As this year’s crop of Academy Award-winning actors and actresses rush the stage to accept their coveted golden trophies, the cameras will pan to the frozen expressions of those whose names didn’t get called. They will no doubt be wondering what might have been, but they might end up better off as nominees.
Winning an Academy Award would seem like a career milestone, and traditionally the little gold statuette has elevated the fortunate few, although it didn’t guarantee a career without bumps. Even two-time Oscar winner and screen legend Bette Davis had to resort to a stunt ad in Variety seeking work when she stopped getting plum roles after she hit 50.
For more recent winners, who don’t have the benefit of the studio system helping shape their images, Oscar can be more of a frenemy who can lead them down a self-destructive path of bad career moves. Instead of their win setting the stage for a golden career, it can have the opposite effect. Whether it’s some kind of Oscar curse, out-of-control egos or just bad luck, some winners might be better off just having the honor of being nominated.
Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
For mid-career actresses who finally win after multiple nominations, their timing couldn’t be worse. Just as they have newfound clout, the good roles start to dry up.
This phenomenon has many examples. In the 1950s, Susan Hayward clawed her way through a series of bravura roles, culminating with her Oscar-turn as a woman on death row in I Want to Live!, only to burn through her hard-won status in a series of big-budget soap operas and a supporting role in the camp classic, Valley of the Dolls.
In the 1960s, Elizabeth Taylor, having nearly died from pneumonia in 1961, won the sympathy vote and the Oscar for Butterfield 8 before she turned 30, and then dazzled critics six years later with with her scene-stealing portrayal of a desperate middle-aged woman in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The role earned her a second Oscar, after which she took on a string of high-paying, star turns in awful movies, frequently co-starring her then-husband, Richard Burton. Anyone remember Secret Ceremony, Under Milk Wood or Boom!? I didn’t think so. In the 1970s, Jane Fonda won two Oscars, including one at 41 for Coming Home. By the time she was just past 50, Fonda had largely retired from the screen.
Over the past few decades, Cher, Sally Field and Susan Sarandon each won Oscars around 40 or thereafter, only to see their careers stall. Cher practically stopped making movies after winning the 1987 Best Actress trophy for Moonstruck, while Field, after her infamous, “You like me”, acceptance speech for her second Oscar for 1984’s Places in the Heart, made some forgettable dramas, a memorable comedy in Soapdish and ended up being cast as Tom Hanks’ mother in Forrest Gump, despite being less than a decade older. Sarandon has kept busy in the nearly two decades since she won Best Actress for Dead Man Walking at age 49, but has mostly played supporting roles and has not received another Oscar nomination.
F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus
When F. Murray Abraham claimed the 1984 Best Actor Oscar for Amadeus over better-known contenders like Albert Finney, Sam Waterston and Jeff Bridge, he seemed like he would have a respectable career, even if he were not matinee idol material. Instead, Abraham appeared in a string of mostly forgettable screen roles, failing to win another Oscar nod, although he fared better in the theater.
Similarly, Louise Fletcher won Best Actress for 1975 for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as part of that film’s sweep of Best Picture, Actor and Director. It was only Fletcher’s third screen role, and her career had already peaked: She got stuck in a series of horror films and TV movies with titles like Mama Dracula, Grizzly II: The Predator and The Stepford Husbands.
Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love
Gwyneth Paltrow was just 26 when she won the Oscar for Best Actress for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. Having worked her way up through series of indie film roles and a well-received turn as the title heroine in Jane Austen’s Emma, Paltrow blew through her newly established Oscar cred via a series of forgettable comedies (Shallow Hall, View from the Top) and franchise films (Austin Powers in Goldmember, Iron Man and its sequels, The Avengers), and has seemed to focus as much on being a lifestyle personality via her website, Goop, and related activities.
Among actors, Nicolas Cage is the poster child for bad movie choices, after his well-deserved 1996 Best Actor win for Leaving Las Vegas. Since then, Cage has alternated among action movies (Con Air, Snake Eyes), forgettable romantic dramas (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) and popcorn movies (National Treasure), garnering multiple Golden Raspberry awards for Worst Actor. He also has appeared in the occasional gem, like his Oscar-nominated turn in Adaptation, to remind us of his (mostly lost) potential.
Halle Berry in Monster Ball
The past decade or so hasn’t been kind to the Best Actress winner’s domestic life. New winners not only need to watch their backs in cutthroat Hollywood, but also their husband’s. Halle Berry tearfully thanked her then-husband, Eric Benet, when she won Best Actress for 2001’s Monster Ball, but by 2003 the two had split. Hillary Swank somehow forgot to include her husband, actor Chad Lowe, in her thank you’s for her first Oscar for Boys Don’t Cry, in 2000 and although she made up for the omission for her second trophy for Million Dollar Baby in 2005, they ended their marriage the following year.
The most infamous example is Sandra Bullock, who separated from her husband, reality TV personality Jesse James, weeks after winning her Best Actress Oscar for The Blind Side in 2010, after he went public with his alleged infidelities.
Some of Hollywood’s most respected actors, despite multiple nominations, have never made it to the podium to accept a competitive Oscar. This list of perennial losers includes Golden Age stars, such as Greta Garbo (three nominations); Angela Lansbury (three nominations); and Cary Grant (two nominations), along with acting greats like Peter O’Toole, who holds the male record for most wins without a win at eight, although he did receive an honorary Oscar; Richard Burton (seven nominations); and Deborah Kerr (six nods); she also later got an honorary Oscar.
Current members of this unenviable club include Glenn Close (six nominations), Annette Benning (four nominations), Julianne Moore (four), and Joaquin Phoenix, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt (each with three acting nominations). Both Amy Adams, who scored her fifth overall nomination and first for Best Actress for American Hustle and Leonardo DiCaprio, nominated for his fourth Oscar for The Wolf of Wall Street, could change their luck this year.
Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice
There’s a happy coda for those who managed to leverage their Oscars into long and varied careers.
Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy are among the stars who won Oscars early in their careers and of course went on to create dozens of memorable roles between them. Among contemporary actors, Meryl Streep won her first Oscar at the relatively young age of 33 for Sophie’s Choice and, of course, went on to high acclaim, tallying a record 18 nominations (including this year for August: Osage County), and winning three statuettes. Dustin Hoffman, with two wins in seven nominations, is another actor whose career never got sidetracked, despite a few bombs along the way, like Ishtar.
More recently, Sandra Bullock seems to be maintaining a balance between commercial and critical hits with her post-Oscar win roles in The Heat and Gravity, for which she’s vying for Best Actress this year, and Frances McDormand, the 1996 Best Actress winner for Fargo, has stayed true to her indie roots in her subsequent parts.