25+ Comeback Movies That Resurrected The Actor's Career

Sea of Love (1989) – Al Pacino

After starring in the monumental disaster that was 1985’s Revolution, Al Pacino was so disheartened he quit making movies entirely, focusing on stage productions instead.

After four years, Pacino was tempted back into Hollywood with a starring role in Sea of Love, which fortunately turned out to be a resounding success.

Black Swan (2010) – Winona Ryder

As well as allowing Natalie Portman to snag her first Oscar, 2010’s Black Swan is notable for resurrecting the career of Winona Ryder, a feat many would have deemed impossible.

After a string of highly public scandals in the early 2000s, Ryder disappeared from public life altogether, and – before her casting in Black Swan – most fans never assumed they’d never see her on the screen again.

Pulp Fiction (1994) – John Travolta

Even though John Travolta was one of the hottest stars of the 70s, the actor’s career nosedived in the 80s after he starred in a string of critical and commercial failures.

While studios had lost faith in Travolta’s talent, Quentin Tarantino pushed for him to star in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, reviving the actor’s career essentially overnight.

The Godfather (1972) – Marlon Brando

While Marlon Brando is now considered one of the most legendary actors of all time, during the late 60s his career was on the rocks. After starring in a string of flops and earning a reputation for being hard to work with, Brando found himself struggling to land roles.

Brando remained trapped in this professional no-man's-land until Francis Ford Coppola cast him in 1972’s The Godfather, turning the actor back into a superstar.

Dolemite is My Name (2019) – Eddie Murphy

After making a name for himself on Saturday Night Live, Eddie Murphy became one of the most successful comedic actors of the 80s. Unfortunately, the 90s and early 2000s saw Murphy star in flop after flop, and in 2011 he took a step back from the industry.

The comedian made a triumphant return in 2019’s Dolemite is My Name, earning a Golden Globe nomination in the process.

The Expendables (2010) – Sylvester Stallone

The first Rocky movie launched Sylvester Stallone into superstardom, and he quickly became one of the most sought-after actors of the 80s. Eventually, however, critics and fans alike grew weary of Stallone’s tough-guy performances, which all started to blur together.

Then, in 2010, Stallone proved that he was capable of putting a new spin on the action genre with The Expendables. This high-octane romp spawned a franchise, giving the action man a new lease of life.

Iron Man (2008) – Robert Downey Jr

Robert Downey Jr. made a name for himself with a string of critically acclaimed performances in the 80s and 90s, even earning an Oscar nomination for his role in 1992’s Chaplin.

A string of legal and personal problems then derailed Downey’s career, and he spent much of the early 2000s in and out of prison and rehab, before making a dramatic comeback in 2008’s Iron Man.

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) – Ke Huy Quan

A Vietnamese refugee, Ke Huy Quan got into acting as a child, starring alongside Harrison Ford in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, followed by 1985 kids' classic The Goonies.

After a few more smaller roles, Quan dropped off the radar in 1996. Following a hiatus of more than 20 years, Quan made his return in 2022, starring in the critically acclaimed Everything Everywhere All At Once, which landed him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Back in Action (2024) – Cameron Diaz

At one point one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, Cameron Diaz took a step back from acting in 2014, feeling like she’d accomplished her goals and wanting to focus on her family.

After eight years out of the business, Diaz is set to make a return to acting in 2024, when she will star opposite Jamie Foxx in the appropriately-named Netflix movie Back in Action.

Birdman (2010) – Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton was already an established actor when he was cast in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie, but the role propelled him to superstardom.

The actor largely disappeared from Hollywood during the early 2000s, before starring in 2010’s Birdman, turning in a critically acclaimed performance that marked the start of a wildly successful comeback.

Uncut Gems (2019) – Adam Sandler

While Adam Sandler never stopped making movies, his output was pretty lacklustre for a number of years. After signing a deal with Netflix, Sandler starred in a string of disappointing comedies like The Ridiculous 6 and Do-Over, alienating a lot of fans.

The actor finally returned to form in 2019, but not – as most expected – in a comedy. Sandler instead starred in the crime-thriller Uncut Gems, giving what many have called his finest performance.

Sin City (2005) – Mickey Rourke

During the 80s and 90s, Mickey Rourke was an action movie staple, starring in films like Rumble Fish, Diner and Angel Heart. However, Rourke developed a reputation for his unruly on-set behavior, which eventually led to the offers drying up.

After quitting acting for a number of years to pursue a boxing career, Rourke made his comeback in style, starring in 2005’s crime classic Sin City. The acclaim Rourke drew for this performance paved the way to his Oscar-nominated turn in The Wrestler.

John Wick (2014) – Keanu Reeves

After becoming one of Hollywood’s most successful action stars with his role in The Matrix trilogy, Keanu Reeves ended up taking roles in a series of bland thrillers throughout the 2000s.

