Our Top 5 Classic Hollywood Comeback Women

By Maureen Lee Lenker

The Hollywood comeback story -- it’s a tale we all love to see again and again; redemption and triumph in the face of disaster, despair, and so on.  With the recent bittersweet finale of Feud: Bette and Joan, we’ve been thinking a lot about comebacks; what it takes to make an actor an enduring legend and the chutzpah it requires to keep coming back for more when Hollywood chews you up and spits you out.

Katharine Hepburn has to be the Queen of the Comeback!  After being labeled as "box office poison" in the mid to late 30's, Kate went on to win three more Oscars... 30 years later!  Here she is pictured with Spencer Tracy on the set of  Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). 

Katharine Hepburn has to be the Queen of the Comeback!  After being labeled as "box office poison" in the mid to late 30's, Kate went on to win three more Oscars... 30 years later!  Here she is pictured with Spencer Tracy on the set of  Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). 

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis made "comebacks" from their comebacks by joining together in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962.

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis made "comebacks" from their comebacks by joining together in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962.

In classic Hollywood, there’s no shortage of comeback roles particularly for some of the period’s most iconic women.  They were actresses who conquered Hollywood’s privileging of youth and beauty to declare their supremacy as film stars.

No one did it quite like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but there were plenty of stars who clawed their way back to the top with unforgettable roles.  In honor of Feud’s conclusion and the tenacity of Hollywood’s leading ladies, here are our five favorite comebacks.

5.  Gloria Swanson -- Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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As gone-to-seed silent film star Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson sent up her own image as a silent movie star fading into ignominy.  Swanson rose to fame as a silent screen star in Cecil B. DeMille romantic epics that called upon her to swan around in ornate costumes (a point of fact reiterated in Desmond’s history down to the appearance of DeMille in the film).  At the height of her fame Swanson received 10,000 fan letters a week and lived in a mansion on Sunset Boulevard.  Like Desmond, she had faced difficulties transitioning to talkies and moved to New York City in the 1930s.  When Billy Wilder was crafting his searing look at Hollywood, he was struck by Swanson’s similarities to Norma Desmond.  Swanson wasn’t looking for a comeback, per se, and she only starred in three films after Sunset Boulevard (though she appeared in numerous television and stage productions).  But the role of Norma Desmond introduced her to a new generation of film-goers and earned her an Oscar nomination.

Even more importantly Sunset Boulevard immortalized Gloria Swanson on the silver screen. Sadly, only film buffs know the Swanson of the silent era, but nearly everyone can quote one of Norma Desmond’s unforgettable one-liners.

4.  Katharine Hepburn -- The Philadelphia Story (1940)

When Katharine Hepburn acquired the film rights to the play The Philadelphia Story, she was reeling from several flops and being declared “box office poison.”  Can you imagine if she’d accepted this from Hollywood?  There’d have been no Hepburn and Tracy!  But Hepburn took it on the chin and with the assistance of Howard Hughes, bought the rights to a play which had been specifically written for her.  Then she sold the rights to MGM at a cut rate with the proviso that they develop it as a vehicle for her and grant her veto power over director, screenwriter, producer, and cast.  Nervous about Hepburn’s bank-ability, MGM cast Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant opposite her to bolster the film with A-list stars.  Hepburn knew what material was best for her -- independent women with a hidden vulnerable streak -- and Tracy Lord (the role which Hepburn played) was the epitome of this type.  

The film returned Katharine Hepburn to glory, breaking box office records and earning her a third Oscar nomination (out of 12 total).  To this day The Philadelphia Story is still considered one of the finest romantic comedies ever made.

3.  Bette Davis -- All About Eve (1950)

Bette Davis’ career had so many ups and downs that it’s almost unfair to single out one film as a comeback for her. Particularly because in later years Davis would often say “yes” to nearly anything just to keep working.  But if we must choose a comeback picture for Davis, it doesn’t get much better than All About Eve.  Like Gloria Swanson, Davis capitalized on her status as an aging actress to give life to the acid-tongued Margo Channing (The lead role in All About Eve).  After a series of flops in the late 1940s and a parting of the ways with Warner Brothers, Davis was an independent agent who had been declared “washed up” by Hollywood columnists.  With the role of Margo Channing in All About Eve, Davis proved them all wrong giving one of her most iconic screen performances.  She earned her first Oscar nomination since 1944’s Mr. Skeffington (and it was her ninth overall).  

Today Margo Channing remains one of Bette’s most beloved and well-remembered roles.

2.  Joan Crawford -- Mildred Pierce (1945)

When Bette Davis turned down the leading role in this adaptation of a James M. Cain novel, she cleared the way for Joan Crawford to make history.  Crawford had rose to fame, in silent films and talkies, as a glamour girl -- the perfect embodiment of the flapper and a liberated woman.  In 1943, after being impugned as “box office poison” and making her first comeback in The Women (1939), Crawford mutually parted ways with MGM -- her home for 18 years.  Crawford instead signed a three-picture deal with Warner Brothers.  When the Mildred Pierce project came around Crawford actively campaigned for the role of Mildred Pierce.  Even though it was a leading role, many other female stars had turned it down because of the character’s implied age as mother to a fully-grown daughter.  Crawford spun the role into gold, earning her first ever Oscar nomination and only win.  The success of the film and her take on the lush, noir role launched a new phase of her career as the star of classic melodramas like Humoresque (1946) and Possessed (1947).  

While Joan Crawford would work for decades, Mildred Pierce marked the start of one of her most memorable and successful periods of stardom.

1.  Judy Garland -- A Star is Born (1954)

In 1950, it seemed like Judy Garland’s film career was over.  The brilliant and damaged film star had spent fifteen years at MGM pouring her considerable talents into a series of highly successful musicals.  But in the late 1940s, her regimen of pills and struggles with depression took their toll, causing her to be dismissed from several films or driving productions over schedule and budget.  In 1950 Judy Garland was unceremoniously released by MGM. Though she made numerous successful radio appearances and launched a smash-hit series of concert engagements, she disappeared from the screen for four years.  A Star is Born, ironically the tale of one star’s rise to fame while another falls prey to alcoholism, launched her back into the stratosphere and earned her the first of two Oscar nominations. Time magazine called the performance “just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history.”  Garland lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl, but to this day, it’s still considered one of the greatest snubs in Oscar history.  

Though she continued to struggle with addiction and health challenges, Garland re-established herself as a tour de force performer with A Star is Born, laying the groundwork for more challenging film work, a television series, and unforgettable concerts including her renowned appearance at Carnegie Hall.


Maureen Lee Lenker

Classic Film Correspondent

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, and freelance journalist. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Turner Classic Movies, BitchMedia, LA Weekly, and more.

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