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Shia LaBeouf and the Stupidity of the Comeback Narrative

It’s not that the talented ‘Borg vs McEnroe’ actor doesn’t deserve a second chance—it’s that it’s a ridiculous, sexist trope

When did the Shia LaBeouf comeback happen? Maybe it’s when he got all those good reviews for the 2016 indie drama American Honey. Maybe it’s when his latest movie, the tennis biopic Borg vs McEnroe (which opens Friday), premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, with critics hailing his performance as the stormy John McEnroe. Or maybe it’s when he appeared on the cover of this month’s Esquire, with a story bearing the subhead, “The actor sets out to save his career — and his soul.”

Whenever it happened, the LaBeouf comeback is definitely underway — at least in the media. You didn’t notice or care? Well, tough luck: When Hollywood isn’t focused on giving us new stars or rebooted old movies, it’s busy repackaging our old stars in shiny new narratives. And the film business’s most popular way of doing so is to sell us on the notion that a faded actor is actually in the midst of a comeback.

Forget that lame, worn-out Shia LaBeouf — meet the exciting latest edition of Shia LaBeouf, now with fresh humility, maturity and a renewed commitment to his craft.

The Esquire piece is typical of these types of comeback narratives:

  • We are introduced to the wary, wounded star — who’s aware that his commercial and critical fortunes aren’t what they used to be. (“LaBeouf is the guy who was handed a golden ticket and promptly lit it on fire,” profile writer Eric Sullivan dutifully reminds us.)
  • We hear testimonials from the humbled star, who is working hard to win back the respect and/or adoration of the public. (“McEnroe was a master at his rage,” LaBeouf tells Esquire. “I’m a buffoon. My public outbursts are failures. They’re not strategic. They’re a struggling motherfucker showing his ass in front of the world.”)
  • We are offered mea culpas for past bad behavior and boilerplate proclamations about how he’s found God, beat drugs, turned over a new leaf, discovered his purpose, grown out his facial hair, shaved his facial hair, moved to a new city, gotten married and/or totally changed his ways. (“I’m just trying to deal with my life right now,” he explains, “’cause I don’t have fuck-all to offer the world until I do.”)

The comeback narrative is an act of contrition begging for our forgiveness and approval — the faded star wants us to know just how much effort he’s putting into being A Better Person. We’re meant to be impressed, maybe even moved, by this improved, older-but-wiser version of the actor we once liked but now mock.

In fairness, Shia LaBeouf is a very good actor. He’s done superb work in everything from Disturbia to American Honey, able to demonstrate (depending on the role) a wiry desperation or sweetly awkward likability. I’m not opposed to him receiving a “comeback” — I’ve heard very good things about him in Borg vs McEnroe and look forward to seeing it. All things being equal, I’m rooting for the guy.

But I totally reject the received wisdom that the comeback narrative is a meaningful — maybe even essential — element of the Hollywood star trajectory. Apparently, it’s not enough for an actor to convey indelible, complex human emotions in their performances — they’ve also got to do this stupid tap-dance of reintroducing themselves to us every five years or so, depending on how frequently they have a public fuck-up, whether it be an arrest, a drunken altercation, a trip to rehab and/or a mortifying homophobic/racist/misogynist rant.

LaBeouf is 31. Does any 31-year-old really need a comeback? Aren’t most 31-year-olds just in the process of growing up? The idea of a comeback suggests the person is returning to a former level of glory — an earlier state of elevated excellence. LaBeouf has been in good movies — and he was a box-office champ thanks to those terrible Transformers films — but what unimpeachable brilliance did he once achieve that he’s trying so desperately to reclaim? What is there, essentially, for him to come back to?

He’s hardly the first good young actor to recently undertake the comeback-narrative. Miles Teller, who was 30 at the time, sat down with Vulture last year to suss out how it all went wrong and what he’s learned. Meanwhile, Colin Farrell has spent an entire career jumping through “He’s finally turned it around!” profile pieces.

It’s not a coincidence that these actors share some conspicuous similarities:

  • The media announced them, probably prematurely, as the Next Big Thing — and then the press turned on them when those pronouncements didn’t prove true. In LaBeouf’s case, a 2007 Vanity Fair cover story excitedly asked, “Can Hollywood turn 21-year-old Shia LaBeouf into the next Tom Hanks?” Did audiences want that? Did LaBeouf? “[I get compared to] any dark-haired actor who wasn’t an Adonis, basically: Tom Hanks, John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman,” he said at the time. “It has nothing to do with performance; it’s just a visual categorization.”
  • The anointed one experienced a downfall — usually, an addiction problem or some sort of public intoxication — that burnishes his bad-boy appeal but also makes the world wonder if he’s just a weirdo or a dick.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, they’re men.

It’s not that women can’t try for a comeback narrative. (Fingers crossed that Lindsay Lohan, at some point, pulls herself together and connects with the talent that made her such a promising actress more than a decade ago.) But outside of Drew Barrymore, actresses aren’t allowed to hit the restart button in the same way that their male peers are.

The reasons are obvious — and depressing. Despite the rise of Peak TV, which has provided actresses more opportunities for leading roles, there’s still a short window for how long women can be bankable — or, put more bluntly, how long they’re fuckable. It’s hard to have a comeback if the business has already decided you’re too old to even get another chance.

Plus, we as a culture seem profoundly more entranced by the trials and tribulations of “damaged” men. When Lohan battles substance abuse, she’s dismissed as a train wreck — culturally, there seems to be something unseemly about the behavior. But when you read LaBeouf’s Esquire profile, you can’t miss the awestruck tone of the coverage — particularly when it focuses on his past bad acts. For example, the article digs into his disgraceful 2017 arrest for public drunkenness in Savannah, Georgia, which included humiliating video evidence of him using sexist language to the arresting officers. But this is how writer Eric Sullivan overly dramatically sets the scene for that conversation:

We’ve walked Descanso’s manicured grounds, through sun-sprinkled oak groves and rows of lilac shrubs. We sit down on a weathered wood bench beneath a crab-apple tree. LaBeouf is ready to talk about what happened in Savannah.

The Savannah incident was an idiotic act of a spoiled child, and LaBeouf is properly apologetic about the whole thing. But the comeback narrative ascribes a certain amount of badassery to his deplorable behavior. Sure, he shouldn’t have done it … but it makes for a pretty good story, right?

Pieces like the Esquire profile romanticize the notion of the belligerent, difficult man’s-man actor — our tortured little Icarus flying too close to the sun with his unfathomable talent matched by his “complicated” personal demons. Sure, we demand that they renounce their sins, but we secretly want to live vicariously through those transgressions.

In this way, the industry’s insistence on comeback narratives only accentuates its double standard and the audience’s willingness to embrace bad boys who show a modicum of remorse for their asshole behavior. Female celebrities are mocked for going off the reservation when they act that way, but men are forgiven for being “troubled” — and even after they seek redemption, we’ll always secretly admire them for how fucked-up they used to be. Men become relatable because of their failures — women are forever tarnished because of theirs.