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The curse of the supporting class

Can winning a best supporting actress Oscar ruin your career? By Christopher Bahn

When the Oscars are handed out at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles on February 29, there’s one group of nominees who might be just as happy not to win: The five women up for best supporting actress. That’s because “Pirates of the Caribbean” isn’t the only thing with a curse attached to it. There’s a longstanding Hollywood superstition that a supporting actress win, rather than heralding that a new star has been born, means career oblivion.

This seems to make no sense, but looking over the careers of recent winners, it’s remarkable how many winning actresses fade away. In recent years, actresses like Mira Sorvino and Kim Basinger have all struggled to maintain their post-award prominence and to make movies that are even watchable, let alone worthy follow-ups. And I’ll bet many people don’t even remember who Brenda Fricker and Mercedes Ruehl are, let alone that they won a decade ago for “My Left Foot” and “The Fisher King.”

It would be nice if the “curse” were, like the one in “Pirates,” just an evil spell that could be broken and magically overcome. But it really seems to be symptomatic of the way the film industry: First, Oscar winners are often just as boneheaded as you or me about their life choices, and sometimes either can’t or don’t know how to find good work. In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your next role. And second, ageism and sexism continues to limit the number of good roles available for women.

Career-damaging award?
Marcia Gay Harden, who won in 2000 for “Pollock,” recently told Premiere magazine that the award was one of the worst things that ever happened to her career. “The Oscar is disastrous on a professional level,” she said. “Suddenly the parts you’re offered become smaller and the money less. There’s no logic to it.” Still, she’s fared better than most, with a solid, if small, role in “Mona Lisa Smile”and another supporting-actress nomination for “Mystic River.”

Tomei in particular was the poster girl for the curse after her win for 1992’s “My Cousin Vinny,” when she not only was unable to find good roles that would provide her with another breakthrough hit, but had to endure scurrilous and untrue rumors that the only reason she’d been given the Oscar was that Jack Palance had announced the wrong name during the live broadcast. Her 2001 nomination for “In the Bedroom” helped prove her detractors wrong, but she has yet to find a solid role to follow that one.

The jury’s still out on whether the curse will affect Catherine Zeta-Jones, who spent much of the year after winning for “Chicago” at the last Oscars with her newborn baby, and only recently returned to cinemas in the underperforming Coen Brothers comedy “Intolerable Cruelty.” But she’s co-starring with Tom Hanks in the upcoming “The Terminal” and also has “Ocean’s Twelve” and the “Zorro”sequel on deck, all likely hits.

For Sorvino and Basinger, the problem seems to be that they simply chose to star in bad films. After success in “Mighty Aphrodite,” Sorvino moved on to the dumb horror flick “Mimic,” dumb action flick “The Replacement Killers,” dumb comedy “Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion,” dumb sex film “Tales of Erotica,” and a prominent role in the very dumb box-office bomb “Gods & Generals,” the worst film of 2003. On the positive side are stints in the critically divisive “Summer of Sam” and “The Grey Zone.”

Basinger made mistake after mistake after “L.A. Confidential” that allowed her post-Oscar hotness cool to ice. First, she waited three years to make another movie. When she did, it was “I Dreamed of Africa,” which could have been retitled “I Dream Of Getting Out Of This Theater.” The boring supernatural thriller “Bless the Child” followed, a pathetic next try at a comeback that made fellow supporting-actress winner Whoopi Goldberg’s center-square spot on “Hollywood Squares”seem like Shakespeare.

Immune to the curseThe curse doesn’t affect everyone. Juliette Binoche, of 1996’s “The English Patient,” mostly works in Europe, where foreign-language films have a hard time breaking into the American public consciousness. But her star power is still obvious when she does make English-language movies, evidenced by her best actress nod for “Chocolat.” And Judi Dench, 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” winner, has continued to have a strong career, including two more nominations for “Chocolat”and “Iris.” But then, she’s more like a best actress than a supporting actress, in that those awards tend to go to women who are already known quantities, with established bodies of work and the proven range and gravitas demanded of a leading lady. The supporting actress category has historically been the domain of the pretty young thing on the rise.

Supporting actresses tend to be the year’s “It Girl” — a phenomenon that’s been going on at least since 1927, when actress Clara Bow’s nickname entered the English language to describe the season’s fresh face. Hollywood's constant need for young blood, like a vampire's, is never satisfied. This constant focus on young talent thereby tends to reward actors — and especially actresses — when they are not necessarily yet at their artistic peak, and casts them aside for a few gray hairs just when they might have gained the strength of experience.

A fall from fame can happen to any prominent actor, of course. Noel Coward punned devastatingly about the very brief stardom of the lead actor in “2001: A Space Odyssey”: “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.”

Men not immune to curseMen certainly aren’t immune from the shameful slide into irrelevance that comes from following an Oscar win with flat-out awful roles (Cuba Gooding and Roberto Benigni, we’re looking at you). But it’s easier for a man to escape the oppressive focus on youth that dooms so many female actors. Only two of the supporting-actor winners since 1990 were younger than their late 40s at the time of their award. And although it’s an unfair symptom of cultural sexism, older actors like Jack Nicholson and Sean Connery are still able to maintain their virile and sexy persona in film roles well into their sixties and beyond. (Connery was 72 when he played the rakish Allan Quatermain in “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” last year.)

The lack of prominent leading and supporting roles for women, especially older women, is not likely to go away anytime soon, but it is changing — even the glass ceiling of action films has been broken by films like “Tomb Raider” and “Aliens.”

Harden’s warning aside, the 2003 set of nominees seems less likely than previous years to fall victim to the disappearing curse, since they’re collectively older and more established than is typical. If my guess is right that Renee Zellweger will win for her superb performance in “Cold Mountain,” she’ll probably sidestep it entirely, because she seems to have that too-rare knack for involving herself in films worthy of her talent, which means that award or not, she’ll be around for the long haul. And that’s the important thing anyway.