Oscar Mortis

Winning an Academy Award enlivens some careers but leaves others on life support. Is the gold statue to blame?

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Photograph courtesy Ampas

The day before Jeff Bridges received his fifth Academy Award nomination, for his role as grizzled country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, the 60-year-old actor took a moment to ponder what he called the “mythology” of Oscar. “I don’t want to take anything away from getting the nod,” said the man most fans still associate with The Dude from the Coen brothers’ 1998 comedy, The Big Lebowski. “It’s in the mythology that we all live under as actors. It’s ingrained in there. But at the same time it’s show business.… It’s really an opportunity for all the moviemakers to herald their movies.”

He wasn’t being blasé. He didn’t sound jaded. It’s just that he’d been through this before, having been nominated for The Last Picture Show (1971), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), Starman (1984), and The Contender (2000). Here’s what those accolades taught him: They “really didn’t mean much as far as changing anything.”

How much does an Oscar matter? The question is posed every year as the “For Your Consideration” frenzy mounts. Without a doubt, getting some love from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can translate into dollars. Movies that were all but forgotten at the box office before a win can, afterward, earn back their budgets in a weekend. Salary quotes for even the highest-paid celebrities get a bump.

Then there’s the legacy factor. Give birth or get arrested, hospitalized, or sent to rehab, and the adjective before your name in every news report will most certainly be “Oscar winner.” Being honored by the Academy does leave a lasting mark. “There has to be, in every pursuit, some sort of holy grail,” says longtime Oscar campaign consultant Tony Angellotti. “This has been the designated one.” But Oscar is fickle; he can change a life and reboot a career or merely complicate and overwhelm both.

For established actors Hollywood’s most prized award isn’t so much a career catalyst as a garnish to an already-sumptuous feast of opportunity. In fact, Oscar can stall a career—at least temporarily. When Kathy Bates won in 1991 for her portrayal of a psychotic fan who kidnaps a famous novelist in Misery, no one blinked. She was an accomplished actress, with Broadway chops and a weighty résumé. The surprising thing was what happened after she was anointed Best Actress in a Leading Role: Her phone stopped ringing. For an entire year. Suddenly filmmakers seemed to think she was too famous (or too expensive) to be approached.

“The other side of all this hoopla is the reality: Well, where’s the next job coming from? And when is it coming?” Bates told this magazine in 2003, when she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in About Schmidt. “You just hope it’s coming soon. It’s tough. It’s the underside of all this emperor’s-new-clothes, walking-down-the-red-carpet kind of stuff.”

The experience can be more exhilarating for unknowns in that Oscar shines a light where none has shone before. The town swarms the latest “discovery.” Anil Kapoor, unrecognizable in the United States but a big star in India, wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of a game show host in Slumdog Millionaire. Still, after the film swept the 2009 Academy Awards, he received standing ovations just for walking into Koi restaurant in Beverly Hills. A short time later he landed a role as a diplomat on Fox’s hit drama 24.

When Julian Fellowes won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Gosford Park, Robert Altman’s 2001 period piece, the Brit had no name recognition here. Oscar’s afterglow provided him a bonanza of job opportunities. He was offered high-profile screenwriting gigs, novels, directorial debuts, musicals, even a U.K. game show. The result: He wrote the screenplay for Mira Nair’s 2004 costume drama, Vanity Fair, wrote the book for the West End musical Mary Poppins (which recently ended a run in Los Angeles), hosted the BBC game show Never Mind the Full Stops, published his clever best-selling novel Snobs, and directed his first film, Separate Lies, which earned Best Debut Director from the National Board of Review in 2005 and starred Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson. “No sad tales here,” says Fellowes, who also wrote last year’s Young Victoria, which nabbed three Oscar nominations (for makeup, costumes, and art direction).

Fellowes’s publicist and veteran Oscar campaign consultant Ronni Chasen says an Academy Award win “will open a lot of doors. You have to make sure you walk through the right ones.” 

