It’s tempting to call it the slap heard ‘round the world, except that quick-thinking production techs silenced the moment when Will Smith struck Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards (somehow just six months ago). There’s no need to relitigate the incident, nor to reignite the discourse that dominated the news and social media for weeks afterword. There’s an outstanding question, though: Following Smith’s 10-year ban from Oscars ceremonies, will audiences at large welcome the megastar back to the screen? We’ll soon have our first and best indication: The trailer just dropped for Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation.
The film was delayed from earlier this year following the Oscars incident, but will now release in December, placing it on the awards calendar for next year. Normally, a prestige historical drama with solid buzz from a major director and with an actor and star of Smith’s calibre would be an easy Oscar contender. But under these circumstances?
Here are 10 other notorious scandals — and their subsequent comebacks.
Paul Reubens and Batman Returns (1992)
The Scandal: Masturbating in a fashion unbecoming a children’s show host.
In July of 1991, police conducting a random inspection of an “adult” movie theatre in Sarasota, Fla. (where, presumably, there was no other crime) caught TV’s beloved Pee-Wee Herman with his pants down, rather literally. The arrest was widely covered and, while Reubens had voluntarily ended his show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse just before the incident, a syndication deal was pulled, and Reubens was removed from several ongoing and planned projects.
It wasn’t until a critically acclaimed appearance in 2001’s Blow that the stigma truly seemed to lift, but he had a lot of support from famous friends throughout the ‘90s, and made a number of smaller appearances. Among the first of these was in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, in which Reubens plays Tucker Cobblepot, The Penguin’s father in the opening flashback. Though it would still be a long road back for Reubens, his casting in one of the decade’s big blockbusters signalled that he wouldn’t be down forever.
Katherine Hepburn and The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The Scandal: “Box Office Poison” with a frisson of lesbianism.
It wasn’t that they called her “box office poison” as legend has it, only that her movies were box office poison — hers and those of several other big names (mostly female stars). And, from a business perspective, the theatre owners who took out the famous ad had a point. Studios were spending big money on names that were no longer drawing butts to seats as they once had, and Hepburn was foremost on their minds given that tastes had changed dramatically since her early ‘30s heyday. That had been a period when female stars with a whiff (or more) of bisexuality (Hepburn, Garbo, Dietrich, etc.) could wear pants and best their male costars without anyone clutching their pearls. By the late 30s, times had changed, and that lesbian business wasn’t cutting it with audiences, and it certainly wasn’t going to fly with the relatively recently enacted production code.
Others got out of the business entirely, but Hepburn wasn’t ready to pack it in. After a string of flops, she bought the rights to the stage play that became The Philadelphia Story, which had been written for her, and took it on tour with herself in the lead. It was a smash. She then secured financing (via Howard Hughes) for the film rights, negotiating significant creative control for herself and using it to massage and soften her onscreen persona without completely setting aside the toughness and brash sense of humour that had made her a star. The movie was a hit, breaking box office records, and Hepburn was a star once again.
Laura Dern and October Sky (1999)
The Scandal: Playing gay.
Though progress on LGBTQ+ issues has been halting, and sometimes halted, it’ll be hard for many to imagine the shock that went through American pop culture when Ellen DeGeneres (alongside her character, Ellen Morgan) came out as gay in the run-up to the 1997 “Puppy Episode” of her sitcom, Ellen. Will & Grace was still a year away, and there was simply no precedent in primetime network television, particularly when it came to the sitcom — the safest, most comfortable of all television forms.
When Laura Dern signed on to play Ellen’s gay mentor and romantic interest, it represented not only a casting coup, but a real threat to Dern’s career: She struggled to get roles for a year or two after, and even dealt with death threats. The controversy was loud, but died relatively quickly, and she returned first on a critically acclaimed television film, The Baby Dance, before making a big-screen comeback with October Sky. It was a modest success at the box office, but signalled a resurgence for Dern that hasn’t slowed since.
Ingrid Bergman and Anastasia (1956)
The Scandal: A high-profile affair.
Ingrid Bergman’s high-profile 1950 affair on the set of Stromboli with director Roberto Rossellini sank that movie, and put the once-unstoppable star on the outs with American audiences. Luckily, the Swedish actress could still land work in Europe, and kept herself afloat for several years by taking roles in films in Italy, Germany, and France. Now married to Rossellini, Bergman finally returned to America and found audiences ready to move on: Anastasia did impressive business, and earned the actress her second Academy Award.
Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008)
The Scandal: Substance abuse and a love of fighting.
Mickey Rourke was best known, perhaps, for as the indispensable star of some of the sweatiest movies of the erotic 80s (beginning with Body Heat), but he developed a reputation as a serious actor in those films and others like Diner, Rumble Fish, and The Pope of Greenwich Village. During the same period, though, he developed a reputation as a loose cannon on set, his wild behaviour and penchant for getting into fist fights exacerbated by his heavy drinking. The actor began spending money faster than he could make it, which led to a series of increasingly desperate choices — he was taking any movie that came his way, and they were mostly not good.
Having been a boxer as a teenager, he gave up acting entirely and returned to the ring. The former heartthrob’s increasingly battered face didn’t seem to make a cinematic comeback any more likely, though he secured a few small but significant character roles over the ensuing years. It wasn’t until his starring role in 2008’s The Wrestler that Rourke truly landed back on top (for a time). The critically and financially successful film earned Rourke an Oscar nomination and a series of major film roles.
Elizabeth Taylor and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
The Scandal: The affair that broke-up America’s favourite couple.
