We tend to make light of how difficult the acting profession is. It seems that every year, critics become more jaded and the entertainment industry becomes more of a cesspool of unoriginality. Because everyone’s so busy pretending like we’ve seen everything already, Hollywood continues to search for the next big thing to refresh our interests. Most actors and filmmakers have a lane. The best of the best of these stars can switch lanes and reinvent themselves every so often, but most aren’t able to do this. Most stick to their guns and do what’s within their reach. Over time, if we continue to see the same things from an actor, we get tired of their act. We call them washed up. It’s cruel, but that’s the way the game works. Once a career goes down the drain, it’s almost impossible to resurrect, almost, but not quite impossible. The stars on this list are the ones who saved their careers when they were on the brink of total collapse.
Enough people have talked about these career comebacks. We’ve heard of the great John Travolta who had his career saved by Quentin Tarantino in 1994 with Pulp Fiction. Let’s not forget that he sunk his career again a few years after that with Battlefield Earth though. We’ve sung the praises for Mickey Rourke who had a late surge in his career with Sin City and The Wrestler, though it seems like he’s fallen back into his old pattern of picking subpar roles once again. What we’ve done here is try and find some more contemporary examples. Sure, we have some of the classic career revivals on here, but we also have many that people are still talking about today. Several on this list are currently in the midst of a career resurrection and we want to celebrate that with them. Here are 15 washed up stars who revived their careers.
15. Robert Downey Jr.
Everyone knows this story by now, but what kind of a list would this be if we didn’t include the man-phoenix himself, Robert Downey Jr? If this revival wasn’t so familiar, it would come in at number one because RDJ is the prototypical example. Washed up is exactly what you would call RDJ in the mid to late 90s and early 2000s. He was a drug addict and he was uninsurable in the industry. Studios wouldn’t touch him and it was almost a certainty that his career was over. In 2002, RDJ was sober but unable to find work so his friend, Mel Gibson, paid his insurance bond so he could film The Singing Detective. While the film didn’t do well, it showed the studios that RDJ could complete a job and that led to Gothika. From Gothika, it was Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and after a few other roles it was Iron Man. Today Downey Jr. is one of the highest paid actors in the world and everything he touches turns to gold. He’s come a long way.
14. Matthew McConaughey
Matthew McConaughey had a string of films between The Wedding Planner in 2001 and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past in 2009 where it seemed like all he would ever be was a romantic comedy schmuck. We thought it, and he thought it, so he stopped. He took a break and revaluated his choices. He disappeared from the scene and, when he came back, he returned a different actor. It started with Lincoln Lawyer in 2011 and it hasn’t stopped yet. He’s been in some of the biggest films made, he’s won an Academy Award, he’s been on TV shows and a ton of lame commercials. He’s probably the hottest actor in Hollywood now and, even if he fizzled out tomorrow and the well went completely dry, he would still be considered one of the best. That’s something we would never have said about him 10 years ago.
13. Mel Gibson
Film fans are a fickle bunch, but they generally have short memories. For Mel Gibson, that hasn’t really been the case. In 2006, Gibson said some hateful things and the world’s ears perked up. A few years later, he was back in the news with some horrible accusations and charges being laid against him. Over the last decade, people have ignored Gibson’s work and focused on his personal life, about the worst thing that an audience can do to an actor/director, especially someone with a personal life like Gibson. We waited for the dam to break and people to forgive, or at least forget, Gibson’s part transgressions, but it never came. Not until now. It seems that 2016 is the year that people can no longer ignore Gibson’s work. With a strong acting performance in Blood Father and an excellent directorial job on Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson might have finally moved past his past. He’ll need to keep his mouth shut if he wants this run to continue, but truthfully, Gibson is just too talented to ignore forever.
12. Ben Affleck
Somewhere between Pearl Harbor and Jersey Girl, Ben Affleck became a laughing stock in the industry. Even though that was only a few years, this period felt like an eternity. Affleck was just brutal and he looked like he had lost his zest for acting. But then he made a switch to directing. He started with Gone Baby Gone, which was fantastic. Then, a few years later, it was The Town, which took everyone by surprise. Suddenly, Affleck was a real threat in the film once again. Then came Argo in 2012, a film that won Best Picture and cemented Affleck’s legacy as a powerful filmmaker. Watch Gigli and tell us if you could ever imagine that guy becoming this guy.
