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 looked at Renée Zellweger, Alfre Woodard, Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler. For Part 2 I’ll discuss Joe Pesci, Jennifer Lopez, Shia LaBeouf and Maggie Smith in the year of star turns and returns to Oscar glory.
Joe Pesci is a the king of brevity. When he won Best Supporting Actor for 1990’s Goodfellas, his Oscar speech was a whopping five seconds long (“Well, it’s my privilege, thank you”). After his Oscar win, Pesci was everywhere in the 1990s. Sequels to Home Alone and Lethal Weapon, My Cousin Vinny, JFK and another with Martin Scorsese, 1995’s Casino. After 1998 he took a long break and didn’t make another film until 2006’s The Good Shepherd. Then another break, landing on 2010’s Love Ranch, his last feature film until The Irishman this year. It makes sense that it would take Scorsese to bring Pesci out of retirement/seclusion and it’s fitting that his only two Oscar nominations come from Scorsese pictures. But, unlike Raging Bull and Goodfellas, this time around he’s going to contend against his own co-star, Al Pacino (who’s also got a comeback narrative – he hasn’t been nominated since he won in 1994). Unlike his character in Goodfellas, his Russell Bufalino in The Irishman is quiet and reserved. It’s one of Pesci’s most nuanced performances and his last scenes in the 3.5 hour film are among his greatest ever. Pacino gets to bluster and bully and belt out his lines and that may hurt Pesci with voters that like their acting LOUD. Luckily for both of them, the streak of no two supporting actors coming from the same film was finally broken in 2018 when Woody Harrelson and eventual winner Sam Rockwell both got in for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (it had been 26 years since it happened) so it could happen again. It’s a tough year in supporting actor with, once again, bonafide co-leads mucking it up for real supporting players.
Jennifer Lopez may be a music superstar but her forays into acting have been pretty fantastic and even garnered some awards attention. In 1996, she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her performance in My Family. She earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in 1997’s Selena, portraying the slain Tejano singer and many feel she deserved an Oscar nomination for it, too. The next year she came in with Out of Sight. That earned her an Alma Award and two MTV Movie Award nominations. She’s logged in almost as many People’s Choice Award nominations as Razzie nominations (and wins at both) but this year released a wind named Ramona that took wigs into space in Hustlers. After a breakneck production and post-production schedule word of mouth began to circulate that the Lorene Scafaria film, about a group of exotic dancers who conspire to rip of Wall Street douchebags, was actually pretty damn good. Then it hit the Toronto International Film Festival and Oscar talk broke loose. Stunning reviews, best of career for Lopez, deafening Oscar buzz and $100M later and Lopez looks prime for gold.
There might not be a better comeback story than Shia LaBeouf‘s this year, and the kind Hollywood loves. After hitting success largely on television as a child actor in shows like Even Stevens, LaBeouf got his big break in a feature film with the adaptation of Holes in 2003, a role that earned him an MTV Movie Award nomination for Breakthrough Male Performance. That kept him working in his teens in small parts in big film like Constantine, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and I, Robot. But it was 2007’s Transformers that really blew the doors open for him. A massive hit, LaBeouf was thrust into the limelight and into addictions, PTSD and battles with his manager father. That period is the core of Honey Boy, the semi-autobiographical film from director Alma Har’el and written by LaBeouf. A truly incredible piece of cathartic brilliance, LaBeouf plays his own father in the film, working through demons and heartache and violence. Through all of his drunk driving arrests, trouble and difficulties, LaBeouf never stopped working, bouncing from two more Transformers films to John Hillcoat’s Lawless to Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and even dabbled in multiple performance art pieces. These were all efforts to not simply expand his repertoire and test the boundaries of his abilities but also to let people in in a way he never had before. Adding to Honey Boy, LaBeouf also starred in The Peanut Butter Falcon, about a drifter who teams up with a young man with Down’s Syndrome who’s run away from his care home. Themes of fathers and parenting are also woven into Peanut Butter but with Honey Boy, the actor has a chance at Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay notices. Does LaBeouf need that type of validation? He was deep on the junket and press trail for Honey Boy, at Q&As revealing intimate details that he even called it “group therapy” at the Mill Valley Film Festival. He’s rallied against the idea of actors needing validation to exist but at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to feel that? He’s also hitting events so he seems to be up for it. The Independent Spirits will probably love him and the film so he can start there.
Does Maggie Smith need a comeback at 84 years of age? Maybe need isn’t the right word but it’s been a while since Oscar has called her name. Her last nomination was for 2002’s Gosford Park but she’s come close a few times since: a SAG nomination for 2011’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for 2015’s The Lady in the Van. But neither clicked with the Academy. Instead, the two-time Oscar winner became an Emmy and SAG champion on television with Downton Abbey. She received five Emmy nominations for playing Dowager Countess Violet Crawley and won three of them. At SAG she received eight nominations (both as a cast member and as an individual) and won four times – one individual, three as part of the cast. The film version of Downton Abbey is closing in on $100M, the highest grossing film in the history of Focus Features and you can be pretty sure she’s going to secure one or two more SAG noms for it. At the Globes, she’s been nominated twice and won once for the role so again, a good shot at returning. She also has a BAFTA TV nom for it, among her 18 nominations, five wins, Lifetime Achievement Award and Academy Fellowship. You simply don’t come more rewarded at BAFTA than Maggie Smith. So, that’s SAG, GG and BAFTA. Seems like a lock, right? Not so fast. Nearly every year is someone who secures all of those precursors (and Critics Choice) and gets snubbed right at the end and it’s often previous winners (Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton and Marion Cotillard say hello) so even if Smith gets all of those she might still not be a lock.