Then, in 2014, Reeves proved once again that he is one of the undisputed kings of the action genre when he starred in John Wick, with the movie spawning a highly successful franchise.

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) – Matthew McConaughey

In the early to mid-2000s, Matthews McConaughey developed a reputation for starring in hugely forgettable romantic comedies, and few took his acting abilities seriously.

Dissatisfied with the direction his career was going, McConaughey stepped away from Hollywood for a couple of years, before making his comeback in 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer, proving himself as a dramatic actor in the process.

Judy (2019) – Renée Zellweger

To be clear, Renée Zellweger’s six-year hiatus from acting was completely voluntary, and not the result of offers drying up. Still, six years away from the industry is a long time, and there were doubts about whether Zellweger would be as bankable when she returned.

In 2019, the actress resolutely silenced her doubters, starring in the Judy Garland biopic Judy and adding another Oscar to her collection.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) – Nicolas Cage

At one point one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors, some well-publicized financial problems meant that Nicolas Cage spent much of the 2010s starring in straight-to-video flops.

Fortunately, Cage returned to form with a starring role in 2022’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, following it up in 2023 with the vampire flick Renfield.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – Robert De Niro

Despite his reputation as one of the greatest actors in the history of Hollywood, Robert De Niro’s output turned distinctly mediocre in the 2000s, and the veteran actor’s career seemed to be in decline.

Fortunately, De Niro course-corrected in 2012 with a supporting role in Silver Linings Playbook, earning widespread praise from critics.

Scream (1996) – Drew Barrymore

After finding success as a child actress, Drew Barrymore quit acting for a time amidst struggles with substance abuse and mental health.

After spending a few years in and out of rehab, Barrymore returned to acting with a role in 1996’s seminal horror masterpiece Scream, relaunching her career with an iconic first kill scene that people still talk about today.

Hustlers (2019) – Jennifer Lopez

In the 2010s, Jennifer Lopez’s career seemed to be in a death spiral, with the actress appearing in a seemingly endless series of blockbuster flops.

Then came 2019’s Hustlers, a comedy crime thriller based on a 2015 article published in New York magazine. The movie was a resounding success, and Lopez’s performance was singled out for particular praise.

Zanjeer (1973) – Amitabh Bachchan

Before he became one of Bollywood’s most respected talents, Amitabh Bachchan was a struggling actor with a string of disastrous flops under his belt.

Close to calling it quits, Bachchan decided to give it one last shot with a starring role in 1973’s Zanjeer. The film was a smash-hit, marking the start of a wildly successful career.

V for Vendetta (2005) – Natalie Portman

While her role in the Star Wars prequels made Natalie Portman a household name, it also meant she had a hard time getting studios to consider her for weighty roles.

That changed with 2005’s V for Vendetta, a movie which gave Portman a chance to show off the depths of her acting talent.

Good Time (2017) – Robert Pattinson

Like many actors who get labelled as a “teen star,” Robert Pattinson had a hard time transitioning to more adult roles after the Twilight franchise ended.

Then, in 2017, Pattinson starred in Good Time, showing audiences and critics alike that he was a force to be reckoned with, and opening the door to roles in The Lighthouse and The Batman.

Wild (2014) – Reese Witherspoon

Tired of getting typecast in romance films, Reese Witherspoon stepped back from acting for a while to launch her own production company, Pacific Standard.

The actress then used her company to produce and star in 2014’s Wild, a movie based on the memoirs of Cheryl Strayed. The film was a hit, and it proved that Witherspoon was one of the most capable actresses in Hollywood.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974) – Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall was one of the most sought-after actresses during the Golden Age of Hollywood, but her fortunes began to change during the 60s, largely due to her reputation for being difficult to work with.

After a few years in which she didn’t work at all, Bacall revived her career with a role in 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express.

Halloween (2018) – Jamie Lee Curtis

After establishing herself as one of the most dependable scream queens during the 80s and 90s, Jamie Lee Curtis then branched out into other genres.

When the acting work dried up during the late 2000s, Curtis quit acting altogether for a while, before returning for the 2018 reboot of Halloween. The actress recently won an Oscar for her supporting role in Everything Everywhere All At Once.

In Bruges (2008) – Colin Farrell

While his career never seemed in danger of completely falling apart, Colin Farrell definitely struggled to land serious roles in the 2000s. That all changed in 2008, when Farrell starred in the black comedy In Bruges.

The actor would later describe this role as “a turning point” in his career, as it allowed him to prove that he was a far more versatile actor than most people believed.

Paddington 2 (2018) – Hugh Grant

At one point a staple of romcoms after breaking through with Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hugh Grant’s fortunes seemed to be on an inexorable decline in the 2010s.

In 2018, Grant’s career was – somewhat improbably – resurrected with a villainous turn in Paddington 2, with the actor earning a BAFTA nomination and putting his name back at the top of casting directors’ shortlists.

