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VOICE OVER: Tom Aglio WRITTEN BY: Jonathan Alexander
It only takes one! For this list, we'll be looking at the most notable performances that took an actor's career from zero to hero. If you think we're missing anyone, be sure to check our original list on the topic! Our countdown includes actors Ben Affleck, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis and more!

Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 MORE Actors Who Saved Their Career with One Performance. For this list, we’ll be looking at the most notable performances that took an actor’s career from zero to hero. If you think we’re missing anyone, be sure to check our original list on the topic! What other actors do you want to see make a comeback? Let us know in the comments below!

#20: Ke Huy Quan

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022)
After “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” made him a child star at twelve, Ke Huy Quan struggled to keep up the momentum. Then, unable to cope with years of rejections, he even retired from acting altogether for a time. It wasn’t until the late 2010s that he officially gave performing another shot - and the results are undeniable. Quan’s acclaimed portrayal, or should we say portrayals, of Waymond Wang in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” immediately reignited his career prospects. Now with an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a SAG award to his name, it’s safe to say this resurgence won’t fade as quickly as his first one did.

#19: Shia LaBeouf

“Honey Boy” (2019)
From family comedies to big-budget blockbusters, Shia LaBeouf spent the 2000s as a staple on the A-list. Unfortunately, a series of personal struggles and poorly-received projects marked a major downturn in his bankability. While he still steadily worked throughout the mid-2010s, it wasn’t anything on the same level as his output the decade prior. So, to compensate, LaBeouf made his own material. He wrote and starred in “Honey Boy,” a film loosely based on LaBeouf’s relationship with his father. The reviews were strong enough to single-handedly turn him into a serious dramatic actor. Apparently, you do catch more flies with honey, after all.

#18: Melissa McCarthy

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (2018)
The success of 2011’s “Bridesmaids” cemented this actress as a bonafide comedic powerhouse. But, the years that followed were no laughing matter for Melissa McCarthy’s image. She headlined flop after flop after flop, to the point many began to wonder if she could still bring in an audience at all. Then, in 2018, she silenced all of those naysayers with a head-turning performance in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” The movie’s sophisticated tone and thoughtful approach cemented the fact that McCarthy could do so much more than crack jokes. You don’t have to take our word for it, though. Her Oscar nomination speaks for itself.

#17: Ben Affleck

“The Town” (2010)
Ben Affleck’s time behind the camera may have rescued his career in front of it. While he does a good job acting in “The Town,” he was mainly singled out for praise as the movie’s writer and director. Just like that, Affleck reinvented himself as not just an actor, but an auteur storyteller in his own right. It couldn’t have come at a better time, either. Let’s just say no one was clamoring for a sequel to “Daredevil.” Or, any of his other projects, for that matter. But, thanks to his work on “The Town,” he’s spent the years since as a well-respected artist on both sides of the camera lens.

#16: Martin Lawrence

“Bad Boys for Life” (2020)
This movie did more than reboot “Bad Boys,” it effectively brought back Martin Lawrence’s acting prospects, too. Despite his lengthy career in some iconic comedies, his time on camera dwindled to near-nothing over the years. To put it into perspective, before “Bad Boys 3,” you could count on one hand how many films he’d been in during the 2010s. But, returning to Lieutenant Marcus Miles Burnett was the perfect way to remind everyone what Lawrence could do. Even better, audiences responded with their wallets. “Bad Boys For Life” made bank at the box office, reigniting Lawrence as a major draw. It’s no surprise he’s coming back for a fourth stint in blue.

#15: Michelle Yeoh

“Crazy Rich Asians” (2018)
With a title like that, it’s not too shocking to hear that this film put a spotlight on an ensemble of underrated Asian talent. Most notably, Michelle Yeoh herself. She was arguably the biggest name coming in, hailing from a lengthy background of acclaimed martial arts films. But, here, she traded her Gi for a dress, and was rewarded with a showering of critical praise. Suddenly, she went from having slim pickings of characters to being one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood. Since “Crazy Rich Asians,” Yeoh has landed a significant role in the MCU, signed on for more blockbusters, and even won an Academy Award. Yeah, you could say she’s staying busy.

