THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

The comeback kids

Why do we love it when celebrities try for second acts? Because we play a leading role.

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / April 4, 2010

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This has certainly been a year to vex, or at least perplex, the shade of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

His best-known novel, “The Great Gatsby,’’ rode the electrical surge of “Gatz’’ — an ingenious, 6 1/2-hour stage version of “Gatsby’’ at the American Repertory Theater — right back into the heart of the cultural conversation.

But 2010 has also knocked the last bits of stuffing out of Fitzgerald’s best-known aphorism: “There are no second acts in American lives.’’ Indeed, his pithy one-liner has suffered that most humiliating of all fates for a maxim: to be proven not just wrong, but the exact opposite of the truth.

The truth is that there are nothing but second acts in American lives. The comeback has become the dominant narrative of our time. It can be about expiation (hello there, Tiger Woods) or vindication (is that Jay Leno hosting “The Tonight Show’’ again?).

Whatever the motive or means, the comeback is so thoroughly marbled into the architecture of success and celebrity that the first act is often a mere prelude to the far more interesting — and often more definitive — second act.

Why definitive? Perhaps because it gives us, the audience, a leading role. We often don’t have much to do with the rise of the stars, and seldom have much to do with their fall, but when they launch their inevitable comeback . . . ah, that’s when the spotlight swings our way. And that’s when we see the stars sweat, because we have the power to forgive or forget them, to restore them to their old place in the celebrity firmament or keep them languishing in limbo. They disport; we decide.

The previously imperturbable Woods has already acknowledged anxiety about how he will be received this week when he plays at the Masters tournament in Augusta, Ga. He knows his career (or at least future endorsement deals) will depend on a verdict of acquittal in the court of public opinion for his sexual transgressions. So he’s hoping that fans will conclude he has done enough penance, and that it’s time to liberate him from the gossip columns and return him to the sports page.

As for Leno, it will be those of us in the TV audience who will decide whether to forgive him for his prime-time debacle, just as we will determine the Nielsen ratings when Conan O’Brien stages his own inevitable comeback bid in late night (probably on Fox this fall).

So if we are invested in the comebacks of people we don’t know, perhaps it is because we sense our quasi-authorial power to help write their second acts. Or it could be that we just can’t resist a good comeback story, particularly now, with 15 million people out of work in this deep recession.

“You get the feeling that in this country now, everyone has to come back,’’ observed Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media. “So these stories become parables that can help people along with their own struggles, myths that can help people redefine themselves in their own lives.’’

We have always admired the battered fighter who picks himself up and climbs back into the ring. Politicians from Lincoln to Churchill to Nixon have understood this.

That’s why, after a second-place showing in the New Hampshire primary in 1992, Bill Clinton immediately crowned himself “The Comeback Kid.’’ That moniker would now seem to fit President Obama, who was the subject of doom-laden headlines as recently as two weeks ago (“Is failure forgivable?’’ said The New York Times on March 14; “Obama’s lost year,’’ groaned the March 15 issue of The New Yorker), then proceeded to win passage of landmark health care legislation and, emboldened, make 15 recess appointments to top government posts.

Given the success of the comeback narrative in politics and sports (don’t forget our own Boston Red Sox, who pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in sports history against the Yankees in the 2004 playoffs before winning that year’s World Series), we can’t blame entertainers — and their savvy handlers — for returning to the cliffhanger melodrama of the comeback again and again.

After all, doesn’t Jennifer Lopez’s uphill fight to resurrect her career with a new album and the ominously-titled movie “The Back-Up Plan’’ (opening April 23) have a more gripping story line than any of the films she’s made in the last few years? Sure, fans rooted for Sandra Bullock to win that Oscar for “The Blind Side’’ after years of not being taken seriously, but won’t they be rooting even harder for her to score big with her next movie, so she can rub it in her apparently faithless hubby’s face? (Greatly compressing the usual trajectory, Bullock hit a career peak and a personal nadir in the same month). When Rosie O’Donnell announced she was creating a new TV talk show after years of a relatively low profile on satellite radio, didn’t a lot of viewers perk up at the prospect of Rosie competing with her former cohost and frequent combatant on “The View,’’ Barbara Walters?

