Along the Twisted Path: The Surprising Career Turns of Hollywood (Telstar Media)

A lot can happen in ten years, mostly in ways you can’t really see coming. In 2012, Manchester City won the English Premiership, America has a black President that isn’t Morgan Freeman, and dubstep is a thing. Could you have predicted that in 2002? You’d think the film industry is an institution that couldn’t throw up many surprises; great actors win Oscars, bad filmmakers make Transformers, and Kirk Douglas will live forever. However, in the past decade there’s been a lot of surprising twists and turns, and even Nate Silver’s math caviar couldn’t predict some of them.

Under themed headings, I’ll be looking at the careers of certain filmmakers and how they’ve changed quite dramatically. Basic career ascensions are excluded, as it’s not miraculous that somebody can get really famous in the space of a decade. Likewise, people die, sometimes suddenly, and I wont be covering that. But this still leaves several examples of changes that would quite possibly leave a recently-recovered coma patient mildly incredulous for, like, ten seconds. Maybe fifteen at a push.

An A+ for Rehabilitation
It’s not uncommon for somebody going into rehab to be, you know, successfully rehabilitated. But for years, it never seemed like it would work for Robert Downey Jr. After emerging on the fringes of the 1980s Brat Pack to achieve critical success with films like Chaplin, Downey spiralled into failure with several high-profile drugs arrests and prison time. While his stint in Ally McBeal was critically acclaimed, it was soured by his personal troubles and eventually led to his sacking from the show. This is not a man you’d predict to be one of the biggest movie stars ten years later, but in 2001 he was finally on the road to recovery. Films like The Singing Detective and Gothika helped start his career rebuilding (and personal rebuilding, as he met his wife on the set of the latter), before he began winning serious critical acclaim again in hit films like Kiss Kiss, Bang BangA Scanner Darkly, and Zodiac. 2008 saw him break through to blockbuster level, as he starred as Tony Stark in the adaptation of Marvel’s Iron Man. His subsequent performances as Stark in the Marvel universe have kept his stock very high – culminating in the massive success of this year’s billion-dollar smash The Avengers – as has his leading roles in other acclaimed blockbusters such as Sherlock Holmes and Tropic Thunder, his role as an Oscar-baiting method actor in the latter earning him a irony-laced Oscar nomination of his own.

When Russell Brand spiralled into substance abuse at the start of last decade, he didn’t even have the benefit of a previously acclaimed career. He worked as a television presenter for MTV and made a little headway as a stand-up comedian, but these became drowned out by his drug issues, as well as the controversy when he showed up to MTV dressed as Osama Bin Laden on September 12th 2001. Cleaning up in 2003, he translated his drug problems into a number of brutally honest stand-up routines, and gained regular work hosting several sister shows to Big Brother. International recognition came after hosting the MTV Video Music Awards a number of times, and a Hollywood acting career was launched with a part in hit comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He reprised his role as rockstar Aldous Snow with a leading role in Get Him To The Greek, and gained further leading and supporting roles in ArthurThe Tempest and Despicable Me. He’s also written for the Guardian, released an autobiography, and was married to popstar Katy Perry. I can’t think of anybody else who’s mocked 9/11 and had as successful a career since.

Escaping the Critical Shitheap (Or Diving In Head-First)
Ben Affleck‘s been something of a Telstar regular as of late, in Jonathan’s feature on actor-directors and Nuala’s review of his latest film, Argo. The film, an account of the bizarre rescue of American hostages during the Iran uprising of the late 1970s/80s, has been receiving some major critical plaudits, Affleck’s third directorial effort in a row to do so – out of three. It’s a hefty achievement for somebody who, up until quite recently, was something of a punchline. He emerged in the 1990s with roles in Dazed and Confused and a number of Kevin Smith films, before winning an Oscar with childhood friend Matt Damon for co-writing 1997’s Good Will Hunting. Both he and Damon became major Hollywood stars, though it’s hard to argue that Damon made the better choices, his career being a fairly consistent string of critical and commercial success. Affleck had a number of hits with the likes of Armageddon and Dogma, but these were stuck in between critical flops like Reindeer Games and Forces of Nature. He then began a relationship with Jennifer Lopez, which became the focus of a media frenzy and coincided with some of the worst-reviewed films of his career – Pearl Harbour, Gigli, Jersey Girl*, and so on. After his relationship with Lopez ended, he took a break from the ridicule. He returned a couple of years later with a well-received turn in Hollywoodland, before his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone and its follow-up The Town helped begin erasing the memory of the early 2000s. And Argo might have just completed it.

One man who has fine-tuned his status as a punchline in recent years is director M. Night Shyamalan. He initially gained wunderkind plaudits for creepy horror The Sixth Sense. His follow-up, Unbreakable, also received acclaim, though less rapturous. Signs was the first to divide critics, with his writing style and reliance on a shock twist beginning to grate on many. From there, his plaudits began drying up. The Village and Lady in the Water received negative reviews, and The Happening seems now to exist as a showcase of how every single aspect of a film can go horribly wrong. Somehow, his adaptation of television’s Avatar: The Last Airbender received even worse reviews. It’s fairly common for auteurs to go awry with their creative vision, but nobody has crumpled so spectacularly in recent times as Shyamalan.

* I will defend Jersey Girl to the end, but there’s no escaping from its critical mauling.

