Beware the Curse of the Oscar

Ever notice how often snagging that gold statue sends actors into career freefall? Could it have anything to do with their believing the hype?

Talk about a changing of the Oscar guards. In the lame-brained comedy Norbit, which debuted on Feb. 9 to scathing reviews but robust business, Oscar-nominee Eddie Murphy clowns as three different characters, including a foul-mouthed Chinese man and a 300-pound brute of a woman. If the Academy hands Murphy one of their little statues on Feb. 25 for his riveting portrayal of the James Brown-like James "Thunder" Early in Dreamgirls, I'm hoping that Norbit could mark the last time Eddie Murphy goes to such clownish lengths.

Then again, just check out Norbit's cast to see just how little an Oscar can do for a career: There's Cuba Gooding Jr. plotting and scheming as the lowdown, money-grubbing fiancé of the woman Murphy wants to win. It's a role that just about any good-looking, young actor could have handled. This, of course, is the same Cuba Gooding Jr. who a decade ago waltzed off with the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role as a somersaulting football player in the Tom Cruise flick Jerry Maguire.

Gooding is just one victim of the Oscar curse, which seems to strike Southern California more often than earthquakes. Indeed, over the last few years, some of Hollywood's biggest stars, from Halle Berry to Nicole Kidman to Julia Roberts, have won on Oscar night and then gone on to lay an egg—or eggs—the next few times they went before the cameras. Look at Roberto Benigni, who climbed over seats in 1998 to claim his best actor prize for the Nazi concentration camp saga Life Is Beautiful. He hasn't had a decent role since, and in 2002 suffered the humiliation of playing the puppet Pinocchio in a film that grossed a paltry $3.7 million in the U.S.

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So what gives? How does Halle Berry, who won the 2001 best actress Oscar by playing the broken mother of a dead son in Monster's Ball, go on a losing streak that includes starring opposite Pierce Brosnan in MGM's (MGM) mega-disappointing Bond flick Die Another Day and then becoming a superhero laughing stock in Catwoman in 2004? She did make a great force of nature in Fox's X-Men flicks, but it's hard to confuse her playing a wind-churning heroine with anything approaching acting. Or what in the world got into Nicole Kidman, who won the 2002 best actress Oscar for her demure role as the author Virginia Wolfe in The Hours but then gave America such clunkers as Bewitched, The Stepford Wives, and the supernatural nothing Birth?

The problem, frankly, is that the Oscars have become little more than a popularity contest. The hot actor of the moment often wins the top prize, especially if he or she has a great script. Don't get me wrong: Talented people often win, but it's not always because of their talent.

I mean, how do you explain George Clooney winning the 2005 award for best supporting actor for his role in Syriana? Clooney is possibly the most popular man in Hollywood, with a public stand on liberal issues that meshes nicely with the largely liberal actors' wing of the Academy, which just coincidentally forms the largest bloc of voters. But was he better in Syriana than say, Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain or Paul Giamatti in Cinderella Man? Probably not.

Poor Second Acts

Clooney's next stop, The Good German, got OK reviews but tanked at the box office. And his jump to super-serious roles may be at the heart of the Oscar curse. Once actors get the approval of their fellow actors—not to mention acclaim from the media—their egos often get as big as their reputations. Oscar winners tend to believe that they are, really, great actors. Maybe that's why Clooney decided to go for another meaty role, rather than do another of the Cary Grant-like turns that have made him his megamillions. (Thankfully, he's warming up another of those Ocean's 11 sequels.)

Maybe it also explains why right after winning her second Oscar, for Million Dollar Baby, Hillary Swank signed on to work for director Brian DePalma in The Black Dahlia. Now there's no denying Swank has talent, and I believe she deserved her two best actress wins. But she was terrible as the femme fatale in The Black Dahlia, which grossed a pathetic $22 million and was nominated only for its cinematography.

Then again, it's not just the actors who make a mistake buying into all the hype after an actor takes home some hardware. Oscar winners get their names emblazoned on ads for upcoming flicks, and those gravel-voiced guys in the trailers remind us of their past glories. The folks behind the science-fiction action film Aeon Flux rushed to plunk some cash down to get Charlize Theron right after she won her best actress Oscar for 2004's Monster. It got lousy reviews and did lousy box office, and didn't do much to help Charlize's reputation.

Worth the Risk

There have also been the personal tragedies that have followed Oscar wins. After taking home his best actor award for 1977's The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss went into a tailspin that included drug addiction and a string of bombs before he redeemed himself (and was nominated again 18 years later for Mr. Holland's Opus). Reese Witherspoon and Halle Berry both broke up with their husbands not long after their big nights in Oscar's shadow.

Of course, curse or no curse, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone with a Screen Actors Guild card who wouldn't be willing to tempt fate with one trip up to the stage of the Kodak Theater. Just ask Forrest Whitaker (see BusinessWeek,com, 6/05/06, "The Academy Should Reward Whitaker"), who's likely to win his first Oscar on the 25th for his lead role in The Last King of Scotland, or newcomer Jennifer Hudson, who jumped from American Idol to the supporting actress nominee for Dreamgirls. Would they like a taste of that Oscar curse?

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