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Demi Moore has just made one of the great film comebacks. How did that happen?

Donald Clarke: Cannes film festival has gone wild for the biggest star of 1995. Will she build on the success? What does history tell us?

“I didn’t know you were planning a comeback,” Joe Gillis remarks to Norma Desmond. “I hate that word,” the grand dame replies. “It’s a return, a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen.”

We will come back to Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Blvd later. For now let us consider the great comeback – or “return” if the relevant star prefers – of this year’s expiring Cannes film festival. Nobody knew what to expect from The Substance when it was announced in the main competition. Full-on horrors are rare in the Palme d’Or race. But the festival went wild for Coralie Fargeat’s feature when it premiered on Sunday night. The crowd liked the grotesque body horror. They enjoyed the digs at Hollywood superficiality. Most of all, they rejoiced at welcoming back the biggest star of 1995.

Demi Moore (though technically a decade too old for the role) is perfect as an all-purpose performer who, as 50 looms, avails of a magical substance that causes a younger version of herself – in the form of Margaret Qualley – to emerge gooily from her spinal column. The older actor remains a kind of living, breathing Picture of Dorian Gray.

Never mind all that. The point is that Moore has made one of the great film comebacks. If the material is not deemed too robust she could even be in the running for an Oscar nomination. Why her? Will she build on the success? What does history tell us?

It is fair to point out that Moore hasn’t exactly been living in a cave. She has made about a film a year this century. With the best will in the world, however, few are the moviegoers who rave about Corporate Animals (2019), Wild Oats (2016) or Forsaken (2015). You could reasonably argue the comeback is two-pronged. She received great notices as part of the society mob circling Truman Capote in the recent streaming series Feud: Capote vs The Swans. But that didn’t bring her the focused attention she got on the red carpet at Cannes.

The nearest parallel is John Travolta at the same festival in 1994. The American actor hadn’t fallen off a cliff either. The then-recent Look Who’s Talking films – the first two anyway – were big dumb hits. But his performance in Pulp Fiction, winner of that year’s Palme d’Or, re-established a fashionableness he hadn’t had since the late 1970s. Even the Travolta of Saturday Night Fever was slightly tainted. By the mid-1990s, long after disco soured, many had forgotten the grittiness that made that movie a sensation. Following Pulp Fiction, roles in fine films such as Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty and John Woo’s Face/Off came his way.

The reappearance of Moore and Travolta allowed fans to reconnect with their own past or to a past they had filtered through their parents’ DVD or VHS collections. By 1994 that embarrassment at the 1970s’ wide trouser legs was mutating into a retro-chic that is still with us. Meanwhile, contemporary culture was engaging with the great complacency that followed the end of the cold war. Moore was its avatar. She had broken through as a member of the “brat pack” a decade earlier. Her appearance astride phallic ceramics in Ghost kicked her up the ladder in 1990. For six or seven years, her celebrity boosted by marriage to Bruce Willis, she could command staggering fees. This year the souvenir shops of Cannes displayed images of Willis and Moore to welcome her back.

Yet there is a warning for her within The Substance. It is also there in Sunset Blvd. Both films are actually about the dilemma their stars are processing. Norma Desmond is a forgotten actor from silent cinema. Elisabeth Sparkle, protagonist of The Substance, is driven to her desperate actions by the awareness that a 50-year-old woman may as well be 100 in this business. Travolta was barely 40 when Pulp Fiction hit (and it’s different for men). So we have to gloomily ask whether the roles will be out there for a newly relaunched Demi Moore.

Here there is some good news. At the top of the tree – let’s have no illusions about actors living pay cheque to pay cheque – the entertainment game has become more forgiving for older actors. By the 1970s the best that stars such as Anne Baxter and Janet Leigh – neither any great age – could hope for was to be a guest murderer on Columbo. Bette Davis was taking guest roles on the TV western The Virginian. No such relegation for the likes of Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren or Judi Dench. Moore really does have the chance of a late surge. On the evidence of The Substance she is up to it.

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