Robert Forster calls it The Slide. Actors have different names for it, but the symptoms are more or less the same.
You’ve hit pay dirt. Your name has been boldfaced by Liz Smith and nudge-nudged by Cindy Adams. All at once, you’re invisible again. Every role you read for goes to this year’s flavor. Thick books become your best friend. You change agents. You take a workshop. You finish the complete works of Trollope. You teach a workshop. “I’m between jobs” turns into “I’m between gyms.” Graduate students call to interview you for a thesis titled “Whatever Happened To?” Your new agent walks before you can fire him. Suddenly, Tolstoy is looking real good.
For a chosen few, the chutes may turn back into ladders. The Script of a Lifetime lands on your desk, the part they want you to audition for has all the good lines, and you say them better than anyone else. The cameras roll, the critics rock and maybe, just maybe, Oscar smiles.
Every Academy Awards ceremony has at least one solid triumph-over-adversity story to stir the tears, but this year the number of comeback kids could push the stock index on Kleenex to a new high. For best actor nominee Peter Fonda (“Ulee’s Gold”), best actress contender Julie Christie (“Afterglow”) and best supporting actor candidate Burt Reynolds (“Boogie Nights”), the recognition spells a new lease on careers stalled by one too many indifferent movies. In the case of supporting performance nods for Robert Forster (“Jackie Brown”) and Gloria Stuart (“Titanic), the nominations mark the end of a Rip Van Winkle sleep that has gone on for so long that their names have little or no meaning to more than half of the moviegoing public.
Why does all the world love a comeback story?
“People feel empathetic,” says Damian Bona, co-author of “Inside Oscar,” the irreverent and proudly unofficial compendium of Oscar lore. “It’s a cliche that people like to build up stars and knock them down and pick them up again. If you go back to someone like Frank Sinatra, during that low point of his career before ‘From Here to Eternity,’ I think there was some feeling that he needed to be knocked down because he was very arrogant. The same with Marlon Brando (before ‘The Godfather’ brought him back).
“With the older people who win, it’s just sort of a fondness for longevity, as one might have an affection for one’s parents. Like George Burns. Seeing a relative you haven’t seen in a while. Although I don’t know that anyone would have wanted Jack Palance as their grandfather.”
The prejudice for autumnal nominees has prodded such Oscar-winning comebacks as Don Ameche (“Cocoon”), Melvyn Douglas (“Being There”), Helen Hayes (“Airport”) and Ruth Gordon, whose win for “Rosemary’s Baby” at 71 inspired the classic thank-you line, “I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is.” Of Gloria Stuart, who at 87 would appear to be making the comeback of comebacks with her first major screen role in over half a century, Bona asks, “Is it really a comeback when no one really knows they’ve been gone?”
Age and sentiment are not always a fail-safe formula for winning, as Lauren Bacall’s loss to “The English Patient’s” Juliette Binoche last year would indicate. “After her losing, all bets are off,” asserts one Hollywood insider.
Citing another exception, veteran publicist John Springer recalls the night in 1974 when he went to Bette Davis’ Ritz-Carlton suite for an Oscar night party. “When someone asked her who she thought would win, she said, ‘I don’t know and I don’t care! As long as Sylvia Sidney wins! She’s worked too hard and too long!’ Minutes later they announced, ‘And the winner for best supporting actress is Tatum O’Neal’ (for “Paper Moon”). And Bette said, ‘OK, everybody, let’s get drunk!’ ”
The most potent resurrection by far, in Bona’s eyes, was Ingrid Bergman’s 1956 win for “Anastasia,” ending years of censure by the Hollywood community as a result of her affair and out-of-wedlock child with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. “Hollywood realized it was just hypocritical. How many people in Hollywood don’t have affairs? I think it was Cary Grant who said the main thing about her was her honesty, that unlike others in Hollywood, she didn’t try to cover it up.” The long-range impact of Oscar on rekindled careers is not always discernible, but don’t tell that to this year’s crop of come-backers.
“Dramatically, dramatically, dramatically!” says Robert Forster, dramatically, when asked how the nomination for his silk-smooth work in “Jackie Brown” has changed his life. “I went from zero to being in the game again. I think we’re going to wind up with an actual decent career.”
The second phoenix to have been lifted from the ashes by writer-director Quentin Tarantino (the first, “Pulp Fiction’s” John Travolta), the 56-year-old actor made a revealing debut in 1968 in John Huston’s “Reflections in a Golden Eye.” After starring as a TV cameraman in “Medium Cool,” Haskell Wexler’s surrealistic take on the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, the Slide began.
