Oscar Myth Busting: The Best Supporting Actress Curse

OSCARS-ZELLWEGER

Image Credit: Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage

Put down those Pop Rocks and Diet Cokes. We’ve got some A-list myths to examine! Ahead of this Sunday’s Oscars, we’ll be taking a look at some of the most famous myths to rise out of the annual awards ceremony. Want to know if being nude will get you a Best Actress statue? Or if the Best Director and Best Picture awards always align? You’re in luck – we’ll be investigating one Oscars-related urban legend each day this week. Today, we investigate whether winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar has been a curse in the past 25 years. Read on to find out. (And click here for more of EW’s Oscars Myth Busting.)

Oscar Myth: The Curse of the Best Supporting Actress

What is it?: Winning the trophy for Best Supporting Actress is actually career suicide, dooming you to the margins of the film business. (In some variations on the myth, winning Best Supporting Actress actually leads directly to the breakup of the winner’s current relationship.)

Origin of the Myth: Most moviegoers would be hard-pressed to remember Brenda Fricker and Mercedes Ruehl, who won the prize in 1989 and 1991 (for My Left Foot and The Fisher King), respectively. The Curse really took hold in 1992, when Marisa Tomei won an upset victory for her performance in My Cousin Vinny. Tomei essentially spent the next decade trying to justify her win. In the meantime, there arose two main forms of Best Supporting Actress winners: Actresses who came from obscurity and quickly returned there (see: Marcia Gay Harden) and actresses whose stars seemed to be on the rise before a sudden post-Oscar slump (see the most famous victim of the curse: Renée Zellweger).

When It’s Come True: When it comes to the Best Supporting Actress curse, there’s a handy rule of thumb: If the winner is an American, they will probably fall victim. Let’s ignore Olympia Dukakis (1987), Brenda Fricker (1989), Mercedes Ruehl (1991), and Dianne Wiest (1994), since they were all character actresses who mostly got steady work on stage and television — and anyhow, they all fell into the category of Women Older Than 40, a demographic Hollywood is infamous for ignoring. But Mira Sorvino (1995) never found much success after winning for Mighty Aphrodite, besides her lead role in cult favorite Romy and Michele’s High School ReunionKim Basinger (1997) never had a noteworthy role after winning for L.A. Confidential, besides her Freudian appearance as Eminem’s mom in 8 Mile. (Breakup watch: Basinger divorced Alec Baldwin a few years after her win.) Marcia Gay Harden (2000) told Premiere magazine that the Oscar was “disastrous on a professional level”; she’s a tricky addition, since she received another Supporting Actress nomination (for Mystic River) and is a successful stage actress (and there’s that pesky breakup watch: Gay Harden recently filed for divorce from her husband).

The same can’t be said for Jennifer Connelly (2001), longtime U.S. resident and green-card candidate Catherine Zeta-Jones (2002), and naturalized American citizen Rachel Weisz (2005), who have all struggled to match their early acclaim. Here again, “success” is relative: All three actresses have earned lucrative endorsement deals (Connelly for Revlon, Zeta-Jones for T-Mobile, Weisz for L’Oreal and Burberry), which has kept them in the public eye. You probably don’t even realize that their most recent movies were the barely released Salvation Boulevard, the direct-to-DVD The Rebound, and the unfortunately direct-to-theaters flop Dream House. (Breakup watch: Weisz broke things off with ex-fiancé Darren Aronofsky.)

You could argue that Jennifer Hudson (2006) and Mo’Nique (2009) don’t really need film careers: Hudson is respected enough as a musical performer to sing for Whitney Houston at the Grammys, while Mo’Nique seems more interested in television. And the jury’s still out on Melissa Leo (2010), who has a great role on HBO’s much-respected but little-watched Tremé. But there’s no denying that Renée Zellweger‘s 2003 win for Cold Mountain seemed to almost immediately sour her career prospects. Before the win, she had two previous nominations — one for Bridget Jones’ Diary and one for Chicago — and seemed equally adept at broad comedy and realistic drama. After the win, she released a disappointing Bridget Jones sequel, unsuccessful Oscar bait (Cinderella Man, Miss Potter), and even more unsuccessful rom-com trifles (Leatherheads, New in Town). And within a year of winning Best Supporting Actress, she’d broken up with Jack White.

When It Hasn’t Come True: It helps to be from somewhere other than America. Kiwi Anna Paquin (1993), Frenchwoman Juliette Binoche (1996), rumored Brit Dame Judi Dench (1998), confirmed Australian Cate Blanchett (2004), genuine space alien Tilda Swinton (2007), and Spanish gal Penélope Cruz (2008) have all had healthy post-Oscar careers. (Cruz positively scoffed at the breakup curse by marrying her Vicky Cristina Barcelona costar Javier Bardem.) Three American actresses did manage to dodge the Curse, though. Geena Davis (1988) suffered a career setback… but it wasn’t the Supporting Actress Oscar, it was Cutthroat Island. Whoopi Goldberg has become such an all-encompassing pop icon that it’s almost silly to point out that she quickly followed up her Ghost win with the mega-popular Sister Act. And then there’s Angelina Jolie (1999), who is by some measure the last real female box office star in Hollywood. Jolie has spent the last decade hopscotching between big-budget action flicks and tiny Oscar-bait roles, to say nothing of her off-screen ubiquity alongside her horribly disfigured paramour.

So, Is It True?: The problem with the Best Supporting Actress Curse is that it could just as easily be called the Actress Curse. In the last 20 years, Hollywood studio pictures have veered more and more towards the all-important male teen-douchebag demographic, leaving little work for any prominent actresses who aren’t Meryl Streep. (There’s a parallel list of Best Actress winners whose careers have sunk post-Oscar: Helen Hunt, Halle Berry, Hilary Swank, Reese Witherspoon, even Julia Roberts.) Still, it’s striking to compare the careers of the Supporting Actress winners to the Supporting Actor winners. On the male side, supporting winners tend to be old pros for whom the Oscar is a ticket to a new career as a lovably crusty old mentor/villain in a blockbuster (see: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Jim Broadbent, Chris Cooper) or a beloved leading man playing evil and/or ugly between glossier productions (see: George Clooney, Christian Bale, Javier Bardem). Conversely, for a Best Supporting Actress winner, the best move seems to be retreating to theater, television, or your home country.

Which Brings Us to This Year: Thanks to the Not-From-America rule, Bérénice Bejo and Janet McTeer wouldn’t have to worry about a post-victory slump. Neither would Melissa McCarthy, who’s doing just fine with her television day job: Mike & Molly is currently a top-20 sitcom hit for CBS. And if Jessica Chastain were to pull out an upset, it’s likely we’d be witnessing the beginning of another Jolie-esque (or at least Davis-esque) career: Chastain’s already got a high-profile role in Kathryn Bigelow’s bin Laden film. Unfortunately, according to EW’s Oscar guru Dave Karger, Chastain’s The Help costar Octavia Spencer looks set to take the award. Without a stage career, a TV show, or dual citizenship in the United Kingdom to fall back on, will Spencer fall victim to the Best Supporting Actress curse? Pray for that Diablo Cody movie.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more:
EW Special Coverage: Oscars 2012

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