The 20 Best Comeback Movie Performances of All Time

7. Marlon Brando in “The Freshman”

Marlon Brando in “The Freshman”

Call it rebellion, ageing sensibilities, wry humour, or self-sabotage, but Marlon Brando’s film choices were mostly appalling in the 80s and 90s. This, however, is a pleasant surprise indeed. refreshing, clever, and funny, Brando rediscovered his comic footing after some time with this towering supporting performance from 1990.

This is strange indeed, considering that his character Carmine Sabatini is a blatant satire of his protagonist Vito Corleone of The Godfather. His performance, in fact, is essentially a full-on reprising of the role for comedy’s sake.

The plot, too, is daft. Centering on a film school freshman (Matthew Broderick) who secures student employment by getting a job with an outfit that turns out to be a mafia crime ring, his major task involves transporting a large lizard to a family get together. Yet, in spite of itself, the movie is witty and refreshing. Brando, in particular, shines as he reveals himself to be in a far more self-reflexive time in his career, one in which he is clearly at home with a sense of humour about himself.

The Freshman may be a role reprisal for Brando, but it feels like a new chapter.


6. Robert Downey Jr. in “Zodiac”


Before Iron Man and the waves of flattery and finance, Robert Downey Jr. comfortably affirmed his critical and personal rebirth with what was perceived by critics to be a virtually flawless performance as rogue journalist Paul Avery in David Fincher’s own comeback film, 2007’s “Zodiac”. Downey was the only leading actor for whom the real person on which his character was based was not alive and available for study.

Instead, Downey made the character his own in way that uncannily fits the beats of the film’s narrative tonally. In fact, this film served, along with “Kiss Kiss bang Bang” before it, to be a kind of foundational template for the Downey Jr. persona that has excelled in mainstream cinema for the last decade.

Downey has always been best in portraying a kind of “nerd chic.” A roguish persona, never quite a hero, but never quite a coward. He is given ample opportunity to announce his return to grace here.

As Paul Avery, he plays the office prankster, provokes a mass killer only to cower in the most amusing of ways, and even descend into the tragedy of substance abuse, in a way which must have provoked vivid memories of his own personal struggles a decade earlier. As such, he channels his past struggles in the best kind of way, one which reaffirms his full-time commitment to his craft.

Few actors have ever relishes a return to form like Downey Jr. does here; and he is still soaring today.


5. Michael Keaton in “Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”


Like Downey Jr in “Zodiac”, the irony of self-commentary was surely not lost on Michael Keaton in taking the lead role of Riggan Thompson in “Birdman”. After all, Riggan is a washed up actor who once played the iconic superhero Birdman, and is now left with little to show for it all but this latest project, his one last shot at redemption.

In the narrative this last shot is an adaptation of the Raymond Carver opus What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, yet in reality it was Birdman that offered Keaton, a Hollywood pariah for over a decade, one last strudy lifline to grasp.

And, grasp he does.

Initially delusional, then tormented, then finally turgid with clarity as to the wealth of mistakes he has made, Riggan Thompson is a character who has put fame ahead of all that should matter for many a year. He has made his bed, and must lie in it. Keaton for his part, seems to visibly draw on a lifetime of both dizzying heights and sadistic lows in his own life to produce the most dynamic performance of his career.

It is the most subtlety and range Keaton has ever shown, and the critics were quick to acknowledge as much. Keaton came agonising close to an Oscar for Best Actor, winning the Golden Globe.

This may be the one case on the list in which the comeback in question represents the single best performance of the actor’s career.


4. Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”


A motorcycle accident, liquidation, heartbreak, and a whole lot of hurt lead Mickey Rourke to his lead role in The Wrestler. Originally, Nicolas Cage had been cast in the role. Instead, the role went to Mickey Rourke, and a pivotal opportunity for onscreen redemption was offered. To play a has-been who has lost it all personally and professionally may not have been too literal a stretch for Rourke, but the execution is sublime.

Indeed, Rourke seems to be both exorcising the frustrations of years of inactivity, and atoning for his his sins with sadism, all in one foul swoop. Rourke pours ample intensity into every scene. An improvised sequence in grocery store finds him in full comic retort, whiles the sequences with his daughter (a brooding Evan Rachel Wood) are devastating. A romantic scene played out to an old Poison tune leads to an impromptu lap dance from Rouke’s Randy. The ageing thespian re-writes his own rulebook with this one.

