Do call it a comeback.
Kylian Mbappé’s hat trick in a World Cup final that looked easily won by Argentina. RiRi finally leaving the cosmetics counter to get back to her day job (if being booked for the Superbowl’s halftime show is anything to go by, at least). Knackered old Andy Murray’s five-hour, 4am triumph at the Australian Open. Over the last few weeks and months we’ve been spoiled for stories of against-the-odds – or, at least, against expectations – returns.
Because everyone loves a comeback, and nowhere is this truer than in Hollywood. The overwhelming mood this awards season has been one of inspirational revival stories, rallies from the brink, of fame and sometimes crisis, from behind and in front of the camera. Forget giant blue aliens or maverick pilots: cinematically, there’s nothing more delicious than human stories of triumph against all odds.
That these are happening in a fickle industry infamous for picking up talent only to discard them five minutes later? It just makes the sensation all the sweeter. Forget schadenfreude. This is freudenfreude (“the lovely enjoyment of another person’s success”). Yes, we looked that up.
Take Todd Field’s Tár. The sprawling psychodrama stars Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár, an EGOT-winning orchestra conductor whose viral fall from grace examines power dynamics at the heart of the classical music industry and beyond. It’s Field’s first film in 14 years, during which time he spent mostly trying – and failing – to develop a long list of projects, including a political thriller he wrote with Joan Didion and a TV adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s doorstop novel Purity.
This week, Tár was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Whew. Not to mention the fact that the construction of Lydia Tár’s character was so convincing, it had people speculating whether or not she was a real person online – and this amidst fervent discourse about the film’s stance on sexual harassment. “The idea that there’s a fairly robust conversation about this is incredible,” Field told The New Yorker. Talk about coming back with a bang.
Then there’s Ke Huy Quan. He broke out as a 12-year-old in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies the following year. This vertiginous adolescent ascent then saw him wait by the phone for a decade, hardly ever landing roles he auditioned for. Eventually, Quan became a stunt coordinator and assistant director. Twenty years later, he decided to try his hand at acting again. Enter, when he was 50, Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Directed by The Daniels, the wildly successful sci-fi film unpicks generational trauma one bonkers parallel universe at a time, and also stars Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Quan Wang. Quan is her husband, the affable Waymond Wang. Having whipped up near-hysteria among viewers, EEAAO is leading the Oscars race with 11 nominations, one of them being Quan’s for Best Supporting Actor and Yeoh’s for Best Actress – a first for them both. (Yeoh’s is also the first ever nomination in the category for an Asian, making her a pioneer, too.)
The Comeback Kid got emotional when he picked up his award for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes last week. “For so many years, I was afraid I had nothing more to offer. That no matter what I did, I would never surpass what I achieved as a kid,” he said, almost weeping. Similarly, Yeoh broke down in tears after reading EEAAO’s script, describing her role in the film as “something I’ve been waiting for. Finally, somebody understood that I can do all these things.”
This awards season has seen a big return for Colin Farrell, too. The Irishman was once Hollywood’s favourite enfant terrible, better known for his infamous 2002 sex tape (breakfast, lunch and dinner, anyone?), as an international symbol for sex appeal and hedonism, and as a salutary reminder of squandered early promise.
But in the last two years, Farrell has starred in A24’s sleeper sci-fi hit After Yang (2021) and The Batman (2022), with a spin-off series for his Penguin starting production next month. And then there’s The Banshees of Inisherin, Martin McDonagh’s critically acclaimed tragicomedy set in 1920’s Ireland. Farrell is now up for a Best Actor nomination for his performance as Pádraic, who’s all eyebrows and depressed about his disintegrating relationship with best pal Colm (Brendan Gleeson).
The biggest comeback of all, though, is that hunky, heartthrob ’90s guy who was in The Mummy trilogy, George of the Jungle and then… what? Those films might have earned Brendan Fraser a place in the action star hall of fame. But then, to all intents and purposes, he vanished from our screens. Why, how, huh?
The story was stranger, and more disturbing, than any Black List script. In 2018 Fraser alleged that, in 2003, he’d been sexually assaulted by Philip Berk, then-president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the organisation behind the Golden Globes. Though Berk denies these allegations, Fraser has suggested he was blacklisted because of them. Until, that is, being cast in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, for which Fraser is now a Best Actor frontrunner.
“Darren Aronofsky, I was in the wilderness, and I probably should have left a trail of breadcrumbs, but you’ve found me,” he said in a speech at the Critics Choice Awards, shouting out a director with form in the comeback game: in another awards-season sensation, Aronofsky revitalised the career of Mickey Rourke with 2008’s The Wrestler. After those wilderness years, Fraser is back, and is now one of Hollywood’s most universally beloved actors. It’s a rare moment when the entire internet can agree on one thing, let alone for that thing to be that they want only the best for you. Like we said, freudenfreude. We’re with him all the way.
Speaking of which: honorary mention to Andrea Riseborough’s last-minute, unorthodox, slightly perplexing Oscars push for her role as an alcoholic single mother in the relatively little-known To Leslie. Her single-minded campaign of hitting up her A‑lister pals for support worked a charm: she’s up for Best Actress.
And if we want to keep running with this theme (of course we do), it was also a fertile year for franchise comebacks. Avatar: The Way of Water saw James Cameron’s series make its blockbuster return after 13 years, while The Top Gun: Maverick remake was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2022 and arguably the crowdpleaser of the year – even more so than its 1986 predecessor, which was largely critically dismissed as Reagan-era jingoism.
Want more good news? It is January after all… In the TV world, satirical drama The White Lotus bossed it at this month’s Golden Globes. Taking to the podium to collect their awards, star Jennifer Coolidge and creator Mike White gushed sincerely and movingly about their own wilderness years.
“Mike White, you have given me hope. You’ve given me a new beginning,” Coolidge said in her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress. She had endured years of landing only small roles in the likes of Legally Blonde and American Pie’s countless, increasingly dummy sequels until The White Lotus came along. When White picked up his award for Best Limited Series, he pointed a finger at the star-studded room in front of him. “You all passed on this show!” he said, drunkenly but no less truthfully, of his first wholly successful foray back into the industry after writing (and starring in) 2003’s School of Rock.
So, Hollywood. Take a long, hard look at yourself. Talent is not just there to be used, abused and discarded. Actors may fade away, but it doesn’t mean they’ve burned out. Yes, everyone loves a comeback story. But might it be even better if people – because that’s what they are, before they’re “talent” – weren’t shunned in the first place?
Now then, for 2024: how about a comeback for some women in the Best Director category and less whitewashing across the board?