Some scandals fade more quickly than others (sometimes just a few months is all it takes), and some wind up working out in a performer’s favour. That was the case, more-or-less, with Elizabeth Taylor’s affair with singer Eddie Fisher, then married to Debbie Reynolds — together that pair had been presented to America as the squeakiest of squeaky clean ‘50s couples. Just before and during the production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Liz had gone through a divorce with one husband and remarried Mike Todd, who died in a plane crash less than a year later. Debbie Reynolds encouraged her husband to offer support; though he might have overshot the mark a bit.
The affair became public during production, and Taylor’s public image changed overnight. The beloved former child star and grieving widow was suddenly seen as a home-wrecker who’d broken up a Hollywood power couple. Rather than distance itself from the star, though, the studio leaned into the scandal, primarily by changing the movie’s key art to images of Taylor in lingerie on a bed (a tad salacious, but not really a huge stretch given the film’s subject matter). The film was a critical and financial success, representing a career high for Taylor and also the moment when the star, who’d later become synonymous with scandal, proved that her star power was fundamentally un-dimmable. In countless other cases, the public has judged the woman involved in an affair far more harshly than the man; in this case, Taylor’s career survived and thrived, while Eddie Fisher’s fizzled.
Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man (2008)
The Scandal: Substance abuse and prison time.
An adjunct member of the Brat Pack and one of the biggest stars of the 1980s, the actor’s star dimmed significantly in the 1990s as substance abuse issues led him into a variety of legal troubles, as well as providing the gossip press with plenty of fodder. He managed to squeeze in work around rehabs, jail time, and a prison stint, but came to be seen as a liability by filmmakers who were less and less willing to take a chance on someone whose illness made him so unreliable.
Things were looking up circa 2000 when, just out of prison, a run of guest appearances on Ally McBeal won the actor an Emmy nomination…but a subsequent arrest saw him fired from the show. Finally making real strides in recovery over the following years, he made a series of small appearances in major movies, and large appearances in small movies, before accepting a role in Iron Man — cast, in part, because it was thought that his troubled background might lend depth to the part. It goes without saying that the film kicked off a franchise that dominates in modern entertainment, and planted Robert Downey Jr. firmly back in Hollywood’s upper-upper-echelon.
Lana Turner and Imitation of Life (1959)
The Scandal: A mobster boyfriend and a homicide.
Already an icon by the late ‘50s, Lana Turner had been both a successful and acclaimed actress, as well as a popular WWII-era pin-up, her face even adorning fighter planes. A career contraction in the middle of the decade gave way to a resurgence that may well have been short-lived. In 1958, the actress was courted by mobster Johnny Stompanato, an enforcer for the Cohen crime family, and began a deeply unhealthy relationship punctuated by abuse, stalking, and violent arguments that generally gave way to reconciliations (this was not a good guy). On April 4, 1958 Stompanato arrived at the home of Turner and her daughter and, determined to separate herself and her daughter from the relationship, Turner tried unsuccessfully to get him to leave. Stompanato became characteristically violent and Turner’s 14-year-old daughter Cheryl stabbed him in the stomach, killing him.
The ensuing trial brought all the ugly details of the relationship to light, and blended in the public’s mind with Turner’s prominent femme fatale roles (conspiracy theories had it that she’s actually stabbed her mobster boyfriend and let her daughter take the fall). Her film released during the period, Another Time, Another Place, tanked. However, she had a mother role in the works — that of struggling single mother Lora Meredith in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. The sumptuous tearjerker arrived at just the right time, becoming one of the year’s biggest hits. Turner had foregone a salary in favour of a share in the box office, an arrangement which netted her a small fortune.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Expendables (2010)
The Scandal: A string of harassment allegations and an affair.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term as governor of California was up, and term-limits made it impossible to continue (even if his approval ratings hadn’t been under 25%). Having been born in Austria, he was ineligible to run for president…so his political career had hit a roadblock. During his initial campaign and throughout his governorship, Schwarzenegger was subject to multiple credible sexual misconduct allegations, responding sometimes with apologies and sometimes with denials. As his term neared its end, though, it was revealed that an earlier affair with a woman in his employ had resulted in a child kept secret from his then-wife, Maria Shriver.
It was all a bit much for voters, but filmgoers quickly forgave him (even in the wake of later allegations): He made a cameo in The Expendables while in office before taking on a larger role in the sequel shortly after his term ended. No smash hits other than those Expendables movies, but he’s worked steadily.
Joan Bennett and House of Dark Shadows (1970)
The Scandal: An affair that ended with a bullet to the groin.
Joan Bennett had maintained a remarkably versatile career that began in the silent era — part of an acting family, she was a major early Hollywood star alongside her sister, Constance. Quickly growing out of her ingenue roles, she took on darker hair and a darker persona to become one of the leading ladies of film noir, a reliable femme fatale, particularly in a string of Fritz Lang movies. As she entered her forties (an age at which most of her peers had fallen by the Hollywood wayside), she took another career pivot into mum roles, as in the Father of the Bride movies. Through it all, she weathered hostile gossip columnists who didn’t appreciate her liberal leanings, but her career very nearly didn’t survive the 1951 affair that nearly ended in murder.
Married to troubled, struggling producer Walter Wanger, Bennett became involved in a relationship with her agent, Jennings Lang. When Wanger found out, he shot Lang (in the groin, for good measure) in a parking lot. Wanger’s career eventually recovered, but Bennett never again enjoyed the level of film stardom that she’d previously held. Moving into television, she took on a role as Collins family matriarch Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard in the daytime soap Dark Shadows, the role for which she’s (fairly or not) best remembered today. The film version cemented her comeback, and served as a prelude to her final (and memorable) film role in Dario Argento’s Suspiria.