Sunday 18 November 2018

Winona is the queen of the comeback kids

Winona Ryder with Zachary Quinto in Star Trek
Winona Ryder with Zachary Quinto in Star Trek

If there's one film guaranteed to give your average movie star a severe case of the heebie jeebies, it's Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. For therein lies every screen icon's worst nightmare -- oblivion. Norma Desmond used to be a big shot, a luminous silent screen beauty deluged by fan letters and feted by Cecil B DeMille. But by the time William Holden's hard-on-his-luck writer stumbles into her life, Norma is a relic of a bygone age, clinging pathetically to former glories.

There have been lots of real Norma Desmonds down the years, and Gloria Swanson, the woman who played her in Wilder's film, was one of them. But any star who feels his grip on the greasy pole faltering should take comfort from some of the remarkable comebacks that seemingly dead-in-the-water actors have managed.

A few months back it was Mickey Rourke who returned, Lazarus-like, from beyond the cinematic grave to shine in Darren Arnofsky's The Wrestler and almost win an unlikely Oscar. And this summer it's Winona Ryder who looks set to return from a lengthy stint in the celebrity wilderness.

Ryder shot to fame in her late teens in films like Heathers (1989) and Beetlejuice (1988). Strong performances in Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth (1991) and Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993) cemented her reputation as a rising star, and in the early 1990s her relationship with Johnny Depp made them the Brangelina of their time. But by the late 1990s things were looking bleaker for Winona: there were rumours of drug dependency, and she hadn't had a decent hit in years.

In 2001, her already faltering career seemed doomed when she was arrested for shoplifting at the Saks Fifth Avenue store in Beverly Hills, and was subsequently made an example of by a DA looking to make a name for himself.

Bruised by the humiliation of a public trial and the 500 hours of community service she was rather unfairly lumped with, Ryder retreated from the limelight, abandoning Los Angeles for her native San Francisco and disappearing altogether from public sight.

Over the last couple of years she's been tentatively putting her toe back in the Hollywood water, but this summer she's set to star in a number of high-profile films, beginning with JJ Abrams' Star Trek, which opened here last week. In it, a handsome but barely recognisable Ryder plays Spock's human mother, and that turn will be followed by appearances in a couple of eagerly awaited films.

Later this year she'll star with fellow comeback kid Mickey Rourke in The Informers, an adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis book about hedonism in 1980s Los Angeles. And she is apparently excellent alongside Keanu Reeves and Julianne Moore in Rebecca Miller's The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

The fact that a major studio has permitted Ryder's presence in a big budget film like Star Trek is a sure sign that her sins have been forgiven, because at one point she was considered uninsurable. Her route back to the top, then, looks fairly secure, and if she manages it she'll join a distinguished bunch of film folks who've managed to claw their way back from the brink of oblivion.

Katharine Hepburn is ranked by the American Film Institute as the greatest female film star of all time, but she might have become a mere footnote in cinema history if she hadn't recovered from an early slump. After shooting to stardom in the early 1930s, a string of flops combined with Hepburn's abrasive personality and open contempt for Hollywood mores led to her being declared "box office poison" in a famous poll of film distributors across America in 1938.

It was a blow from which many would not have recovered, but Kate was made of sterner stuff. She used her friendship with Howard Hughes to buy the rights to the hit play The Philadelphia Story, which she then sold on to MGM on one condition -- that she play the female lead. She did, and the 1940 film catapulted her back to stardom.

Joan Crawford was also on that 1938 box-office poison list, and her problems were compounded by the fact that she'd specialised in Depression-era melodramas to such an extent that she was considered a bad and terminally old-fashioned actress. Her star faded to such an extent that by 1943 MGM had bought out her contract and turfed her out of her studio-owned bungalow. But Crawford had a need for fame, and after wangling her way into Warner Brothers, fought tooth and nail to land the title role in Mildred Pierce (1945), against the express wishes of director Michael Curtiz, who only agreed to casting after seeing a powerful screen test. The film revived Crawford's career, and even won her an Oscar -- to the disgust of rival Bette Davis, who'd initially been offered the part.

More recently, John Travolta suffered one of the most dramatic falls from grace when, after becoming a big star in the late 1970s on the strength of Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978), he disappeared off the radar for more than a decade.

In the early 1980s, a string of flops and some very bad career choices left him in straight-to-video limbo for much of that decade, and it wasn't until 1994 that his career was given the kiss of life when Quentin Tarantino asked him to star in Pulp Fiction. After that people remembered that he could act, and his rehabilitation has been remarkable.

Ben Affleck nearly drowned in the wake of his disastrous entry into the vortex otherwise known as Jennifer Lopez; and Rob Lowe recovered reasonably well from the 1988 discovery of a sex tape involving him and several females, one of whom was a minor.

But surely the comeback king of this generation of actors is Robert Downey Jr, a hugely talented screen performer who has several times scuppered himself on the verge of triumph by exploding into rehab in the full glare of the spotlight. Once uninsurable, he's now a major star again, but with Downey, you never know what's around the corner.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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