When Judy Garland made A Star is Born in 1954, the film was heavily sold as her comeback vehicle. The notoriously troubled star hadn’t made a movie since 1950’s Summer Stock (she had been let go from production of Royal Wedding, which came out that same year). Garland was still America’s sweetheart, however, and audiences wanted the inimitable power behind Dorothy Gale back on their screens. While four years away from the big screen doesn’t seem all that bad today - think of how often we used to wait between new Daniel Day-Lewis films, and we never thought of those as comebacks - this was still a time where actors making movies every year was the expected norm. Everyone knew what was happening in Garland’s life. By that point in her life, she had lost the shields from the press that MGM had provided since her childhood, but she was always so easy to root for. People wanted to see her succeed and A Star is Born was the perfect vehicle for that: A big dramatic musical that would allow her to belt and be vulnerable and remind audiences of just what she was capable of. The story, that age old Hollywood fable, was her life, albeit more the James Mason side of it than the character she played. Garland hadn’t been gone very long when A Star is Born premiered but it made sure everyone knew she was here to stay.
Comebacks are a curious thing that are as much a part of the bedrock of pop culture as fandom and criticism. They require a great rise, then a notable disappearance or a tragic fall, but not too tragic. It’s a complex emotional phenomenon that sates both our natural inclination to root for the underdogs and our not-so-secret love of train-wrecks. It’s a whole lot more acceptable to mock someone’s downfall when you know you’re going to be cheering along with everyone else when they get back on that stage.
The world of celebrity is also an unbearably cruel one. it chews up people after promising them the world then quickly reminds them that they’re a disposable commodity, one that can be replaced in a heartbeat by someone younger, someone cheaper, someone who won’t talk back. In that sense, the narrative of A Star is Born reads more like an industry instructional guide or a manual of sacrifice: For one to rise, another must fall. That makes the comeback seem not only redemptive but rebellious. They survived, they stuck around long enough, they weren’t crushed by a system that takes such pride in smothering its prey. We can’t help but feel calmed when it’s pulled off too. Think of how, for so many years, people were practically waiting for Robert Downey Jr. to be found dead of an overdose. His comeback was a collective sigh of relief for many, as well as a reminder of what we’d been missing.
But not all comebacks are mired in such unpleasantness. Sometimes, a person just needs to go away for a while. Stars get burned out or need a break to rejuvenate their creativity or some times to be a normal person. Those creative peaks that delighted us so much seldom last for an entire career and there will typically be downturns that leave us yearning for more, even if those figures never go away. But we still miss them in the way we miss those who left on sadder terms and we want more from them, so their return sparks that nostalgic glow in us that has proven ever more enticing in darker times when all we want is to be reminded of better days. I think of this every time someone tries to categorize Lady Gaga’s work in A Star is Born - there that story is again - as a comeback. She makes a couple of less successful albums while remaining one of the biggest stars on the planet but she still gets a comeback?
The most satisfying comebacks occur when a social or political wrong is righted. Ellen DeGeneres couldn’t find decent work in the entertainment industry for years after her self-titled sitcom ended, following both her character’s coming out and her own. Bigots boycotted her, advertisers pulled out, viewer numbers dropped, and it seemed as though DeGeneres would be best remembered as a pioneer turned sacrificial lamb. Watching her not only return to the limelight but become the indomitable face of daytime talk-shows was practically pop culture justice.
Comebacks can happen when the industry finally decides they know what to do with a star or when they are given the opportunity to mould themselves. Katharine Hepburn was infamously crowned ‘box office poison’ in the 1930s thanks to a string of flops but she turned it around by buying the film rights to The Philadelphia Story and turning it into her comeback vehicle as well as cementing that now beloved Katharine Hepburn persona. Michael Keaton seemed to disappear without a trace until he made a triumphant return mocking himself and the very notion of him needing a comeback. David Bowie has had many comebacks, depending on who you ask, from his exit from the wilderness of his 1980s pop period to his re-emergence after a decade out of the spotlight in 2013. The first time around, he came back fighting after a dissatisfying series of albums that made him, shock horror, kind of uncool. The second time around, his legend was so all-consuming that his comeback was more a reminder of his coolness than a need to reassert it. Not that David Bowie would ever care about the need to be ahead of the zeitgeist.
Audiences love a narrative and so does the entertainment industry. When people become commodities, it’s easier to craft a neater story to sell their lives around. Even when we know how many strings are being pulled, we can’t help but be taken in by the spectacle. The simple and unescapable truth is that, when it’s done right and all the stars align, it’s like a rebirth and we never get sick of that. When Judy Garland sings ‘The Man That Got Away’, you’re just glad she’s back.
What are your favourite pop culture comebacks? Let us know in the comments.