11. Alec Baldwin
Remember when Alec Baldwin was one of the biggest names in Hollywood? Yeah, we do too. In the late 80s through to the mid 90s, Baldwin was a can’t miss choice. He was an unbelievable talent and everyone in the world knew it. Then his star collapsed and he fell into the background, becoming a side thought in whatever film he showed up in. But it wasn’t over for Baldwin. Fate smiled on him and encouraged him to find his inner Jack Donaghy. He did and he was cast in the hit comedy show, 30 Rock. In truth, the character of Jack Donaghy was written for Baldwin in the hopes that he took it, which of course, he did. So, it’s safe to say that, in classic Liz Lemon style, Tina Fey saved Baldwin’s career.
10. Jared Leto
It’s not exactly fair to suggest that Jared Leto was “washed up” because he took a hiatus from acting to work on his music, but let’s not kid ourselves here. A lot of time had passed since Leto’s performance in Requiem for a Dream in 2000 when he walked away in 2007. Sure, he had some decent roles scattered in there, particularly Panic Room and Lord of War, but he certainly wasn’t at the top of his game. Leto left for about six years, but when he came back, he was like lightning. He did Dallas Buyer’s Club and won Best Supporting Actor, and let’s not forget Mr. Nobody, which is underrated. No, Suicide Squad wasn’t what everyone dreamed of, but Leto played a convincing Joker, even considering the size of shoes he needed to fill.
9. M. Night Shyamalan
You might say it’s too early to announce it, but that’s not going to stop us. For a long time, people wondered if what M. Night Shyamalan did early in his career was a fluke. After The Village, which was not nearly as bad as people whined about, Shyamalan had a run of five horribly received films that spanned nine years. He was written off as a joke, despite his early brilliance. Then came The Visit, which hinted at a return to form for the director. While people found flaws to pick at, it was generally loved by thriller fans. Next we got Split, which, so far, seems to be showing fans what it was about Shyamalan that made him so appealing early on. We expect this to carry on for some time yet.
8. Jennifer Jason Leigh
Since she was a little kid in the 80s, Jennifer Jason Leigh has been acting. For almost two decades, Leigh was incredible and was in a number of excellent films and roles. She then seemed to hit a wall in the new millennium. The roles dried up and her choices weren’t as effective. Was she truly “washed up”? No, but she may as well have been. Film fans all but forgot her name. In 2008, starting with Synedoche, New York, Leigh started picking some better roles, smaller films and lesser parts, but they were effective. After that, 2015 hit and it was a great year for the former child star. Anomalisa used her voice and she was magnificent. The Hateful Eight used her energy and she was captivating. She was so powerful in that role that many pegged her as the favorite for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Even though she didn’t win, people have once again taken notice of her and her name.
7. Sylvester Stallone
Sylvester Stallone‘s career has been filled with ups and downs, but we’re not about to confuse him for someone who will necessarily get the best ratings from critics. Sly is an action legend and critics have always hated action movies. That being said, in the late 70s, Stallone was a superstar and heralded as one of the best in the business. Throughout the 80s into the mid 90s, he was as busy as an actor could get, but he wasn’t showing up in the best of films. Then it nearly came to a stop. It seemed like his career was coming to an end. He got a temporary burst of energy from Rocky Balboa, but he was yesterday’s hero. His next big film would be The Expendables, which he would direct as well. Even though it wasn’t loved by everyone, the film put Stallone back on the map. Now, he’s once again one of the busier actors out there, an impressive note considering his genre and his age. To top it all off, last year we got to see Stallone in Creed, which many would name the best movie of the year and his performance was spellbinding.
