Winning an Oscar: Blessing or Curse?

Black cats, broken mirrors and voodoo don’t seem to have anything to do with winning an Oscar. But the superstitious swear that taking home an Academy Award is just as much of a curse as encountering those other, more traditional carriers of bad luck.

If that’s true, Reese Witherspoon, Felicity Huffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger might be wise to hope their names aren’t read when the envelopes are opened at this Sunday’s ceremony.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to call [winning an Oscar] a curse, but it’s definitely a tough cross to bear,” said Entertainment Weekly senior editor Ari Karpel. “It’s a really tough burden to carry, and it informs every choice they make in the future.”

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Bygone Best Actors and Best Actresses like Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Adrien Brody and Roberto Benigni know from experience. They’ve all stumbled — or in the case of Benigni, fallen off the face of the earth, save for an embarrassing stint in “Pinocchio” — since attaining the top film honor, bouncing from one bad role or box-office dud to the next with few bright spots in between.

Berry, who won in 2002 for “Monster’s Ball,” subsequently took a role as a Bond girl in the disappointing “Die Another Day” (2002) and tanked as a superhero in “Catwoman” (2004).

After capturing the leading actress Oscar for “Erin Brockovich” in 2001, Roberts has had little in the way of memorable performances, with the possible exception being her work in “Closer” (2004). Kidman starred in the comedic flop “Bewitched” (2005) and the widely panned remake of “The Stepford Wives” (2004) after winning the gold for “The Hours” in 2003.

Paltrow did washouts like “Duets” and “Bounce” in 2000 and the humiliating bomb “View from the Top” (2003) after her big Best Actress win in 1999 for “Shakespeare in Love” — though she also had good roles in “The Anniversary Party” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” in 2001 and more recently in “Proof” last year.

Brody starred in the unmemorable “The Village” (2004) and the memorable-but-virtually-unseen “The Jacket” (2005) after his Best Actor Oscar for “The Pianist” in 2003. He was also in last year’s “King Kong” — which fell short of box-office expectations and didn’t earn accolades for acting.

As for Benigni, other than the disaster that was “Pinocchio,” he’s become The Invisible Man since snatching the Best Actor award in 1999 for “Life Is Beautiful.”

Even Charlize Theron, who won in 2004 for "Monster" and is nominated for Best Actress this year for "North Country," took a nosedive with her Academy Award follow-up, "Aeon Flux" (2005) — which some critics deemed so awful that they gave it a zero-star rating.

“The Oscar is supposed to be the ultimate blessing on one’s career and often it turns out to be a curse,” said Tom O’Neil, a columnist with The Los Angeles Times’ awards Web site “Many winners have said so.”

Among those who have come to view their gold as a bad spell cast upon them: 1930s actress Luise Rainer, Dianne Wiest, Richard Dreyfuss and Paltrow, according to O’Neil.

Rainer’s work in “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936) and “The Good Earth” (1937) made her the first two-time Oscar winner in an acting category and the first consecutive Oscar winner. Legend has it that she was also the first victim of the so-called “Oscar curse” — a perspective she shared, proclaiming in an interview: “For my second and third pictures I won Academy Awards. Nothing worse could have happened to me.”

Wiest, who walked away with the supporting actress gold in 1987 for “Hannah and Her Sisters” and in 1995 for “Bullets Over Broadway,” has joked that all the statuettes got her were a few weeks of free champagne and restaurant dinners, according to O’Neil.

“All I’ve done since is three days on ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ as Michael J. Fox’s mother,” she said after winning her first Academy Award. “That’s what an Oscar does for you.”

After Dreyfuss won Best Actor in 1978 for “The Goodbye Girl,” he made a series of flubs in his career and was afflicted with a serious drug and alcohol problem. His downfall culminated in a near-fatal car crash that happened while he was driving under the influence. When emergency workers pulled him from the wreckage, he is said to have muttered, “It’s all Oscar’s fault,” according to O’Neil.

And Paltrow has also spoken of the pitfalls of her 1999 Best Actress win for “Shakespeare in Love” at such a young age and so early in her career.

“Part of the downside about being so successful and winning the Oscar at the age of 26 is that I sort of became insouciant about the things that I chose,” she said. “I thought ‘Oh, I’ll just try this, it’ll be fun’ or ‘I’ll do that for the money.’ … Things like that now I would absolutely never do.”

The flipside was that other filmmakers were afraid to approach Paltrow after she was named Best Actress.

“What Gwyneth said was that she believed it scared producers away and made her seem too identifiable and too inaccessible in terms of salary,” said O’Neil.

The Oscar curse, then — if there is one — seems to be multi-layered. Winning an Academy Award can lead stars to be offered too many roles, making it hard for them to choose good ones. It can also lead them to be offered too few roles because of the perception that their asking price is unaffordable and their star status has made them so recognizable that they’re not convincing actors anymore.

It can also corrupt them, sending them into a downward spiral of addiction and other personal problems, or it can go to their heads, making their standards so unrealistically high that they hold out for perfect parts that never come.

There’s also talk of a special bad omen looming over the supporting actor and actress awards, with Marisa Tomei (who won in 1993 for “My Cousin Vinny”), Cuba Gooding Jr. (who got it in 1997 for “Jerry Maguire”) and Mira Sorvino (who snatched it in 1996 for “Mighty Aphrodite”) among those singled out as having encountered it.

“Oftentimes, people sort of eke by and win a supporting actor or actress award and it’s kind of unusual,” Karpel said. “It’s a moment for them in their career and not necessarily a sign of many great years of work that have passed or are to come.”

And it’s common knowledge that gals have a rougher go of it in Hollywood than guys. For one thing, there are more good parts for men than for women. For another, actresses over a certain age have a much harder time finding work than their male counterparts.

“Casting for roles is much more ruthless for females than for males,” said pop culture expert Robert Thompson. “Men tend to have an easier time of it.”

In any case, it’s very difficult to choose worthy follow-up scripts after hitting that pinnacle called Oscar.

“Once an actor wins an award, they want to show off what they can do and the diversity of their talent,” said Karpel. “That often gets them into trouble and they go a little too far afield. And no matter how great an actor is at picking roles, there’s always going to be a bad movie.”

Part of the challenge of keeping the momentum going is that stars are much more closely watched after they win an Oscar than they were before, and they always have that lofty label to live up to.

“When you’ve won an Oscar, everyone is really scrutinizing what you do, including every movie you do,” Thompson said. “So if it’s bad, they’re noticing it more.”

But he and other skeptics don’t buy the notion that snagging Hollywood’s top prize is a black cloud.

“An Oscar is not a charm that’s going to keep bad things from happening to you anymore than it’s a curse that’s going to guarantee them,” said Thompson. “I don’t think there’s anything about getting an Oscar that should make you more vulnerable to having your career tank.”

Besides, winning a golden statuette hasn’t been a misfortune for everyone. The honor has helped Hollywood favorites like Tom Hanks, Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Russell Crowe and Judi Dench gain respect and achieve “serious actor” standing.

“In many cases, the Oscar has been far more a blessing than a curse,” said Christopher Sharrett, a film studies professor at Seton Hall University. “If you look at the careers of actors and directors, there are reasons why they end up going up or down or are stagnant. It’s not based on mysticism.”