“I was doing lousy jobs,” he recalls candidly. “Taking unemployment and hanging on. I said, ‘You’re not dead yet, Bob, go out and do something.’ ” To keep his creative circulation going, he began to do free speaking gigs, culling together life lessons from the school of hard knocks. Those lessons would become the basis for an acting workshop he set up and teaches to this day.
“I realized that some of the things I was saying to my actors were the same things I was trying to tell my four kids. You can’t deliver excellence if you are holding on to negative stuff. So Step One is to accept all things. It doesn’t matter that you are not getting all the good jobs. It doesn’t matter that you don’t get the Winnebago. I doesn’t matter that she doesn’t love you anymore, Bob. Put it behind you and in one fell swoop, acceptance gives you a good attitude.”
Forster would require extra measures of good attitude as he was himself passed over twice for Tarantino projects, first for a role written with him in mind (“True Romance”) that went to Christopher Walken, and then for the older gangster in “Reservoir Dogs,” shoes that were filled by Lawrence Tierney. Tarantino advised him to hang in, and in a chance encounter at a Los Angeles coffee shop, the director asked Forster to read Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch.” At the next impromptu cafe meeting, Tarantino handed the actor his screen adaptation of the novel, titled “Jackie Brown"--and, soon after, the role of Max Cherry, the cool-witted bail bondsman with a taste for the Delfonics.
Anyone watching “Jackie Brown” with a keen eye might notice that the movie Bridget Fonda watches on TV is “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry,” one of several pictures that failed to reignite the career of her father, Peter Fonda, after his “Easy Rider” success in 1969. The Fonda family’s Hollywood heritage is further invoked as the 59-year-old Peter Fonda, nominated for his taciturn beekeeper in Victor Nunez’s “Ulee’s Gold,” recalls his own father, Henry Fonda, talking late in his career: “He always used to say, ‘I don’t know where my next job is coming from. I don’t know if I’m going to work again.’ ”
During Peter Fonda’s own years of uncertainty, it may have helped him to bear in mind that his father was not rewarded by the academy until late in life, with an honorary statue in 1980 and for “On Golden Pond” the following year, which was the year before he died.
“My career had been changing,” says Fonda as he considers the effect of his nomination. “I wasn’t disgruntled, but I wasn’t satisfied. I’ve been working toward this for six, seven years. It’s too soon to see the major changes that will happen, but I’ve already had the [experience] of being offered roles that they probably would not have offered to me. This busted, for once and for all, the ‘Easy Rider’ reputation, in terms of acting. Even though I tried to [do it] myself with ‘The Hired Hand’ (1971), which I thought was a very good film. And I did it with ‘Wanda Nevada’ (1979), a film I directed and starred in with Brooke Shields” and which also featured his father.
“But, boy, did I know it when ‘Ulee’s Gold’ landed on my desk. When I walked into the room to meet with Victor and his casting gal, Judy Courtney, they both said a weight had been lifted off their shoulders. And I had hair halfway down my back, just the opposite of what a beekeeper should be. So I had to cut it off, which I didn’t mind. Now that it’s all off, I say to myself getting out of the shower in the morning, ‘What the hell was I doing?’ ”
Fonda’s delight at his nomination borders on the giddy. “Look at the company that I’m in! First of all, Jack--that’s hysterical,” he says, referring to Jack Nicholson, whose career was established with a best supporting actor nomination for “Easy Rider.”
For 87-year-old Gloria Stuart, the most palpable and welcome impact of her nomination is in the torrent of good will that has come her way. It is interesting to note--especially when one considers the limited breadth of a film career in the 1930s highlighted by roles in “The Invisible Man” and “The Old Dark House"--that “Titanic” marks her second appearance in a best picture nominee. The first was in 1934, in a tepidly received James Cagney potboiler called “Here Comes the Navy,” for which Jack Warner purportedly strong-armed his minions into casting their votes.
Aside from a small bit in “My Favorite Year” in 1982, Stuart, who co-founded the Screen Actors Guild in 1933, recalls that her last notable acting gig was touring with Sam Levene in a revival of the stage comedy “Three Men on a Horse” during the Second World War. In the interim years, she has been painting, cooking and running off limited editions of books on a cottage-industry printing press behind her California home.
