From the McConaughey’s, to the Downey Jr’s, to the Pattinson’s: every few years Hollywood drags another actor back out from the depths of obscurity to be re-gifted to the world in all their new gleaming glory – and we love it every time.
Whether it’s Keanu “you’re breath-taking” Reeve’s cementing himself as the internet’s darling once again after pursuing a dog-fuelled brutal revenge quest against half the mob; or 2020’s queen of the gay’s “everybody-loves-Laura-Dern” Laura Dern (Laura Dern, Laura DERN, LAURA DERN [LINKspirit awards]), we’ve become accustomed to seeing previously beloved actors become the flavour of the month again after one or a succession of hits in either film or tv, allowing audiences both old and new to rediscover what made them great in the first place.
But how do these career revivals usually come about? What are the steps within Hollywood that are key to springing back to stardom? And why does it happen for some and not others?
Let us look at a few examples from the last few years and see if we can identify how it’s done, and what might invariably be some the issues with this Hollywood revival system too.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR. – END OF A CAREER TO ENDGAME
Robert Downey Jr is perhaps the most extreme revival story since his career goes from quite literally the bottom of the barrel to the biggest franchise star in the world.
As a fringe member of the “Brat Pack”, Downey Jr rose to prominence very early in his twenties – having already grown up in a film-oriented household which ensured his first screen debut at the age of 5 – and by 27 he had already achieved critical acclamation in the industry with an Oscar-nominated performance in Chaplin as the biopic’s titular character in 1992.
Big things were expected from this very clearly talented young actor, however that promise became weighed down throughout the mid-late nineties as the star’s career became beset by drug addictions and multiple rehabs, relapses, arrests, and subsequent firings that signalled to all that Robert Downey Jr was no longer an actor to be touched with any credibility.
And so it wasn’t until producer Joel Silver decided to take a measured gamble on Downey Jr. by casting him in Gothika while withholding 40% of his salary as an insurance against further public troubles and arrests that the actor’s career began to get on track again. His work with Silver on Gothika earned him another casting by the producer in Shane Black’s 2005 dark comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which became instrumental in reviving Downey Jr as an employable leading man again.
Having recently been attached to Marvel’s Iron Man, director Jon Favreau became interested in Robert Downey Jr after seeing him in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and so, after a screen-test, hired the rehabilitated star citing that Downey Jr’s own public past and internal conflicts throughout his life made him a perfect parallel to the charismatic alcoholic playboy Tony Stark.
Of course, as we all know now, Favreau’s fight to convince execs that Robert was indeed Tony Stark paid off a million (billion) times over as Iron Man and Downey Jr since became the lynchpin under which a subsequent 22 films that have changed the entire landscape of the modern film industry have been held.
The Avenger’s/Marvel series with Robert Downey Jr at the centre of it has become the biggest franchise in history, charting the top 10 highest-grossing films 3 times making Downey Jr one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood and the sixth highest-grossing actor of all time.
Talk about from zero to (super)hero – Robert Downey Jr is the prime for actor revivals.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY – THE GREAT MCCONAISSANCE
Matthew McConaughey is a far less extreme case since his career never entirely fell away as such, but rather while he was widely known it seemed like his career was stuck in a fairly middling state rather than hitting the heights it seemed it should have for a long time.
In a mere bit-part role in the beginning of his career, McConaughey became instantly rememberable for his southern twanged “alright alright alright” catchphrase in Dazed and Confused which like many other’s in Richard Linklater’s film became his breakout role. Throughout the rest of the late nineties McConaughey proved himself a worthy leading man with the likes of Contact and Spielberg’s Amistad.
However, despite these dramatic roles McConaughey became entrenched in the mire of endless romcoms all with the exact same poster throughout the 2000s (insert blank poster of Matthew standing back to back with [insert actress name] here). These roles certainly kept him as a somewhat prominent actor, but as he himself has expressed it forced him into a typecast that was not letting his career progress much further.
This self-reflection culminated in a 2-year acting hiatus at the turn of the decade until he was able to refocus and market himself for more dramatic roles again starting with The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011 which kicked off what is now referred to as the McConaissance (2011-2014). Magic Mike was the next big hit and generated an Oscar buzz for the Texan’s performance, however, he would have to wait until Dallas Buyers Club to then be showered by awards including a Best Actor Academy Award.
From here McConaughey booms in a major way with further standout performances in critically adored shows and films like The Wolf of Wall Street, True Detective, and finally Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar to round out his career revival.
ROBERT PATTINSON – EMO VAMPIRE TO EMO BATMAN
I’m including Pattinson here because he has been the most recent – and frankly most enjoyably weird and wonderful – version of this Hollywood career revival.
Robert Pattinson for many was just the sparkly pale brooding “Twilight Guy”; he suffered from the same affliction that many young stars attached to an ongoing teen franchise suffer by becoming emblematic of that character forever after.