*****

But how to choose the right door? Mickey Rourke, whose portrayal of the title character in The Wrestler garnered a nomination for Best Actor last year, was an unusual case: He was both a movie star and an unknown. After a stunning early career (Diner, Rumble Fish, The Pope of Greenwich Village, 9?½ Weeks, Barfly), he had self-destructed, stopped acting, and become a boxer and something of a joke. Then suddenly he was back, and the swarm was upon him.

His agent, David Unger, returned director Jon Favreau’s calls first. It was days before the Oscar nominations were announced, and everyone expected Rourke to land one. Favreau was looking to cast the lead villain in Iron Man 2, the sequel to the 2008 blockbuster. It was the ideal follow-up role for Rourke. But Unger was determined to make the Oscar buzz pay off for his client—while he also protected him.

So as Favreau and Marvel Studios executives camped out in the Four Seasons Hotel lobby, hoping the actor, who was staying there, would take the part, Unger put on the brakes. “You’re the toast of the town,” the ICM agent explains. “But you can’t make lucid decisions at that time.”Clearly there was an enormous amount of stress that accompanied Rourke’s whirlwind comeback. Unger, whose other clients include Val Kilmer, John Hurt, and James Caan, let Rourke enjoy the attention while also keeping his eye on the calendar. He had to remind himself, he says, that “this is just one moment in a career, not the totality of it.” He resisted the usual agentlike instinct—sell, sell, sell!—for fear of spooking Rourke into paralysis. “You have to almost act as if it never happened,” says Unger. “If you don’t, you’re going to be looking backwards for the rest of your career.” (Ultimately Rourke accepted the Iron Man role.)

No Oscar-aftermath analysis would be complete without an acknowledgment of the so-called Oscar Curse. Legend holds that an Academy Award exacts a cruel price, punishing winners for their good fortune by dimming their star forever. Of course, the curse is easily proved false. Consider Penélope Cruz and Marion Cotillard, whose recent wins put them on the short lists of Hollywood’s most successful directors. Then there’s Bates, who has received two nominations since her Misery win.

How cursed or blessed you feel depends on your definition of success. When Louise Fletcher won in 1976 for her performance as Nurse Ratched in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, she was 41 and simply happy to get more work from the award, which helped her buy a house in France and has kept her acting into her seventies. So what if that meant appearing in Exorcist II: The Heretic? “Fame was not something that I sought or wanted particularly,” she said recently. “I think as a result of that, I have had the best of everything.”

Bridges appears to have found some footing on this shaky ground. Though he notes all the noise surrounding the Oscar race is “disconcerting,” he’s always taken refuge in the work. By the time this story comes out he may (or may not) have won his first Academy Award. Either way, he says, he will continue to live by his mother’s words: “Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t mistake what you’re going through as reality.”                 

 

Congrats (Not!)

cuba_tCuba Gooding Jr.
»Gooding spent the 1980s and ’90s on the ascent as a serious dramatic actor, known for roles in Boyz n the Hood and A Few Good Men. But after his 1997 Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor in Jerry Maguire, it appeared the sentiment “Show me the money!” had come to define him. Snow Dogs, anyone?

adrien_tAdrien Brody
»Brody was poised to succeed once he grabbed the Best Actor statuette for The Pianist in 2003, getting lead roles in The Village and King Kong. Then came a string of flops. Now he’s Psycho Ed in the upcoming stoner comedy High School and may forever be best known for that kiss he planted on Halle Berry on Oscar night.

renee_tRenee Zellweger
»
She had us at hello in Jerry Maguire, and Bridget Jones’s Diary and Chicago made Zellweger a star. After her Best Supporting Actress win for Cold Mountain  in 2004, she kept up the pace in Cinderella Man and Miss Potter. But since Leatherheads, Appaloosa, and My One and Only, her girl-next-door appeal has faded.

f.murrayF. Murray Abraham
»
Abraham earned his cred playing a thug in Scarface. But after nabbing a Best Actor Oscar for Amadeus in 1985, he toiled for years in classical theater with few memorable film roles. From his magnificent turn as Antonio Salieri to roles in Last Action Hero, Muppets from Space, and Thir13en Ghosts? That’s just wrong.

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