The Most Hidden of Depths
Just like Mark Wahlberg will always be former rapper Marky Mark of Funky Bunch fame to me, Justin Timberlake will never fully escape from the legacy of boy band N*SYNC. At the start of the 2000s, the band were big stars, and Timberlake himself had already enjoyed a bit of an escape as the band’s success overshadowed his tenure as a Mouseketeer, along with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling (who I’d have included in a 15-year example of this feature, if only to use a photo of him in Young Hercules). His subsequent solo career increased his status in the music community even further, but was hardly a beacon of critical acclaim. He made several appearances on Saturday Night Live, the gleeful mockery of his carefully-tuned popstar cred hinting at a self-awareness that had not been evident before. He’d made a couple of film appearances, but his role in crime drama Alpha Dog saw him receiving noteworthy acclaim, even in a number of middling reviews for the film in general. Taking a break from music, he acted in a few more films before the release of David Fincher’s The Social Network in 2010. The film was very well-received and many critics deemed his performance as Napster founder Sean Parker worthy of an Oscar nomination, though it never materialised. The film helped astound many of Timberlake’s detractors into admitting his worth as a charismatic actor, and he has continued to star in a number of hit films since.

Kathryn Bigelow was best known for a long time as a purveyor of stylish thrillers, having had a memorable run of them with Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days. That said, they were not the most critically well-received, with many critics deeming her films brainless actioners. She was certainly overshadowed by the successes of her ex-husband James Cameron, who gained great critical and commercial success with his action films, and then the behemoth triumph of Titanic. But in 2009 she returned with the war film The Hurt Locker, which retains portions of her visceral style, but delves into a deeper psychological analysis of its characters. The film received near-universal acclaim, and went head-to-head with Cameron’s Avatar at the Academy Awards that year. This time, Bigelow triumphed, The Hurt Locker winning Best Picture and five other Oscars, including Best Director, the first ever win for a female filmmaker in that category. Her next film, Zero Dark Thirty, reunited her with Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal and the themes of war, as it tackles the story of the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Someone in Hollywood Finally Gave Whedon a Break
In 2012, Joss Whedon rules supreme. His Avengers was a monumental success, making over a billion dollars at the box office, and now sitting as the third highest grossing movie of all time; all this from a film that many assumed would suffer from the overload of its too-many-cooks premise. This year also saw the release of The Cabin in the Woods, a Whedon-penned deconstruction of teen slasher movies that garnered great critical and modest commercial success. Furthermore, he’s got creative control over the next three years of Marvel in the run up to the Avengers sequel in 2015. The world must seems like a shiny oyster to Whedon now, but ten years ago as he struggled in vain to keep Firefly on the air I imagined he’d have broken a rib imagining himself with that much freedom.

After spending the first half of the 1990s as a scripter-for-hire – he helped write SpeedAlien: ResurrectionToy Story (for which he received an Oscar nod), among many more, credited or otherwise – he revived one of his early scripts, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as a television series. The show is often regarded as one of television’s greatest, and there is an extensive academic body devoted to it and its spinoff, Angel. The cult following that Buffy enjoys is matched by that of Firefly, a space western lovechild of Star Wars. However, its run was cut short and only ran for one series, plus the follow-up film Serenity, Whedon’s directorial debut.

As well as being a filmmaker, Whedon has also worked as a composer and comic book author; the former showcased in his incredibly popular web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, co-writing most of the music with his brother Jed. He produced another series, Dollhouse, in 2009, but it too was cancelled early. Cabin in the Woods nearly didn’t see the light of day either, MGM’s bankruptcy delaying its release for three years. One can only imagine (and hope) that his successes this year ensure that everybody is forced to do his bidding from now on.

And Now For Something Completely Different
Bryan Singer can sleep easy knowing he holds my undying respect for making The Usual Suspects, but you can’t help but laugh at his ignorance when it came to casting Hugh Laurie as House, where Singer declared him “just the kind of compelling American actor” he was looking for. Not only is Laurie not American in any shape or form, Singer’s proclamation is just so hilarious because of how quintessentially British much of Laurie’s career has been. He made his name as a comedy duo with Stephen Fry, another man you’d never mistake for anything other than oh-so-terribly British, in shows like A Bit of Fry & Laurie and Jeeves & Wooster, in addition to their appearances in several seasons of Blackadder. It seems American producers have this problem a lot, as it’s getting hard to count the number of British actors leading the charge in American shows: Dominic West, Idris Elba, Damien Lewis, Stephen Graham…

She’s not quite of the Hollywood limelight, but another amusing gear shift of a career is that of Andrea Arnold. Her films are critically acclaimed, often harrowing dramas: she won an Oscar in 2005 for short film Wasp, about a struggling single mother; Red Road is set in the crime-ridden flats of Glasgow; Fish Tank follows a troubled teen and her family. However, she only trained in filmmaking after retiring from her initial career as a children’s television presenter and dancer. That’s quite a flip.

One shift in reputation that produces a great deal of amusement is that of Bryan Cranston. After being a bit-part player in a number of films and television shows, including Power Rangers and Seinfeld, he was cast as Hal, the bumbling dad from Malcolm in the Middle. It was a very comedic role, often descending into physical comedy and slapstick, and though he was critically acclaimed, nobody saw Cranston’s next move coming. Indeed, the prior knowledge of his role as Hal is one of the many things that makes Breaking Bad such a shocking show: in the beginning, Walter White is essentially the sympathetic sad-sack counterpart to Hal, and it’s why the audience still roots for him when he decides to cook meth to support his family. Over the course of the show, however, we see that character turn into a completely despicable person, murdering a lot of people and becoming hungry for power and wealth beyond his initial sympathetic reasons. His performance has won him many awards, and has led to him appearing in a number of high-profile films recently, including Drive, the Total Recall remake, and that old chestnut Argo.

And last but not least…

Oscar Winner Mary Fucking Corleone
Because Sofia Coppola was really, really bad in that film.

(Original article written 15th November 2012 for Telstar Media)


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