Her acting future is unclear, although not from want of her own interest. “I’ve been sent four scripts (since her nomination), but they’re all inappropriate,” she says wistfully. “No one writes good movies for older women. The last really good part was Jessica Tandy’s in ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ But there may be possibilities in the classics. I’m reading lots of Thomas Hardy.”
Stuart’s dilemma reflects a long-running plaint of some of America’s greatest actresses. One of the more noteworthy was Bette Davis, who ran a semi-facetious ad in the trade papers looking for work a year or so before her 1962 comeback performance in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” for which she received a best actress nomination. “She was so sure she was going to win,” says Bona. “It was really the first time she was on top of her profession again. She was absolutely shocked that Anne Bancroft won (for ‘The Miracle Worker’).”
The thought of putting an ad in Variety or participating in the sort of media blitz that preceded Joan Crawford’s Oscar-winning comeback turn in “Mildred Pierce” (1945) would be anathema to nominee Julie Christie, whose part in Alan Rudolph’s “Afterglow,” ironically, is that of a long-unemployed actress. The 56-year-old Oscar winner for “Darling” (1965) has made relatively few films in the past decade, and if one reads between the lines of “Afterglow” producer Robert Altman, the reasons would appear to be as much self-imposed as they are for want of good parts.
“She just doesn’t take a job because somebody says there is a job,” explains Altman, who directed Christie in one of her standout early roles, the savvy cathouse Madame in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” “She was reluctant when I first called her about ‘Afterglow.’ She only agreed to do it after reading it and many conversations with Alan.
“She’s very, very private and she’s very honest about that. We can’t get her to do any publicity. She just doesn’t like the limelight. She’s not comfortable in it. She says the one thing she fears is to be famous. And I said, ‘Well, you already are.’ ”
Like Christie, Burt Reynolds in “Boogie Nights” plays a laborer in the nether regions of the film industry. For Reynolds, who for five years was Hollywood’s biggest box-office draw (roughly from “The Longest Yard” in 1974 to “Starting Over” in 1979), The Slide left him bankrupt and the object of derision (winning the anti-Oscar Razzie selection as worst actor for 1993’s “Cop and 1/2" and nominations for 1984’s ‘Cannonbal Run II” and 1988’s “Rent-a-Cop.”
Then there are those instances when fate robs a star of their hard-earned comeback and the luxury of determining the frequency of one’s work. Ask Patricia Neal, who, at 72, still struggles with the memory lapses incurred by three massive strokes she suffered at the age of 39 in 1964. It was only months before she would win the Oscar for her role as the housekeeper in “Hud.” At the time of her stroke, she was pregnant with her daughter Ophelia, who was born 10 days after the Oscar ceremony (Neal watched from her home in England, where she was rehabilitating) and now has two children of her own.
“The world was going to be wonderful! It was all going to happen,” recalls Neal, who had known the Slide as a contract player relegated to B-movies in the early 1950s. “I did ‘In Harm’s Way’ and ‘Psyche 29,’ and I was set to do a John Ford picture [‘Seven Women,’ the director’s last]. Then the stroke happened.”
A New Yorker once again after her divorce from writer Roald Dahl, Neal recounts her experience from a friend’s house in Los Angeles where she is about to board a ship for one of five cruises she does each year, giving talks about her life. She would resurface for a second comeback and a second Oscar nomination with “The Subject Was Roses” (1968), a part she took at Dahl’s urging. “I didn’t want to do it. And for the first few days, I hated it. Then things began to turn around and I fell in love with it.” What turned the tide? “I’m an actress!” she answers triumphantly.
Given the hairpin turns of life, one can readily understand why comeback Oscar winners inspire standing ovations. It takes a soul of leathery endurance, like Neal, and never-say-die resilience, like Fonda, Forster and Reynolds, to tough out the dry spells.
When asked about surviving those long droughts, Forster shares a story from a workshop he gives on “How to Motivate Yourself,” about a man walking late at night who comes across a drunk bent over beneath a street light. “What are you looking for, buddy?” he asks the drunk. “I’m looking for my keys,” the drunk responds. “Let me help you. Where did you lose them?” The drunk points and says, “Oh, way over there.” “Then why are you looking here?” “The light’s better.”
“If you know something is true,” Forster says, “and you don’t do what you know is true, then you get what you deserve. And it’s not that hard to hang on to this: Accept all things, deliver excellence right now and never quit. Because this is true.”