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Comeback kids of 2008: Best career conversions Fri. Dec. 26 2008 Constance Droganes, CTV.ca

JCVDIn a town that turns out — and on — celebs faster than Britney Spears can run from a court date, Hollywood did something worth watching in 2008. It gave us some Oscar buzz-worthy comeback moments from veteran actors, the likes of which made stars du jour like Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron look, well, a little old.

Sure, we had Britney Spears struggling, ad infinitum it seemed, to make her pop princess return. Like any good cliff-hanger, the Brit drama continues.

We hailed down-and-out action star Jean-Claude Van Damme in “JCVD” and cheered “Saturday Night Live’s” ratings comeback, an achievement owed largely to Tina Fey’s eerie transformation into Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Heck, we even lapped up 82-year-old Cloris Leachman, the acerbic, Oscar-winning actress who scored a whole new generation of fans thanks to her vivacious performance on ABC’s reality hit, “Dancing with the Stars.”

But 2008’s most compelling career conversions come down to these three stars.

Robert Downey Jr.: Hollywood’s red-hot man of steel

Dubbed 2008’s entertainer of the year by Entertainment Weekly (and we agree), Downey (aka “Iron Man”) proved that Hollywood mega-stardom is possible after drugs, jail time and everything else one can do to screw up a brilliant career.

At 43, Downey wasn’t “the most obvious choice” to play Tony Stark — the billionaire industrialist with a slew of playboy vices — according to “Iron Man” director John Favreau. In fact, Favreau planned on casting a newcomer in the role.

But after landing the part and delivering a box office juggernaut that made $98.6 million alone on its May 2 opening weekend, Downey became the red-hot lynch pin to the biggest superhero franchise launch since “Spider-Man.”

“Tropic Thunder” followed grossing $110 million, as did “The Soloist,” a film which generated enough Oscar buzz to score another best actor nomination for Downey. His first came with “Chaplin” in 1992. That prospect piffled away, at last for the time being, after DreamWorks bumped “The Soloist’s” November 2008 release to April 2009.

Now there’s “Sherlock Holmes,” Warner Bros.’ latest franchise launch built around the comeback kid Hollywood is openly rooting for once again.

Even Downey can’t explain his new hot factor. As he told EW, “To tell you the truth, I haven’t fully digested what’s happened to me before, during and after ‘Iron Man.’…But I do know that I don’t want to waste any more time. That’s why I’m putting my nose to the grindstone. That’s why I’m cranking them out.”

Mickey Rourke: Back in the ring

“Oh Mickey, you’re so fine. You’re so fine, you blow mind, hey Mickey, hey Mickey.”

Back in the 1980s, when Mickey Rourke’s acting career was on fire and the 1986 film “9½ Weeks” cemented his sex symbol status, fans often quoted Toni Basil’s 1982 lyrics to describe this Hollywood bad boy.

Rourke was hot all right, scoring critical praise in cult classics such as “Diner,” “Rumble Fish” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village” — a film Johnny Depp has called “perfect cinema.” But like some studio backdrop well past its prime, Rourke’s big career went up in smoke by early the 1990s because of his erratic behaviour.

Against the odds, the 52-year-old actor returned to the big screen in 2008 as a washed-up pro athlete in “The Wrestler.” His pummelling, nuanced performance helped the film win the Golden Lion Award for Best Film at the 2008 Venice Film Festival and score Rourke his first Golden Globe and Screen Actor’s Guild nominations for best actor.

“It’s all about Mickey Rourke this year. He’ll get an Oscar nomination and he deserves it,” says Canada AM movie critic Richard Crouse.

“Here’s a guy who hasn’t had a lead in a film for 15 years. In fact, if you read interviews with him he talks about borrowing money from friends just to eat and how he considered getting construction jobs to make ends meet,” says Crouse.

But as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Rourke’s work reflected the pathos of his own life. “That’s what made a good movie great,” says Crouse.

Frank Langella: Hollywood’s new Olivier?

There aren’t many actors who get the role of a lifetime handed to them late in life. But as American actor Frank Langella turns 71 on New Year’s Day, the star of “Frost/Nixon” could get the best birthday present of all in 2009: An Oscar.

Nominated for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for best actor, Langella’s Oscar nod is 99.9 per cent guaranteed.

“Frank Langella is one of the great American actors of all time. But when you ask anyone about him they’ll say ‘He was Dracula.’ That was 30 years ago,” says Crouse.

“Langella has never had the kind of fame that his contemporaries like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro have had,” says Crouse. “He was equally as gifted and has done some very distinguished work on stage and in films. Who knows? Maybe he just didn’t want Hollywood mega-stardom badly enough?”

Yet Langella’s searing, seamless portrayal as President Richard Nixon is as close to acting perfection as anyone will ever see on the big screen.

Even if he wins the Oscar alone, Crouse predicts the beginning of a true renaissance in Langella’s film career.

“If Langella wins, and I think he will, he could easily turn into that kind of in-demand, Olivier-like actor everyone wants,” says Crouse. “More great work will definitely come Langella’s way.”

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