Winning an Oscar is the crowning glory for any actor, and it means even more for those whose stars have faded: no honor so clinches the ultimate comeback. But claiming a statuette from the Academy after a professional drought -- as Mickey Rourke or Robert Downey Jr. might this year -- is not an automatic guarantee of a career revival.
Louis Gossett Jr. won the Best Supporting Actor award in 1983 for his role as Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in "An Officer and a Gentleman." It was perhaps the biggest night of his career.
He recently recalled not really hearing his name. He said his agent nudged him and said, "They called you." His walk to the podium is still a little foggy. He knew it was and is the greatest honor for a screen actor and the beginning of even better things -- or so he thought.
"It changed my life dramatically -- but it didn't really change my career that much. I had expected that and I'm probably a little disappointed. But in the long run it comes to pass. And around the world it's immediate," said Gossett.
His Oscar certainly cemented his place in Hollywood history, but some of his roles since might not have been the best choices for an Academy Award winner. He played roles in B-movies such as Iron Eagle and Enemy Mine, before television proved to be a little more fruitful. He won a Golden Globe for his role in "The Josephine Baker Story" and an Image Award for "Touched by an Angel."
"People say you're going to win another one -- one day. That's not really why I do it these days. I look at the challenge of a part and put all of myself into it and say goodbye. It's for people to watch," said Gossett.
There have been so many actors before and since that have won Oscar gold, only to find themselves struggling to find critical or box office acclaim.
"You're being honored as being at the top of your game," says Whitney Pastorek, Sr., a writer at Entertainment Weekly. "So then do you wonder, 'Well, where do I go from there, how can I possibly get any better?' But time and time again you see people struggling to come back after a big Oscar win."
But it can be done. And one of the greatest comebacks of all time might be the great Marlon Brando. He was a Hollywood heartthrob, starring in movies like "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On the Waterfront." But then, it's said, he got bored with Hollywood -- until his role in "The Godfather."
"He came roaring back with The Godfather -- which is his one iconic role," said Pastorek. "But he had to screen test in order to get it, that's how off the radar he had become."
And the role won him another Oscar.
Actors looking for comeback inspiration need look no further than this year's Academy Award nominees.
Robert Downey Jr. made his mark on the Hollywood scene in his lead role in "Chaplin" (1992), for which he was nominated for an Oscar. But then he entered a downward spiral of self-destruction -- getting caught up in drugs, arrests and then rehab, all of which made him a box-office gamble.
He made some questionable movie choices and guest-starred on "Ally McBeal." He then fell off the wagon.
But now he's soaring at the box office as Tony Stark in "Iron Man," and he nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his outing in blackface in Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder."
"When he came back with 'Iron Man' and 'Tropic Thunder,' people really remembered how much they liked him and how much they just like to see him healthy and happy," explains Pastorek.
And in what has the makings of the biggest comeback to date: Mickey Rourke's turn in "The Wrestler" as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a classic case of art imitating life. Rourke, an 80s heartthrob and critical darling, had fallen into obscurity. Directors said he was difficult to work with and he liked to party. He turned to boxing, but a head injury knocked out that career.
"I kind of blamed it on 'I got tired of acting,'" explained Rourke, "but I just had some personal issue that I had to work out, work through."
But without those years in the Hollywood wilderness, he probably wouldn't have gotten a shot at this role, a beat-up wrestler in need of a comeback. And for any actor, landing that perfect combination of the right role at the right time is always a struggle. Even for someone who has been in the business for 48 years.
"I have a feeling there's a comeback in my life coming out," says Gossett. "I concern myself with being a little too old, but I'll play somebody that age, it doesn't matter. I want to play Denzel's father or something."