There are plenty of second and third acts in showbiz. Here are six candidates--Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Goldie Hawn, John Travolta, Burt Reynolds, Marlon Brando--ripe for a comeback.
Whatever Warren Beatty does is news. He enjoys complete celebrity-dom. But is he still a star? Beatty's fame owes as much to his glamorous puss as to a succession of popular films such as Bonnie and Clyde and Shampoo. As an actor (and producer and director), Beatty has always been at his best when he is lampooning his offscreen reputation (as in Shampoo) or concealing it (in McCabe and Mrs. Miller). He's never had much range as an actor, but he has had sex appeal and a knack for surrounding himself with major league talent. It's no coincidence that his best films have been ensemble pieces. Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait and Bonnie and Clyde, the three successes upon which his popularity is based, were gold mines of acting, writing, and directing talent.
But since Heaven Can Wait _a decade ago, he's only made two films, the critically successful but commercially disappointing _Reds and the mega-disaster Ishtar. While his looks have held up remarkably well, by the time of Reds he was clearly too old to be playing a juvenile--John Reed was a political idealist in his 20's. Still, Beatty managed to deflect criticism for having brought off such a project, for which he won an Oscar as best director. But several years slipped by before Ishtar. That disaster proved only a temporary setback, for Dustin Hoffman, whose previous film, Tootsie, had been a major success. For Beatty the damage was more serious. His comings and goings are still news, but he lags behind as a leading man. His marquee value (especially with a younger audience) is in doubt, whereas contemporaries like Robert Redford, and older actors like Paul Newman, are still popular with ticket buyers.
Which brings us to Dick Tracy, Beatty's latest high-stakes gamble. It's a project he's stubbornly nursed for years, turning down acting assignments, postponing his Howard Hughes project. As Hoffman did in Rain Man, Beatty has allied himself with a top young co-star, Madonna.
Dick Tracy will have to live on its own merits. Beatty is not enough to pull audiences into the theater, and Madonna is certainly no guarantee (despite their suspiciously over-publicized romance). But even if it doesn't live up to expectations, it will be an event, the kind of film that could induce media frenzy as Batman has this year. That will at least keep Beatty's name in front of the public. He is expected to follow with the Howard Hughes project. Talk is that Steven Spielberg might direct. With the help of a strong director, Beatty's audience popularity could roar back to life; that is, if he can let go of his vanity long enough to give the kind of character performance he delivered for Robert Altman in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. A flashy, charged performance could give Beatty a whole new career as a maturing sex symbol on the order of Paul Newman.
The irony of Al Pacino is that Robert De Niro is having what could have been his career. The promise Pacino demonstrated in the two Godfather films, Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico took him to the top of the A-list in the 70s. He was the premiere "ethnic" leading man of the day. But it was De Niro who got the Oscar in Godfather II and who, paired with director Martin Scorsese, went on to usurp Pacino via such films as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Pacino fell to second place and was further hampered by a series of bad choices, such as Bobby Deerfield, Author! Author!, and Revolution.
Pacino could bounce back with this fall's Sea of Love, a romantic thriller, and more important, at year's end he is scheduled to start Godfather III for Francis Coppola. There is also talk of his doing the film versions of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow. A solid hit could make him viable again, allowing him the luxury to make the occasional indifferent film (as De Niro has) and remain unscathed.
It's not that Pacino's ever lacked for offers and his strong stage performances in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Richard III and Mamet's American Buffalo have partially offset his recent bad film choices. But unlike De Niro right before The Untouchables, Pacino is currently in transition and needs a critical or box office hit that will turn the spotlight on him once again. He needs to differentiate himself from the pack of leading male character actors, as Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman have done. He needs a Rain Man or a Mississippi Burning, or even a standout supporting role like De Niro's Al Capone. Or he could return to the stage, to focus attention and praise on his still bright but somewhat tarnished star, preferably in a new work or even a stunning revival, as Hoffman did in Death of a Salesman. There are plenty of second and even third acts in show business. The memory of Pacino's past work is still fresh enough to carry him until the curtain rises again.
The blazing arrival of John Travolta in back-to-back block-buster films Saturday Night Fever and Grease was virtually unprecedented. In the period of a year, he rose from being a supporting TV sitcom player to superstar. And while none of his subsequent films like Urban Cowboy, Staying Alive and Blow Out ever achieved the dizzying heights of his first two starring roles, they did him no harm either. Travolta's main problem over the last couple of years has been skittishness. After coming so far, so fast, he seems to have become so terrified of choosing wrong that he has not chosen at all. He would have been forgiven mistakes such as Two of a Kind and Moment by Moment if he had made more films. While he was deciding, the projects he passed on, such as American Gigolo, helped establish rising talents tike Richard Gere. A whole new crop of actors appeared in roles Travolta could easily have played, everyone from Matt Dillon to Nicolas Cage to Sean Penn. In the meantime, as happens every decade or so, the look of young leading men changed in favor of more clean-cut all-American types like Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and Michael J. Fox. Still Travolta waited, appearing only in the mislabelled Perfect.
Travolta has chosen to return to work in trivial comedies like the barely-released The Experts. His new film, Look Who's Talking, doesn't sound much more promising. True, he's not easily castable; he has a specific look, and, based on his work to date, a narrow range. Travolta is, however, more likeable and genial than many of his contemporaries, like Gere and Mickey Rourke. It would be great to see him in a true ensemble piece or a sparkling cameo. He could even do with some reflected glory, appearing with another male superstar (the way Robert Redford got a boost up from his films with Paul New-man). Travolta is young enough (only 35) that he needn't worry about taking on mature roles, yet. He just needs to work more, relax (that is not a paradox), and let it happen.
