Oscar the Grouch

I haven’t given a damn about any entertainment awards since 1978, when long-forgotten disco band A Taste of Honey won the Grammy Award for “best new artist.” They beat out Elvis Costello, The Cars, Toto and Chris Rea, all of whom went on to be more than a one-hit wonder. The reasoning for the award didn’t seem to be based on quality, or originality, or any factor which might signify someone as “award winning.” What it seemed to be was a cynical way to manipulate the market. Give us more stuff like this, not this cult crap, this weird stuff, these things that might make consumers look for music we don’t have and thus, can’t sell them.

Sound cynical? You bet, but I was pretty young back in 1978. I still think awards like the Grammies, the Oscars, the Emmys and all the rest are, at best, meaningless. For the most part, they seem to be the same people congratulating one another on how clever, brave or successful they are. So I never watch them.

About this year’s Oscars I care even less, since I’ve only seen one of the films in the major categories (picture, performers, director, writers). Crash I thought was interesting, thoughtful and intelligent if a bit uninvolving and contrived.

So, the Oscars mean nothing to me. Obviously, though, I’m an isolated case. Many people follow them faithfully, placing bets and staying up late to see who wins. And naturally, everyone in Hollywood wants to win one. A great deal of time and effort is put into promoting stars “for your consideration” in the nominating process. Actors seek out “quality” films so they can be nominated (using the big budget effects movies to pay the bills). For a lot of performers, winning an Oscar would be the highlight of their career.

So they all want to win one.

Should they?

Should they want an Oscar, I mean. Because over the past few years, it looks to me like winning an Oscar is about the worst thing that can happen to a performer. At least in terms of popularity and box-office success, which is (ultimately) what Hollywood is all about.

I first noticed this a couple of years ago, when I saw that the women who were winning the recent Best Actress Oscars almost immediately had career nose-dives. It happens to some male actors as well, but the women (Actress and Supporting) seem to be the ones that are suffering more. Let’s look at some of them (I’m discounting the “They’re old, so we’d better give them an award before they die” awards). Behold, The Oscar Curse at work.

1990: Jeremy Irons, Kathy Bates. What happened to Jeremy Irons? There was The Lion King, then…what? Kathy Bates still shows up from time to time, usually in minor roles.

1991: Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster. Two exceptions to the Curse, though it should be noted that Foster only appears in films about twice a decade and Hopkins (for a while there) overcompensated by appearing in dozens of movies per year. In this way, anything Foster does is an “event” while Hopkins does so much that some of it is bound to stick.

1992: Al Pacino, Emma Thompson. Al Pacino, like Anthony Hopkins, keeps working regularly and the Curse seems to have left him alone. Emma Thompson has dropped off the radar, though she continues to do good work here and there.

1993: Tom Hanks, Holly Hunter. Tom is another exception to the Curse, though his last few films haven’t done so well. Holly Hunter did a voice in The Incredibles, otherwise she’s stayed off the radar.

1994: Tom Hanks, Jessica Lange. Jessica Lange is another disappearing act.

1995: Nicholas Cage, Susan Sarandon. Nicholas Cage works a lot, he’s a regular Michael Caine. So he might be an exception, though it should be noted that a lot of what he’s done isn’t very good. There’s just a lot of them. Susan Sarandon is better known for activism than movies.

1996: Geoffrey Rush, Frances McDormand. Two good actors who do good work, but aren’t in the public eye much. For them, winning an Oscar was like hitting a bump in an otherwise level road. A brief blip into the public eye, then back to normal.

1997: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt. Jack Nicholson is slowing down, so he’s doing less and less; hard to tell if he’s been Cursed but I doubt it. And Helen Hunt has dropped off the radar.

1998: Roberto Begnini, Gwyneth Paltrow. Gwyneth Paltrow makes movie after movie, and no one goes to see them. Roberto is probably better known now for his command of English.

1999: Kevin Spacey, Hilary Swank. Spacey’s another guy who makes a fair number of movies that no one goes to see. Hilary Swank dropped off the radar, until she won again for Million Dollar Baby.

2000 Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts. Crowe’s acting career has lately been overshadowed by his…difficulties with other people. I hear the ratings are pretty bad for “Fightin’ ‘round the World” this season. Aside from Cinderella Man, his films do okay at the box office. Julia Roberts is (like Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Aniston) one of those folks who HAVE to appear in every friggin issue of Entertainment Weakly, but no one goes to see her films any more, and she’s kind of dropped out of the race.

2001: Denzel Washington, Halle Berry. Halle Berry is the one where I first noticed this trend. After Monster’s Ball, she’s better known for stinkers like Catwoman. Denzel Washington continues to get some high-profile work, but none of the films seem to set the world on fire.

2002: Adrian Brody, Nicole Kidman. Brody’s back to supporting roles (The Village, King Kong), Kidman’s appearing exclusively in crash-and-burn films like The Human Stain, The Stepford Wives, Bewitched…the list goes on. Aside from The Others, it’s hard to think of anything she’s been in that was any good or made any money. Again, she’s someone more famous for her personal life than her cinematic work.

2003: Sean Penn, Charlize Theron. Where are they now? Mostly doing further Oscar bait (North Country) or disappearing crap (Aeon Flux, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, The Interpreter). Penn in particular seems to have suffered a box office curse.

2004: Jamie Foxx, Hilary Swank. Too soon to tell. Swank will probably submerge again, and Foxx’s latest post-win stuff (Stealth, a bomb) was probably contracted before he got the statue. Will he be an exception? The next year or two should tell.

All in all, the evidence seems to say that if you win an Oscar for performance, you’ve got a better than even chance of having your career self-destruct. Some of this may be bad luck, or an inability to choose the right project, or even a belief that one’s next project ought to be something “special.” (Charlize Theron has boasted she hasn’t chosen a role since winning, that the things she’s appeared in lately were previous contracts.) It may be that winning an Oscar makes them think that they’re above such petty concerns as “entertainment.” Who can say?

Producers, too, hope that hiring someone with an Oscar will bring respect to a project that has none. How else to explain Catwoman? That film might have been cheesy dumb fun, but as soon as Halle Berry was hired, it had to be made “meaningful” with the result that it became “ludicrous.”

Note: I know that all these folks have continued to make movies, and no doubt some of those post-win movies were pretty good. Some of them might even be your favorites. My point is that winning an Oscar has always been presented as a gateway for actors to a higher level. It seems to me the arrow may point the other way.

Also note: I know movies, as an art form, should not be judged solely by box office receipts and four-star reviews, and I seldom judge them that way myself. But when a person wins an Oscar, his or her asking price for a film tends to jump quite a bit. If it was all about the art, then why is Julia Roberts getting $25 million per film, instead of settling for a nice “Thank you!” said in real Roman Latin?