Airplane! (1980) – Leslie Nielsen

Before 1980, Leslie Nielsen was primarily known for his work in dramas. With his career fading, however, Nielsen decided to take a gamble and agreed to star in the Zucker brothers’ slapstick masterpiece Airplane!

This decision relaunched Nielsen's entire career, and saw him become one of the biggest comedy stars of the 80s and 90s in such films as The Naked Gun series.

Deadpool (2016) – Ryan Reynolds

Ryan Reynolds simply has too much star power for his career to fall apart, but for a number of years, the actor seemed incapable of starring in anything that wasn’t terrible (looking at you, Green Lantern).

That all changed in 2016, when Reynolds starred in Deadpool, a role that instantly transformed him into one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors.

A Hole in the Head (1959) – Edward Robinson

Like many great actors of his generation, Edward Robinson fell victim to the blacklisting of McCarthyism.

After close to a decade without work, Robinson staged a comeback with a role in 1959’s A Hole in the Head, reminding Hollywood of his sizable talent and kickstarting his career once again.

The Blind Side (2009) – Sandra Bullock

After gaining recognition for her immense talent in the 90s, Sandra Bullock spent much of the early 2000s appearing in instantly forgettable movies.

2009’s The Blind Side saw Bullock return to form, with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress reinvigorating her career and paving the way for more heavyweight roles.

Taken (2008) – Liam Neeson

While his turn as Qui-Gon Jinn in 1999’s Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace certainly brought Liam Neeson a lot of fame, the actor’s career was somewhat stagnant in the years that followed.

Then came 2008’s Taken, a movie which reinvented Neeson as a gruff, dependable action star. The Irish actor has since become synonymous with tough guy roles.

The Whale (2022) – Brendan Fraser

In the mid-2000s, Brendan Fraser – with his career already on a downward trend due to numerous physical injuries – accused former President of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association Philip Berk of enabling his sexual assault.

As a result, Fraser found himself blacklisted, and he struggled to land anything substantial until 2022’s The Whale, which saw him pick up an Academy Award for Best Actor and resurrected his career.

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) – Michelle Yeoh

Since breaking through in Hong Kong action movies in the mid-80s, Michelle Yeoh enjoyed a gradual rise to international fame, achieving recognition with Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies and martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Yeoh never exactly went away, but she was mostly relegated to matriarchal supporting roles (Crazy Rich Asians, Last Christmas) before 2022's Everything Everywhere All At Once brought her back into the spotlight in a big way, making her the first Asian recipient of the Best Actress Oscar.

Million Dollar Baby (2004) – Clint Eastwood

After a highly successful run starring in action movies and westerns, an ageing Clint Eastwood struggled to find his niche in the 90s.

2004’s Million Dollar Baby saw the actor redefine himself, launching a new phase of his career that continues to be incredibly fruitful.

Sicario (2016) – Josh Brolin

After getting into showbiz in his teen years with a role in 1985’s The Goonies, Josh Brolin continued to find success into the early 2000s. After his starring role in No Country for Old Men, Brolin’s career inexplicably dipped.

After a few years of comparative obscurity, 2016’s Sicario saw Brolin get back on track. This acclaimed performance paved the way for Brolin to make major appearances in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Deadpool 2 and Dune.

Joker (2019) – Joaquin Phoenix

While Joaquin Phoenix has long been regarded as one of the most talented actors in Hollywood, he spent much of the 2010s appearing in indie movies that failed to gain much traction with mainstream audiences.

Phoenix’s Oscar-winning turn in 2019’s Joker has definitively changed that, landing the actor right back in the spotlight.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – Chris Pratt

While Chris Pratt’s casting as Star-Lord in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy makes perfect sense in hindsight, there was a lot of head-scratching when the decision was announced.

Before then, Pratt was best known as Parks And Recreation’s Andy Dwyer, and his career was seen as going nowhere fast. Since joining the MCU, Pratt’s career has gone from strength to strength, with starring roles in a slew of blockbusters.

The White Lotus (2021) – Jennifer Coolidge

After rising to fame as Stifler’s mom in the American Pie franchise, Jennifer Coolidge enjoyed a number of successful years. During the 2010s, however, the roles dried up, and Coolidge resorted to taking parts in a string of low-key flicks.

The actress’ luck changed in 2021 when she was cast in HBO’s The White Lotus, a role which has unlocked further doors for her.

Dead to Me (2019) – Christina Applegate

Despite her successful run on the hit sitcom Married… With Children, Christina Applegate struggled to land substantial roles after the show ended in 1997, comedies Anchorman, Vacation and Bad Moms notwithstanding.

. In 2019, Applegate’s fortunes changed when she starred in Dead to Me, an acclaimed Netflix show that allowed the actress to display the full breadth of her talent.