Winners and losers

Why have so many actors who've won Oscars seen their careers tank?

Published March 22, 2000 8:52PM (EST)

Let's say you're an ill-fated actor seeking to derail your career and end up as a question in the New York Times crossword puzzle.

You could pack on the pounds and disappear, ` la Marlon Brando. You could avoid bathing, tussle with the law, be charged with domestic violence and wind up a walking punch line, like Mickey Rourke.

Or, you could simply win an Oscar.

In theory, at least, the Academy Award is Mount Everest rising above the foothills of fame. It's the supreme pat on the back from your peers, an irrefutable sign that you have arrived. Every director wants to work with you. The best parts are yours for the taking.

But for every best actor like Tom Hanks -- who currently reigns as America's favorite cinematic son -- there's also an F. Murray Abraham, who, well, doesn't. For every Susan Sarandon, there's a Louise Fletcher. And for every supporting winner like Kevin Spacey there lurks on the sidelines a Marisa Tomei.

Oscar winners, say those in the know, believe that a statuette 13.5 inches tall and weighing 8.5 pounds will lead them to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And that sense of confidence (or perhaps arrogance) can backfire.

"Everybody wants to exploit it because Oscar means that it's their chance to play 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'" says Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers. "[Winners think] 'I have the final answer. I'm confident. Give me the movie that's going to offer me the most money.' And then the audience kind of loses faith in you."

No one knows this better than Mira Sorvino, whose career peaked in 1995, when she won the Academy Award for playing a nasal-voiced hooker in "Mighty Aphrodite." Sorvino was honored for playing a very tightly written comedic character one step away from parody. But then Sorvino delivered a slew of banal, forgettable roles. She starred in 1997's "Mimic," which had her battling mutated bugs in the New York subway system. Undaunted by less-than-stellar reviews, Sorvino followed that up with the little-noticed 1998 hit-man thriller "The Replacement Killers," opposite Chow Yun-Fat. Her role in "Summer of Sam" was arguably demanding; but then she also recently served as Val Kilmer's human seeing-eye dog in the tedious flop "At First Sight."

Sorvino's role model seems to be Marisa Tomei, who used her 1992 best supporting win for "My Cousin Vinny" to land parts in such dismally forgettable films as 1993's tearjerker "Untamed Heart" and the Cuban immigrant flick "The Perez Family." Oh, and she flashed her perky breasts in "Slums of Beverly Hills."

Another supporting-actor winner with a low batting average is Cuba Gooding Jr., the gregarious charmer who won in 1996 for "Jerry Maguire." He followed that up with the feel-good fiasco "What Dreams May Come" opposite schlockmeister Robin Williams, and the forgettable thriller "Chill Factor."

Other winners wind up with half a loaf. Best actor Oscar winner Nicolas Cage could make a good case study of a gifted actor who cashed in on his post-win cachet, only to end up with his reputation a bit smudged. His decision to star in a string of big budget, mass-audience action flicks -- including 1996's "The Rock" and 1997's "Con Air" -- earned him critical derision and a public tongue-lashing from former pal Sean Penn, who accused Cage of selling out.

"I can't do that," says two-time Oscar nominee Penn, when asked to comment on character actors who opt for action flicks and big paychecks. "I see guys do these things, I see good actors do five movies in a row, the only thing the movie's saying is if you have good abs, you can kill people and don't look back. I hate it. I just couldn't do it."

Money must also have been a factor in Ben Kingsley's career decisions. "I have to be quite judicious about what I can or can't do," says 1982's best-actor winner for "Gandhi." "If I do find that for very sound financial reasons I've got to do this seven-figure picture -- because -- in order to do [a low budget picture], I have to honestly balance the books. I hope I haven't compromised myself too much over the years." Big talk from a man with "Species" on his risumi.

Despite the remunerative careers of some winners, Sorvino and Tomei embody the rule rather than the exception. The list of recent Oscar casualties reads like a who's who of the film industry. There's Geena Davis, the towering redhead who took home the best supporting actress prize for playing goofy Muriel Pritchard in "The Accidental Tourist." Besides her (Oscar-nominated) performance in "Thelma & Louise," since then she's made news primarily because of her starring role in 1995's "Cutthroat Island," on the short list of Hollywood's biggest flops ever.

Abraham, best-actor winner for 1985's "Amadeus," has been spotted fighting bugs with Sorvino in "Mimic." Subsequent roles in the Tom Selleck thriller "An Innocent Man" and in the Ahnuld Schwarzenegger film "Last Action Hero" helped ring down the curtain on a respected career.

Other Oscar-ites seem to gravitate toward projects so low-profile they're positively subterranean -- some don't involve acting at all. Mary Steenburgen, best supporting actress winner for 1980's "Melvin and Howard," has spent more time of late cozying up to the Clintons than she has pursuing meaty movie roles. But then again, if you had "Powder" on your list of credits, you might retreat to Martha's Vineyard, too. Whoopi Goldberg, busily shilling for and humorlessly hosting the Oscars, has become a caricature of an actress, a woman now relegated to playing the mawkish sidekick to respected thesps like Angela Bassett.

But the top dog of Oscar victims is none other than Robin Williams. He's one of Hollywood's most successful and richest stars. After finally having won the Academy Award for his supporting role in "Good Will Hunting," that mushy success led Williams to such monumentally miscalculated artistic and commercial flops as "What Dreams May Come," "Jakob the Liar" and the 1999 robot weeper "Bicentennial Man." (Only the critically reviled "Patch Adams" made significant money.)

"In two years, he's done the four worst movies," laments Travers. "It's kind of a record. He's taken the sappiness that was in the performance in 'Good Will Hunting' and thinks that's what people like him for."

So is the answer for aspiring actors to avoid the awards altogether? Don't talk crazy! Not everyone will be a Denzel Washington or Kevin Spacey. But if the current crop of hopefuls doesn't aim high, they'll be treading the paths wandered by Mercedes Ruehl and Timothy Hutton.

"The odds are, one of them is going to end up a movie star," says Harris of the current best-supporting-actress nominees. "One of them is going to end up a really interesting movie character actress. One of them is going to end up on TV, and two of them will be trivia questions."

By Donna Freydkin

Donna Freydkin is a writer living in New York.

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