6. Neil Patrick Harris
Back before about 2002, Neil Patrick Harris was Doogie Howser and no one else. Between 1993 and 2002, there was Starship Troopers, which was more of a trivia question role than anything to take seriously. So, what was in 2002? Well, most people point to Harold and Kumar go to White Castle as the dam-breaking moment for NPH, which is correct, but let’s not forget his small comic role in Undercover Brother in 2002, which looks like it went a long way in showing NPH’s new value. Obviously, the cocky and self-righteous NPH character in Harold and Kumar would spawn not only several film sequels and role reprisals, but it would also lead to How I Met Your Mother and the true rebirth of NPH as a modern-age star.
5. Jason Bateman
It’s weird to look back on Jason Bateman‘s dark period. This guy was a massive child star in the 80’s and kept that going into the early 90s with Valerie’s Family: The Hogans. Then there was a long dry spell. Yeah, Bateman was working, but we’re talking quality here not quantity. Then came the magical comedy Arrested Development in 2003, and Bateman was suddenly revitalized. Over the past decade or so, he has become one of the premiere comedians in the industry. Prior to 2003, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who thought Bateman would be where he is today.
4. Johnny Galecki
Say what you will about The Big Bang Theory, but Johnny Galecki is an actor who has been around and paid his dues. He deserves the success that has come to him. A child star, Galecki went from National Lampoons: Christmas Vacation to Roseanne, with a smattering of other roles in between, which brought Galecki to his early 20s in 1997. Then he drifted. He took work where he could get it, but the high-quality stuff was non-existent. This period lasted about 10 years until The Big Bang Theory launched and Galecki became a star once again. Today, he’s one of the highest paid actors on television and he’s a household name. It’s been a long road for the kid who played Rusty alongside Chevy Chase 27 years ago.
3. Ed O’Neill
Most people would credit Ed O’Neill with three major characters in his career, and three major characters alone: Al Bundy, Lt. Joe Friday and Jay Pritchett. Beginning in 1987 through to 1997, O’Neill was Al Bundy on Married… with Children and the character would stick from then on. For a brief period in the early millennium, O’Neill played a convincing Lt. Joe Friday on Dragnet, but it was only a temporary change of clothing for O’Neill. Fans still couldn’t see him as anything but Al Bundy, and it seemed like his career had all but washed up. Then, in 2009, 12 years after Al Bundy had been put to bed, O’Neill landed the role of Jay Pritchett on Modern Family. Sure, Jay and Al have their similarities, but that’s half of what’s so effective about the character. It’s almost as if Al got rich in the off time and got married to a super hot Colombian woman. Al Bundy will always live on in our hearts, but Jay Pritchett is the character who breathed new life into O’Neill’s career and showed a new generation of TV audiences all that he has to offer.
2. Winona Ryder
There was a time when Winona Ryder was the most highly sought actress in the world. In the late 80s to the mid 90s, she was an unstoppable force, excelling in nearly everything she touched. Then, in the late 90s, she began to have some personal issues and her work suffered. Soon after that, she was arrested for shoplifting and she basically fell off the map. In about 2010, and we can probably say it started with Black Swan, Ryder started to show signs of coming back. Lately, Ryder is back on her A-game, with excellent performances in The Experimenter and Stranger Things. Don’t be surprised if you start hearing Ryder’s name more and more as filmmakers start to see the gem of an actress that she is and always has been.
1. Michael Keaton
In the late 80s through to the 90s, Michael Keaton was a name that everyone knew and loved. He was talented and his choices were diverse. Then, for about a decade in the new millennium, Keaton was gone. Well, he has gone from quality roles and quality films, for the most part. He would pop up here and there and, sometimes, he was decent, but then he’d be gone again. Then something amazing happened. Birdman came out and gave us a metafictional glimpse into the soul of Keaton, the one-time Batman, and people fell in love once again. Birdman won Best Picture and Keaton was nominated for Best Actor. The following year, 2016, Keaton was in Spotlight. Spotlight won Best Picture and Keaton was a driving force in the film. Now, with The Founder and Spider-Man: Homecoming on the horizon, we fully expect to see a dominant Michael Keaton that we’ve, once again, become used to seeing.
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