In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), one of the finest films ever made concerning the cruel mistress that is show business, the protagonist Gloria Swanson, a faded silent film actress, boldly declares “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.” This may be an obvious delusion, but, self-deception aside, the cold reality is that fortune is not often kind to an ageing star, or even a young one whose moment may have seemingly passed.
This is true of Hollywood in particular, though noticeably foreign cinema has experienced these trends time and again also. We can list ad infinitum the number of once shining stars that have long since faded into obscurity.
Steve Guttenburg, Corey Feldman, Rick Moranis, where art thou?
With the benefit of human empathy, one can imagine that the fall from grace for these once members of the “beautiful people” cannot be easy on the ego. To be once celebrated, and embraced by a culture of privilege few will ever know, only to have that same privilege snatched from your grasp, must be an agonising occurrence in the life of an actor.
Thus, we can all take a certain solace in the fact that many an actor, once written off as being passe, have in fact managed to return to favor, be it on the the merit of a series of performances or, as this list will illustrate, even on one single performance alone.
Some of these “comebacks” were fleeting, others longstanding. But, one thing is for sure; these 20 performances single handedly returned these 20 actors to favor with remarkable haste.
20. Christopher Walken in “Catch Me If You Can”
Christopher Walken had not so much faded into obscurity as he had simply fallen into a decade of mostly sub-standard roles. Following a devastating controversy in 1982 surrounding the drowning of personal friend Natalie Wood, the number of classic roles being reserved for Walken had been in steady decline. It is as well, then, that Steven Spielberg was able to restore to grace one of cinema’s quirkiest talents single-handedly with this apt supporting role.
Walken’s balance of charisma and vulnerability is essential to the role of Frank Abignale Sr. At the opening of the film he is a charismatic rogue, coaching and inspiring his son’s future charlatanry. Yet, as a victim of infidelity, and as a man left with precious little in the material sense, Walken conveys a devastating sense of a proud man who is unwilling to acknowledge his personal defeat.
Take notice of the restaurant scene in which he complains about an ice cold fork, and the quiet bafflement in the character when the situation is explained to him. It is subtle, indeed.
19. Vincent Price in “Edward Scissorhands”
The once king of the chills turns sympathetic beautifully in this choice and memorable cameo appearance. Price plays a character billed simply as “The Inventor”, a kind of benevolent Dr. Frankenstein, who cares deeply for the creature he has spawned.
Performing well into his dotage, Price appears frail and vulnerable, yet this only adds to the emotional vulnerability of the character in the face of his creation. His Christmas present to young Edward is a set of real hands, a gift which promises to make him whole, a self-actualised being. This makes the tragedy that transpires in the film’s opening act all the sadder.
Evidently, Tim Burton was later inspired to take on a biopic of Ed Wood due to the fact that the late Wood’s relationship to an ageing Bela Lugosi reminded Burton of his own relationship to an ageing Vincent Price. This relationship is perhaps evident in the sad dignity of The Inventor, perhaps the only human character in the film with no intention of leaving Edward’s side, and a sad reminder of the stability that the character could have had, but this innocent fate was lost early on.
18. Peter Cushing in “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”
We now subsequently know that George Lucas had grand hopes for the casting of many ageing stars for a cast already distinguished in elder acting statesmen (Alec Guinness was involved). Lucas did, in fact plan on casting Orson Welles and Tatsuya Nakadai. He did not achieve these casting feats, not that it mattered much, but he did succeed in casting the right honorable Peter Cushing, he of British Hammer Horror fame.
In the wake of the towering performance of Alec Guinness, many overlook the gleeful villainous turn of Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. He calls upon his years of experience in horror to turn in a portrayal of a ghastly henchman of the Empire, one whose “foul stench” certainly lingers in the mind of Princess Leia.
Perhaps it is the fact that few of the actors involved in the production of the first Star Wars installment, most of all those with experience in the industry, felt that the film would amount to much. In fact, most barely held the film in any regard during the filmmaking process. This may well have led to a feeling of relaxed glee in Cushing, who clearly relishes in his screentime as the diabolical Tarkin.
Yet, triviality is not the result. Watch, if you will, the scene in which Alderaan is destroyed. Watch the chilling stoicism from Tarking in the wake of such genocide, not least in the wake of Leia’s hysterical screaming. A chilling craft is still possessed by Cushing, even in a minor role.
17. Lauren Bacall in “Dogville”
Like Christopher Walken, it would not be accurate to say that 79 year old Hollywood icon Bacall had faded into obscurity in the years (or indeed, decades) leading up to Dogville; she had simply not been making films of the same quality that she had during her initial rise to prominence. Yet, in the hands of controversial maverick Lars Von Trier, the widow of Humphrey Bogart shone effortlessly in the role of Ma Ginger, one which allowed her to hit all of the notes that we have come to expect from the icon.
In her youth, Bacall was a master of imbuing a good girl with malice, and in turn to imbue a malicious girl with goodness. In Dogville, nearing the age of 80, we witness a widowed woman, long weathered by time and lessons learned, yet the magic of her performance suggests little talent had been lost.
In a supporting role Ma Ginger is memorable indeed. In the town hall scenes in particular, she endows her elder stateswoman character with a subtle yet frightening ability to manipulate those more naive than her. As such, the subtle malice that Bacall brings to the role may well be interpreted as a microcosm for Dogville as a whole.
16. Tom Hardy in “Bronson”
It is hard to conceptualise nowadays that Tom Hardy was once considered to be “damaged goods” in the industry. After a campy performance in the below average Star Trek installation “Star Trek: Nemesis”, the young Londoner’s positive work in Black Hawk Down was forgotten with alarming haste.
What followed were a number of self-admittedly troubled years for the actor, in which personal demons threatened to quash his promise once and for all. A number of small redemptions followed with the likes of Layer Cake and marie Antoinette. Then, however, there was Bronson.
In the hands of director Nicolas Winding Refn, a true auteur with more than a minor penchant for the absurd, Hardy was literally and figuratively larger than life as the British bare knuckle boxing sensation and famous prison inmate. The biopic has a Kubrick feel for the contrived about it, but it far from lacks human gravitas- due largely to Hardy’s performance. Hardy has played many a hard-man since, but this initial career revitalising crescendo remains as bold and surprising as ever.
15. Gregory Peck in “The Omen”
Peck’s output largely lacked quality in the early to mid 1970s. Yet, when a fanciful and potentially silly script called for strong anchors to ground the material, peck was right at home as the American Ambassador Robert Thorn, a mature father with a considerable burden to bare.
Peck carries himself with quiet dignity and brings a sophistication and pathos to otherwise otherworldly goings on. His grim presence in the opening scene really sets the stakes high, his disturbed countenance as dark as the photography and setting.
Peck claims to have written a letter to his co-star Lee Remick before shooting began, saying that he was delighted to be working with her at last. He jokingly added, “under such cheery subject matter.”
Indeed, amidst a Satanic narrative, it is a testament to their chemistry that one of the darkest moment of The Omen is also one of the most human; with a frustrated Katherine Thorn (Lee Remick) turning to her husband and declaring that she does not want any more children. The coldness of the moment is conveyed perfectly in Peck’s reaction, a human moment amidst such surreal subject matter.