After seven years away from the big screen, Arnold Schwarzenegger is set to begin his comeback this Friday with The Last Stand. He’s not the first movie star to attempt a career resurrection… though admittedly, he’s the only one who can claim he was too busy running a state as an excuse. As he moves forward, he might do well to emulate some of his fellow thespians, who rebounded after flops, scandals, and seemingly certain career oblivion to reestablish themselves as bona fide stars. It’s a lot harder than it looks – we’re still waiting for Nic Cage to get in gear – making their comebacks a source of genuine respect. Congrats for escaping career oblivion you ten. You’ve earned it.
Cruise hasn’t entirely pulled out of his tailspin, which limits him to Number 10 on our list. But after seemingly imploding on Oprah’s couch amid an array of baffling public behavior, it looked like lights out for one of Hollywood’s most durable icons. Then came his turn on Tropic Thunder, playing a hysterically amoral studio exec riding herd on a production gone disastrously wrong. With scenes as funny as this one, he can jump on all the couches he wants.
The legendary Bergman spent decades as the ultimate onscreen good girl, with roles in classic films like Casablanca, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Joan of Arc and Gaslight. That was before she began a torrid love affair with director Roberto Rossellini: both of them married to other people at the time. They ultimately divorced their spouses so they could wed, but the damage was done. Bergman was vilified in the press and forced into exile; she even scored a public condemnation on the floor of the U.S. Senate. She continued to make movies in Italy, but the former golden girl clearly wasn’t welcome in Hollywood.
Then she appeared in Anastasia, playing an amnesiac who may or may not be the last survivor of the Romanov dynasty. The film became a huge hit and scored her a second Academy Award… signaling in one fell swoop that all was forgiven.
Harris didn’t flame out like a lot of childhood stars – there were no drunken tabloid headlines or shootouts with police on his blotter – but it still looked for all the world like the former Doogie Howser would drift quietly into oblivion. Then came Harold and Kumar, where he played a debauched and lecherous version of himself. It was bold, fearless and above all hysterically funny. Suddenly, a certain has-been turned into the hippest cat in pop culture. He hasn’t looked back yet.
Some actors made the leap from silent movies to talkies effortlessly. Not so Swanson, an icon of silent cinema whose career dried up with the advent of sound. She wasn’t fazed by the loss, turning instead to other projects: painting, sculpting, theater work, and – most amazingly – helping to rescue Jews from occupied Europe through a front company called Multiprizes. But she was well and truly off the pop culture radar until Billy Wilder cast her as deluded actress Norma Desmond in his poisoned love letter to Hollywood, Sunset Blvd. The film became a classic, earning Swanson an Oscar nomination and letting her take cackling revenge on an industry that cast her aside so many years before.
Like too many talented actors, Hopper had serious problems with drugs and alcohol… so much so that he spent the better part of two decades as a Hollywood outcast. Francis Coppola coaxed a brilliant performance out of him in Apocalypse Now – even though he was clearly high as a kit on screen – but it served as a glaring exception in an era marked largely by low-budget sleaze. Then – three years after cleaning up – he scored the role of a lifetime as the gas-huffing maniac Frank Booth in David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet. Nothing like a villain for the ages to make people forget about the on-set freakouts. (Okay, the rehab probably helped too.)
Few actors have battled their demons more publicly than Downey: a tabloid staple in the 1990s thanks to a string of high-profile drug arrests. He did a year in prison in 2000, and – plummeting career aside – looked poised for a one-way trip to the morgue before it all ended.
Thankfully, he cleaned up and started work again thanks to his friend Mel Gibson, who cast him in The Singing Detective in 2003. (Gibson, ironically, has yet to rebound from his own publicity woes.) From there, Downey moved very carefully, reestablishing his brand names in offbeat fare like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Good Night and Good Luck. But it wasn’t until 2008’s Iron Man that he truly came roaring back. His self-destructive Tony Stark made for the perfect fusion of performer and part, as well as turning a second-tier superhero into a mainstream phenomenon. Downey, publicly grateful just to be alive, shows no sign of letting this second chance slip through his fingers.
Garland’s sunny onscreen persona masked a deeply troubled woman whose dark side ultimately claimed her life. She suffered a nervous breakdown in 1947, resulting in a suicide attempt and a stint in a mental hospital. For years afterwards, she was unable to work: dropping out of one production after another and making another suicide attempt in 1950.
She found some respite on stage, with an acclaimed series of Broadway productions, but her troubles on the movie set apparently returned with 1954’s A Star Is Born… bedeviled by lengthy delays and the sort of “I can’t do this” drama that derailed her earlier films. Luckily for her, the film turned out to be a huge critical and commercial smash. She earned an Oscar nomination for the role, losing to Grace Kelly in one of the biggest miscarriages of justice the Academy has ever perpetrated. The triumph granted her another decade’s worth of film roles – including Judgment at Nuremburg, which scored her another Oscar nomination – before drugs and deteriorating health finally killed her before her time.
Like a lot of folks on this list, Brando’s troubles were of his own making. A notoriously difficult actor on set, his increasingly bloated and self-indulgent productions branded him box office poison for well over a decade. Then Francis Coppola cast him in the role of his career: Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. In one fell swoop, it restored his artistic legitimacy and won him the Best Actor Oscar in a cakewalk. Of course he promptly chunked it again by having a Native American woman in a headdress show up to collect, but without it, we wouldn’t have Superman, Apocalypse Now, A Dry White Season or The Island of Doctor Moreau. (Oh wait, scratch that last one. It blows.)
Rourke, like Brando, was tough to work with: slowly squandering a brilliant career that included the likes of Diner, 9 ½ Weeks, Angel Heart and Rumble Fish. He turned to professional boxing in the 1990s, scoring six wins and two draws at the expense of having his gorgeous face smashed in like a cantaloupe. His comeback started with his pitch-perfect turn as Marv, the thug on a mission in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City. But it wasn’t until The Wrestler – playing a washed-up WWE-style star in an eerie case of art imitating life – that he truly put himself back in Hollywood circulation. His films since then have been a mixed bag, but he’s been humbler, better behaved on set, and more than eager to give all the credit to his beloved Chihuahuas. Hard to come down too hard on a guy for that.
Pulp Fiction is one of the few movies out there that really and truly changed the medium forever. It also made stars out of Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman (to say nothing of the director, Quentin somebody or another), as well as giving Bruce Willis’s career a shot in the arm after a string of prominent flops. But nobody came out of it looking better than Travolta, languishing for over a decade and remembered primarily as a 70s pretty boy . Second winds don’t get much more impressive… and he owes it all to Vincent Vega.