangerous arms dealer.
Cage delivers a dazzling performance and channels his iconic characters throughout his career. He digs deep and throws himself into the role, touching on real-life personal problems and bringing them to life for the big screen. He has no ego be seen, as he is entirely unafraid to poke fun at himself and dramatize his traits and weaknesses. If you haven’t seen this yet, you should do, as it is guaranteed to be a starting point for the epic return of a movie icon! What a comeback!