And so, much like Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, the game becomes taking on as many weirder roles as possible in the hopes that the relative dissonance will eventually separate you from the teen-pop fandom and typecasting.
Pattinson’s route out of the sparkling vampire hell was primarily though smaller independent pictures in which he could allow a bit more of his weird and wonderful creativity to flourish rather than being stuck to the straight wooden plank boundaries of Edward Cullen.
By the time the Safdie brothers’ Good Time comes around, Pattinson has succinctly removed himself from the Twilight purgatory and begun to be taken notice of again as a critic’s performer. In 2019 he carries Robert Eggers psychological horror The Lighthouse with castmate Willem Defoe to such an expert degree that the pair are fully expectant to each receive Oscar nominations. However as so often happens with horror films, they are left out.
Regardless Pattinson is more than on the map again now becoming attached to Nolan’s Tenet in a supporting role, playing the mad preacher antagonist opposite Tom Holland in Netflix’s The Devil All The Time, and finally his biggest role yet as the new Bruce Wayne in Matt Reeve’s highly anticipated The Batman.
Pattinson himself has also become a recent internet sweetheart with interviews bemusing and delighting fans with just how weird he appears to be, and various memes involving Pattinson flooding social media too.
The secret to the young brit’s career turnaround appears to lie precisely in his interesting creative decisions and the endearing nature of his supposed aloofness and self-awareness which has made him a generally likeable character to watch.
Oh, and he is also just very talented which usually works.
TONI COLLETE – THE GHOST STUFF IS THE GOOD STUFF
Toni Collete’s career is certainly prolific to say the least, however, her big hits really only appear on either side of a fairly unceremonial middling period where her roles and films are for the most part unnoteworthy.
The Australian’s first breakout is Muriel’s Wedding which saw her nominated as Best Actress for a Golden Globe. She would then later cement herself as worthy of that type of accolade by again being nominated for an Academy Award this time as a supporting actress for her haunted mother role in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense.
The rest of her career is then dotted all over the place with a few shining highlights like Little Miss Sunshine amongst relatively low-average performing films and Broadway and tv performances throughout the mid-late 2000s and 2010s. That early promise never quite seemed to be fulfilled again, for the most part.
That is, of course, until 2018 and Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary which saw Collette turn in the best performance of her career with her grief-stricken and haunted role as the mother of a family overcoming loss. Toni Collette brought such a terrifying conflict to her character that will remain unforgettable among the halls of horror queens and makes her lack of even a nomination at that year’s academy awards all the more egregious.
Hereditary has since catapulted her back into the industry’s conscious with further acclaimed performances in Rian Johnson’s ensemble cast for Knives Out and Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. She is also reportedly due to star in Guillermo Del Toro’s next psychological thriller Nightmare Alley suggesting that Collette’s career revival is currently in the midst of its own arc with a downward turn not yet in sight.
REDEMPTION ARCS ARE NICE, BUT IS EVERYONE ALLOWED ONE?
The interesting thing about the career revival is that it rarely stems from just one film as the catalyst. Like the beginning of a career, when an actor is suffering from a down period there usually has to be that perseverance to stuck in there and eventually that one film might recapture everyone’s attention again. From there the big boom usually hits after another film that proves you have what it takes to make a comeback.
And of course, there are different circumstances in which a career is in need of reignition again – be it public issues, an unfortunate typecast or, as is usually the case, just a career that has slowed to an ongoing flat trudge.
However, there is one very important thing from this case study that is primarily why I have highlighted these cases in the first place:
This list has been by no means exhaustive; there are plenty other actors that I could have examined until this article becomes the insufferable length of a Zak Snyder JL cut.
But even within that exhausting list, there would be a very stark commonality between each case laid bare to all – the majority of those afforded the opportunity to revive their career in Hollywood are men.
Furthering that, they are predominantly white, straight men.
Highlighting the likes of Toni Collette and Laura Dern might conflict with that statement (and it is a statement, not a suggestion) but they are a rarity amongst an industry historically favourable to white men.
It is not disingenuous to suggest that where Robert Downey Jr anything but a white man he would be afforded the same chances after such a public and long list of troubles with substance abuse and criminality. For example, after his early Oscar-winning rise to prominence, Cuba Gooding Jr never got the same chance at a career return in the same way that his Jerry Maguire opposite Tom Cruise has been allowed countless times (even discounting all the wild things about Cruise!).
The cries of “Oscar’s so White” are not just mere discourse, it is a real problem that filters all the way down through the industry.
So, while we certainly might enjoy the every-few-years narrative of an actor down on their luck making their grand re-entrance to the acting world, we must be cognizant of who is getting their chance to kick in the doors of the Academy Awards red carpet in glorious return, and who is not even likely granted the chance.
What do you make of this feature and actor resurgences?
Let us know in the comments below.