#14: Colin Farrell

“In Bruges” (2008)
If this proves anything, it’s that the right role at the right time can do just about anything. See, early in his career, Colin Farrell made a name for himself doing smaller, independent work. But, his transition into bigger fare like “Alexander” was a costly mistake for just about everyone involved. Then, out of nowhere, he starred in a little movie called “In Bruges.” The small-scale feature played right into Farrell’s strengths and proved why he was worth keeping an eye on in the first place. With a new Golden Globe in hand, Farrell’s post-“In Bruges” career hasn't just stayed afloat, it’s positively thrived.

#13: Renée Zellweger

“Judy” (2019)
Nothing screams “comeback” quite like Oscar gold. Although, it speaks to the give-and-pull of Hollywood that Renée Zellweger needed a resurgence at all. At one point, she was the industry’s it-girl, and paid like, too. Even so, after a few flops and a six-year hiatus, she was in desperate need of a hit. So, she returned to the business with a victory lap of great films, capped off with a tour-de-force performance in “Judy.” The film’s strong reception put Zellweger back on top like she’d never left. There’s no knowing what’s next for her, but if “Judy” is any indication, it will be well worth the wait.

#12: Channing Tatum

“21 Jump Street” (2012)
Most actors would kill to be known as a tall, dark, and handsome leading man. The issue? That’s all Channing Tatum was. His success in the romance genre had typecast him out of other kinds of work. At least, until 2012. When “21 Jump Street” hit theaters, Tatum defied everyone’s expectations by showing he was more than a pretty face. He could be funny, too. Tatum’s role as the too-cool-for-school jock redefined him as a genuine movie star apart from any one genre. He hasn’t abandoned his roots in romance, and he still makes plenty of comedies, too. But, it’s clear they’re not holding him back the way they once were.

#11: Jennifer Jason Leigh

“The Hateful Eight” (2015)
Quentin Tarantino has a knack for impeccable casting, and this 2015 western is no different. Look no further than Jennifer Jason Leigh. Despite a few noteworthy roles here and there, she seemed to be much more comfortable flying under the radar in independent films. And yet, she still proved up to the task of playing "Crazy" Daisy Domergue. Her Oscar nomination implies so, at least. Leigh had always garnered positive marks in the underground circuit, but this quasi-breakthrough put her at the forefront of the conversation. In the ensuing years, the scale of her work hasn’t actually changed all that much. But, rest assured, there are a lot more eyes on it now.

#10: Sylvester Stallone

“Rocky Balboa” (2006)
Back in 1990, Rocky’s fifth round in the ring left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Worse, that became a running theme with all of Sylvester Stallone’s work. After years and years of waning audience interest, the actor had no choice but to pick up the boxing gloves for a career Hail Mary. As it turns out, that’s just what Stallone’s resume needed. The critical and commercial success of “Rocky Balboa” repositioned him as a true, modern-day action star. Later, Stallone spun this win into a slew of other, well-received projects. He was officially back in the game, and he didn’t even need a training montage to do it.

#9: Jamie Lee Curtis

“Halloween” (2018)
Forty years after Michael Myers first picked up a butcher knife, he returned and made an actual killing at the box office. Despite the bloodshed, this reboot only proved that Jamie Lee Curtis’ image was far from dead. Her career lull wasn’t because of any one flop, anyway, it was an intentional break to focus on her family. So, when she finally returned to Laurie Strode in 2018, the pent-up demand delivered the highest opening weekend gross for any film with a lead actress over 55 years old. Those unprecedented numbers slingshotted Curtis back into the forefront of the industry; a place she’s comfortably stayed ever since.

#8: Sandra Bullock

“The Blind Side” (2009)
Miss Congeniality herself almost fumbled this career-saving opportunity. Even though her more contemporary work was struggling to connect, Bullock turned down her role in the “Blind Side” three separate times. But, after meeting with the real-life Leigh Anne Tuohy, Bullock went as far as taking a pay cut to join the film. That turned out to be for the best since the movie was a bonafide smash-hit across the 2009 holiday season. The box office and awards shows didn’t hurt, but the real benefit of “The Blind Side” was reaffirming Bullock as an undisputed household name. After all, she isn’t considered one of the most influential people in the world for nothing.

