Sometimes a star comeback can be a huge narrative that propels an actor or actress to an Oscar win, whether it’s a second an overdue first or a first nomination. Think Paul Newman, Julianne Moore or Jack Palance.
This year, there are a handful of contenders that are hoping Hollywood remembers their heyday, forgives their sins and rolls out the red carpet to the Dolby Theatre this February. In Part 1 I’ll discuss Renée Zellweger, Alfre Woodard, Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler in the year of star turns and returns to Oscar glory.
Renée Zellweger may already have an Oscar in hand (in Supporting Actress for 2002’s Cold Mountain) but it was a hard fought win after her surprise loss the year before for Chicago (losing to Nicole Kidman, who would become her Cold Mountain co-star). For Zellweger, her post-Oscar career was a dismal lineup of box office and critical bombs, a failed marriage and a media that was hyper-focused on her looks and ‘What did she have done?’ stories. In 2010 it all became too much and she took a much-needed sabbatical. “I realized that for 20 years I had been living in someone else’s house, someone else’s clothes. I needed to have my own life experiences. Experiences that I could then bring back to my work,” she said at her tribute at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival. She returned to work in 2016 in another series of flops (including the final Bridget Jones film) and a supporting turn the juicy, campy Netflix limited series What/If, but then found the project that would restore and revitalize her in one of those ‘she was born to play this role’ parts, portraying icon Judy Garland in Judy. Zellweger so perfectly understood the media scrutiny that Garland faced and channels her, while never losing herself, in the performance of her career. At the moment, Zellweger sits in the frontrunner spot. Her film came out at the end of September and sometimes that more of a curse than a blessing, but in a shortened season it may just be perfect timing.
It’s been 35 years (!!!) since Alfre Woodard‘s first and only Oscar nomination (Supporting Actress for Cross Creek). Since then, she’s gone on to earn an astonishing 17 Emmy nominations (for 16 different shows, an Emmy record), winning three. Her television career flourished after that Oscar nomination, but her film career not so much. The 1990s brought a wealth of film roles, most notably in Passion Fish, Crookyln and Star Trek: First Contact. Since then she’s easily drifted between film and television to become one of Hollywood’s most venerable working actresses. With Clemency, in which she plays a warden of a prison on the eve of an execution of a black man who may or may not have committed the crime he’s about to die for, Woodard has re-entered the Oscar conversation with gusto. The film, which doesn’t open until December 27, has given her multiple fall film festival tributes and opportunities for voters to see her incredible performance (the last five minutes alone are awards-worthy) and in a shortened season that visibility has been crucial.
Eddie Murphy should have won the Supporting Actor Oscar for Dreamgirls. Everything was lined up for him. In 2006, this was his first real comeback. Dreamgirls was a big hit and earned 8 Oscar nominations. Murphy won the Critics Choice, the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award for his portrayal of James ‘Thunder’ Early. The BAFTA snub was telling but not terribly surprising considering their history of ignoring some black, American actors (Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington has still never been nominated there). But two factors stood in his way – the film missed out on a Best Picture nomination and nearly all of the attention and focus turned to Jennifer Hudson, who would go on to win everything. Actually there was a third factor, the eventual winner – Alan Arkin – was a veteran in a Best Picture nominee (Little Miss Sunshine) and returning to Oscar after a 38-year gap since his last nomination. That narrative become stronger than the drive to reward Murphy. There’s also the thought that Murphy’s film Norbit, his crude and critically reviled attempt to replicate the success of his Nutty Professor reboot, might have soured voters. That film went on to earn its own Oscar nomination for makeup. That all brings us to 2019, where Murphy has what many call the best role and performance of his career in Dolemite Is My Name. Playing 70s indie filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore, Dolemite Is My Name is a perfect comeback vehicle for Murphy as the story mirrors his own comeback. Will the industry be ready to give Murphy another shot at gold? It’s a tough year in Best Actor and he’s up against not simply regular competition but three other actors from Netflix: Adam Driver in Marriage Story, Robert De Niro in The Irishman and Jonathan Pryce in The Two Popes.
The road to Oscar for a comedian has always been a tough one. Even tougher to win (see Eddie Murphy above). Adam Sandler has only really been in the Oscar conversation once, and deservedly so, for Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love. He received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical but his awards run began and ended there. Sandler has been on the comeback road, in a sense, for a few years. Never regarded very seriously as an actor, he stuck with his low-brow comedies and secured himself a killer deal with Netflix to churn out even more. But then the Safdie Brothers (Good Time) got their hands on him and wrote the role of a lifetime for Sandler in Uncut Gems that perfectly encapsulated the actor in every possible way. It’s probably a safe bet that Sandler can again land a Globe nod and an Independent Spirit nomination also seems likely. But can he get SAG (or BAFTA) to help bolster his Oscar chances?