The comeback has become such a common stage of an entertainment career that a curious kind of fraternity has grown up around it, bonding in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-TMZ-go-I spirit. So we have the spectacle of Chris Brown, waist-deep in his own comeback try after pleading guilty to beating up his girlfriend, Rihanna, loftily proclaiming in a radio interview in February that Woods really deserves a second chance.

And we have David Letterman, who seems to have weathered his own sex scandal, sharing a couch with Leno — on either side of Oprah Winfrey, wise confessor and ruler of us all — during an amusing Super Bowl ad. These two erstwhile friends had been estranged for nearly two decades, but the shared imperative of the comeback brought them back together.

It all hearkens back to those two touchstones of the modern comeback: Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.

“By the early 1950s, Sinatra had totally lost it,’’ says Simon. “Music had changed, and it seemed like film had changed. But he was able to mount a whole makeover with ‘From Here to Eternity’ and, more importantly, the Capitol records he did with Nelson Riddle. So he was able to make the transition from the young singer for whom the bobbysoxers swooned to a much more mature artist who could sing of pain and loss. Sinatra was able to then go to a peak much higher than he was in the ’40s.’’

Few would argue that Elvis made better music after his 1968 TV special (it became known as “the comeback special’’), but it did resurrect a singer who had become passe.

There are as many permutations of the comeback as there are comebackers. Sometimes, as with human train wreck Amy Winehouse, it seems as if the career itself and the comeback began at roughly the same time. Sometimes, as with Whitney Houston, it can seem like a perpetual state of being. Sometimes, as with Muhammad Ali in the 1970s, Tina Turner in the 1980s, and Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, and Alec Baldwin in the Aughts, the comeback leads to a second act that is every bit the equal of the first, or better. That tantalizing possibility lends a special poignancy to the comeback that is cut short by death, as was Michael Jackson’s.

The comeback is so institutionalized in the entertainment industry that it is governed by certain protocols. A stint in rehab is now routine (the title of the VH1 show “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew’’ says it all). Woods recently completed a stint in a sex-addiction clinic; Bullock’s estranged husband, TV personality Jesse James, checked into a rehab facility in Arizona last week.

Then comes the confessional interview with Winfrey, Walters, Larry King, or Diane Sawyer. It was Leno, of course, who asked a blunt question in 1995 of Hugh Grant — “What the hell were you thinking?’’ — after Grant was arrested with a Hollywood prostitute. Thanks to Grant’s contrite performance that night (“I did a bad thing,’’ he admitted), his movie career has ticked along nicely since then.

Finally, as you travel the comeback trail, you have to appear to be a good sport about your downfall. So Mel Gibson, still trying to recover from the damage to his image caused by his drunken, anti-Semitic rant in 2006, had to play along in January at the Golden Globes when host Ricky Gervais introduced him with: “I like a drink as much as the next man . . . unless the next man is Mel Gibson.’’ Revealingly, Gibson was much less cordial in February when a Chicago TV interviewer asked him about the same episode. “That’s almost four years ago, dude,’’ Gibson snapped. “I mean, I’ve moved on. I guess you haven’t.’’ After the interview ended, Gibson was caught on camera cursing the interviewer with a choice expletive.

In other words, the comeback can be a tricky business. But even if you botch the job, the story isn’t necessarily over. Take the case of . . . Scott Fitzgerald. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,’’ based on one of Fitzgerald’s short stories, won three Oscars last year, and the Public Theater in New York recently announced it will kick off its 2010-11 season with the Elevator Repair Service’s production of “Gatz.’’

So cheer up, Scott! Not only are there plenty of second acts in American lives, there are occasionally second acts in the American afterlife as well.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

Boston Red Sox
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Just call it a comeback

The comeback has become the dominant narrative of our time.