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Oscars '98

Back to Their Future

This year's Oscars could be called the Comeback Derby, what with the careers of five veterans being rejuvenated by nominations.

March 22, 1998|Jan Stuart | Jan Stuart is a staff writer for Newsday

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."


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