Burt Reynolds has been making a career of trying to come back, and of late, each attempt has appeared more desperate than the last. His endless succession of sarcastic gumshoes and scamps long ago lost their novelty and appeal (as has finally come to pass with Clint Eastwood). There was a period, with films like Semi-Tough (his most likeable performance), The End and Starting Over, during which Reynolds started to dabble in more sophisticated humor. But any time he stepped out of his cocky, hard-boiled persona and tried to be more vulnerable, tie looked ill-at-ease, as if he couldn't wait to get his lips around a snappy retort.
Of course, no one forced him to do three Smoky and the Bandit films or two Cannonball Run movies either. By that time he was in the hefty multi-million-dollar salary range (reportedly around $5 million a film) and didn't have the good judgment to say no to these roles-even when he was getting too old for them.
The latest attempt at rescusitation is Bill Forsyth's Break-in' In, for which Reynolds has finally tossed off his toupee; and without even a wink at middle age (he's 53), he's playing an old codger. At this point it can't possibly hurt his career. As he's demonstrated in such recent fiascos as Switching Channels and Physical Evidence, he is capable of doing good work in even the most misguided movie. But if it's true that he turned down Terms of Endearment (in the role Nicholson eventually played), then Reynolds's career reversals rest solidly on his own shoulders.
What is it about comediennes that they all want to be Sarah Bernhardt (or Meryl Streep)? When critics compare you to Judy Holliday and Carole Lombard, why ask for trouble? Goldie Hawn became one of Hollywood's bankable leading women by playing the perennial dumb blonde with a streak of vulnerability a mile wide. As Holliday and Lombard both demonstrated, you have to be pretty smart to play dumb. In films such as Cactus Flower, Shampoo, Private Benjamin and Foul Play she was winning, sympathetic, and never strident. As she has matured, the logical route has been toward more character-oriented roles--and not necessarily supporting parts. Jane Fonda is a great example, playing the wreck of a former glamour girl in The Morning After, the flip side of a role she would have played when she was younger. Hawn tried to go serious with the ill-fated Swing Shift, a Fonda-like role for which she was unsuited. When Swing Shift didn't work, she scurried back to comedies, inferior ones like Protocol and Overboard.
Hawn has never been unpopular as a comedienne. But she's repeating herself, and sensing that she's at a crossroads in her career, she has left her comfy berth at Warner Bros, and moved over to Disney, But first she's doing a comedy/drama, Bird on a Wire, with Mel Gibson, which also sounds like a good move.
Comedy remains her strength--not such a bad fate. You can't buy that kind of timing and affability. There's something of the "everygirl" about her that plays low on the IQ scale, but very high on the empathy meter. If she insists on doing drama, she could take a peck at her own performance in Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express, a variation on which--as an older character--she could play today.
Brando is an anomaly in that his career has been virtually without slumps. He has never really needed to make a comeback, because Hollywood has never turned its back on him. There have been minor setbacks, particularly in the years preceding The Godfather when he was making the transition from young leading man to older roles less dependent on his sexual dynamism. (Jack Nicholson went through a similar transitional phase, pulling himself out of the doldrums via back-to-back scene-stealing supporting roles in Reds and, more importantly, in Terms of Endearment) Brando took on Don Corleone (even reportedly auditioned for it), a part for which he was technically too young--he was 48 at the time--but which gave him the chance to shine without having to carry the whole film. And he followed it with the sublime Last Tango in Paris, as volatile and sexually charged a performance as his Stanley Kowalski (the part could almost be called his Blanche Dubois).
Like Garbo, Brando has largely remained aloof from Hollywood, riding off into the sunset of enforced retirement in Tahiti and every so often materializing in the U.S. for a reluctant photo opportunity. He has not exactly been irreplaceable; Nicholson has pretty much filled the gap. Still, you wonder if even a star as popular as Nicholson would not have been cast aside if Brando had voiced a desire to play the devil in The Witches of Eastwick or The Joker in Batman--roles in which he could have made antic hay.
Inaccessibility has been part of the Brando mystique. He has fueled his own legend. No matter what trend Hollywood is slavishly following--teen comedies, sci-fi flicks, horror movies-- Brando has been a blithe exception, capable of commanding roles to be written for him or tailored to his demands, Superman being a perfect example. What other actor--even one of our current superstars--would he permitted to arrive on the set late without having memorized his lines and be allowed to read them off a desk top while the camera's rolling?
The upcoming apartheid drama A Dry White Season immediately acquired cachet when Brando's name became attached to the project--he did it for scale--as much because it marks his return to the screen as because any script to which Brando consents is thought special--_The Missouri Breaks_ and The Formula notwithstanding. The producers of his other new film, The Freshman, have gotten mileage out of Brando's presence and the parallels between his new character and that of Don Corleone. Again, he plays a mob figure, although an older and more portly one than in The Godfather.
Whatever the outcome of his latest "comeback" projects, Brando's star is not likely to fade. After his body of great work in the early '50s, the actor's desirability has never really been attached to the box office performance of his films, and probably never will be.
Richard Natale is Movieline's film critic.