#7: Brendan Fraser

“The Whale” (2022)
It’s always hard to pinpoint exactly why a career flounders. In Brendan Fraser’s case, you could blame it on his personal issues, his rumored blacklisting, or his habit of choosing poorly-received work. Either way, the fact of the matter is that Fraser’s struggled to get back in the limelight for a while now. And yet, that underdog story made his riveting turn in “The Whale” all the more empowering. Fraser’s authenticity as the overweight recluse, Charlie, became the must-see performance of 2022, earning him just about every industry award an actor could hope for. There’s no better way to announce that Brendan Fraser is back, and better than ever.

#6: Lauren Bacall

“Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)
As this Golden Age actress learned the hard way, charging full steam ahead is a dual-edged sword. Just as soon as her trademark, lustful voice made her a sensation, Lauren Bacall was branded difficult to work with and went through a major career drought. Then, after a forced eight-year sabbatical, Bacall made her grand return to the silver screen in “Murder on the Orient Express.” The rest is film history. Difficult or not, the Agatha Christie mystery made it clear that Bacall was a box office draw. Especially in the right role. Still, the results weren’t instantaneous. It took a few more years, but “Murder’s” enduring legacy eventually put her career back on track.

#5: Joaquin Phoenix

“The Master” (2012)
It’s no hyperbole to say Joaquin Phoenix has no one to blame for his hiatus other than himself. He made the head-scratching decision to star in “I’m Still Here,” a mockumentary about Phoenix allegedly retiring from acting. It was all a meta-commentary, but the point got lost amidst middling reviews, leaving many thinking he’d actually left the business. Thankfully, he didn’t stay down for long, and in 2012, the actor rose like, well, a phoenix. He delivered the performance of his career in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” and has an Oscar nomination to prove it. It’s a good thing Phoenix didn’t retire since he’s quickly become one of the most respected actors of his generation.

#4: Brad Pitt

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019)
Another Quentin Tarantino film; another actor pulled from the brink of disaster. Before boarding this movie Brad Pitt’s highly-publicized divorce with Angelina Jolie threatened to torpedo his entire image. And, it very well might’ve if “Once Upon a Time” hadn’t come along. Pitt turned in a performance so riveting, it practically demanded he be taken seriously again. Suddenly, the headlines about Brangelina’s breakup were replaced with reviews for Pitt’s stellar work. It was just the kind of support he needed to leave the scandal in the past and re-establish himself as a worthy solo act. The fact he won his first acting Oscar, too, was just the cherry on top.

#3: Ellen Burstyn

“Requiem for a Dream” (2000)
From 1972 to 1981, Ellen Burstyn was nominated for a staggering five Academy Awards, and even took home one. Pair that with starring roles in genre fare like “The Exorcist,” and she seemed set for life. Unfortunately, that’s not how Hollywood works. She saw heavy diminishing returns in the 80s and 90s. But, soon enough, “Requiem for a Dream” brought her right back to the top. She earned her sixth career Oscar nomination, and with it came the support of the masses. Her fame was more or less restored. Burstyn’s legacy became even more unshakeable, and she’s taken advantage of that by being much more selective with her projects.

#2: Eddie Murphy

“Dolemite Is My Name” (2019)
After a performance like this, it’s hard to imagine how Eddie Murphy ever left the mainstream. But, boy, did he ever. His comedic reign of the 2000s plummeted off a cliff thanks to some notoriously awful projects - looking at you, “Norbit.” Audiences were so burned out on him that, prior to “Dolemite,” he hadn’t worked for three years. Before that, he’d already been out of a job for four. But somehow, someway, his lauded work in “Dolemite Is My Name” turned all that around. Nowadays, Murphy has more high-profile projects in development than he made in the entirety of the 2010s. If that’s not the sign of a renaissance, we don’t know what is.

#1: James Stewart

“It's a Wonderful Life” (1946)
The end of World War II left the movie industry in a weird place. Particularly for actors like James Stewart. Once hailed as the “Great American Bachelor,” he’d abandoned all that to enlist in the war effort. After five years away from the screen, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a big test for Stewart’s post-war career. But, it just couldn’t meet those lofty expectations. Despite good marks for Stewart’s work, the movie flopped at the box office. Luckily, a few re-releases and television broadcasts turned it into the iconic holiday staple it is today. If anything, it made Stewart an even hotter commodity than he was before the war. Talk about a welcome home present.