Then, of course, there is the ring. Staples, chairs, blood flowing in excess, Rourke seeks to prove his remaining commitment to the art in the most graphic of ways. This is a role in which Mickey Rourke literally gives us his blood, sweat, and tears.

And, that’s all before the final climax.


3. Ellen Burstyn in “Requiem for a Dream”

Still from the 2000 American film Requiem for a Dream featuring Ellen Burstyn

Ellen Burstyn never faded away, far from it. Her recent appearance in Interstellar is testament to her status as a Hollywood survivor. Yet, her 1990s output lacked quality, or indeed a role with which we could remind ourselves of her almost endless range. Burstyn’s performance in requiem for a Dream is a performance for actors, by an actor.

It is often cited as one of the single greatest female performances of the modern era. A staple audition piece for the older actress, a the birth of an older actress’ influence on a younger generation.

Burstyn’s character, Sarah Goldfarb, is a contented, if not institutionalised old widow. Left alone in her apartment, her life barely extends beyond the game shows she watches on tv. Yet, the discovery of pharmaceutical drugs, and her son’s own life-threatening addiction, soon lead the hapless woman down an aching dismal path of self-destruction.

In one of the bleakest concluding 30 minutes in cinema, Burstyn conveys as much pain as an actress can, holding a brutal film together with heart and soul, finding beauty amidst unspeakable brutality.

This one has to be seen to be believed.


2. John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction”


Hollywood’s most famous modern comeback is Hollywood’s most famous modern comeback for a good reason. The second coming of “disco king” John Travolta, guided by artistic sensibilities of the new face of 90s cinema is now the stuff of cinematic lore, as much a part of American film history as your “Rosebuds” and you “offers you can’t refuse.”

Ironically, the role was written with Michael madsen in mind. This is odd, given that the part seems like one artificially created in a lab environment to be the perfect travolta comeback role. Quentin Tarantino, a Travolta obsessive, can almost be felt urging his man on during every instant of screen time.

Yet, for all of the hooplah, it is the little things that stand out on repeat viewings. Funnily enough, Travolta plays Vincent Vega at times with deft comic subtlety. Be it going goggle-eyed from the effects of heroin, perusing idly around the Wallace apartment whilst waiting for Mia, gleefully dancing like a shoeless square, or even sitting on the toilet engrossed in a novel, there is a sense here of an actor who is living his role inside out.

Tarantino himself praised Travolta’s delivery of the word “okay” when signing off on his initial chat with Mia over the intercom. This moment is Vincent Vega through and through, he is neither clever nor brilliant, he is just a dude tagging along for life’s great ride.

As Vincent would say, “yeah, we happy.”


1. Victor Sjostrom in “Wild Strawberries”

Wild Strawberries

Victor Sjostrom’s performance as Professor Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries has been called many things- a passing of the torch from one Swedish auteur to the next, a love letter from a student to his master, a final solidification of greatness, the greatest acting performance ever from a director. For the sake of clarity, it may be best to simply echo the sentiment of the critics of the time- this is not an acting comeback, this is the acting comeback.

Victor Sjostrom has been referred to as Sweden’s first great director. A master of the silent film era and pioneer of the craft, his masterpiece The Phantom Carriage has been studied for 90 years. When the rising star of art house cinema, Ingmar Bergman decided to cast Sjostrom in the role of a disgruntled professor who has turned his back on love, family, and life itself, it was the change to combine forces with his cinematic inspiration, and to test his once lively actor’s own sense of ageing.

Sjostrom is flawless, his performance is pure and unbridled. Like many Bergman characters, Borg initially pushes our empathy. Professor Borg is stubborn, truculent and very much a misanthrope. This is established within the confines of the opening sequence.

Yet, an early dream sequence in which Sjostrom is almost juvenile in the face of the horror that engulfs him initiates the process of softening the character. A nostalgia road trip goes on to unearth human through the hardest of veneers, and Sjostrom is the ringleader of this cinematic process.

It is a mighty arc, one that will make you believe in sensitive souls beneath rough exteriors. Sjostrom is captivating to the end, almost Shakespearean as he wanders through living incarnation of his past, vulnerable and unguarded, to find the other side.

Watch out for the final scene between Sjostrom and Bibi Andersson; essential Bergman.

Author Bio: Ross Carey is a Film Studies graduate from County Cork In Ireland. He is an award winning short filmmaker and is in the midst of writing his debut feature film. Before joining Taste if Cinema he was ran a popular blog entitled “Kino Shout! Films”. He will discuss the subject of film at any opportunity.