Is the academy actually punishing those who don’t play the publicity game?
One basic component of storytelling as we know it: The hero may have to deal with a curse. For actors who’ve reached the highest level of industry acclaim, there’s the Oscar Curse.
The superstition goes that those who are awarded acting Oscars see a slide in their careers — or their personal lives — after they win the gold statuette. But in recent years, as social media brings the behind-the-scenes mechanisms to the forefront and actors feel empowered to speak on how the industry operates, it’s become clear that many careers have been stifled or haven’t gained recognition thanks to the industry’s self-selection process, not because of a curse.
The Oscar Curse, Explained
What exactly is the Oscar Curse? Allegedly, it’s when an actor experiences a personal or professional decline after winning an Academy Award. The history of Oscar winners never rising beyond the award goes back to Hattie McDaniel, the first black performer to win an Oscar. She was typecast in maid roles and never received any other major awards. Over 92 years, it remained with its label stuck on actors such as Marisa Tomei, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Adrien Brody. Renee Zellweger, who’s nominated this year for “Judy,” has recently made a comeback from her Oscar Curse period after she won in 2003 for “Cold Mountain.”
The Jennifer Lawrences, the Viola Davises, the Saorsie Ronans are all actors who “beat” the curse because they’ve been nominated for multiple ceremonies within a two to four -year span.
It’s the public consensus that the best actress and best supporting actress winners are most vulnerable to the career curse. On a list Insiderpublished last year, eight of the 12 Oscar Curse examples were women, including Halle Berry — who followed up her historic best actress win with “X-2: X-Men United” and “Catwoman” — and Kim Basinger — who hasn’t been nominated for a major award since her win for “L.A. Confidential” in 1998.
It has also been said the Oscar Curse affects more women than men because men typically get Oscars later in life, while women tend to be ingenues. Consider the story of Mira Sorvino. She won her first Oscar in 1995 for Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” after beginning her acting career in 1992, and since nearly disappeared from the Hollywood limelight. Then there’s Linda Hunt, who won for her second-ever movie, “The Year of Living Dangerously,” but she’s most commonly known for her career voicing animation and video game characters.
Over the years, there have been claims that the Oscar Curse was caused by high expectations after winning, the threat of being typecast according to the winning role and increased scrutiny of the actor’s career. Marlee Matlin was typecast in deaf roles after winning best actress for “Children of a Lesser God,” her first-ever film. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Richard Dreyfuss said that after he won best actor at 30 years old, he turned down movies he would have accepted before the award, taking fewer risks.
A Look into the Oscar Game
All these factors don’t take into account the fact that getting nominated — and winning a gold statuette — mainly depends on the academy’s perception of the actor. In the lead-up to the awards, studios produce massive campaigns, which include the placement of “For Your Consideration” ads, screeners sent to academy members and star appearances at elaborate screenings and festivals. The goal for, say, a “Parasite” campaign would have an academy member driving down Sunset Boulevard seeing at least one “Parasite” billboard, arriving home to a “Parasite” screener in their mailbox and later attending a “Parasite” Q&A with the director and cast before they cast their ballot.
The importance of these campaigns is a given, even to moviegoers who are just industry-adjacent. The academy recently changed the regulations around campaign events after the 2019 season, so themed chocolates and stickers may no longer be the norm, but that doesn’t mean the campaigns have dwindled. This year, there have been reports that Netflix spent $100 million on the campaigns for its films, including “The Irishman,” which is already an Oscar-bait movie featuring academy favorites and a compelling story.
The official goal for these campaigns is to get as many people as possible to see the movies, but box-office numbers on their own don’t determine who gets a nomination or a win. So the real goal is to screen the movies for academy members and give them chances to interact with the cast, directors and producers. These academy members have been invited into a select, and assumedly elite, group that has its own regulations and unspoken in-rules, and they act accordingly.
A Look into the Process
This year’s nominations show that even with recent efforts to diversify the academy — expanding membership each year since 2015, as well as inviting more young and racially-diverse members — the same type of actor gets nominated. Only one person of color was nominated within the four acting categories — Cynthia Erivo for “Harriet” — even though some of the most popular movies of the year had black, Latinx and Asian American casts. As soon as the snubs were rounded up following the nominations, most observers recognized that though they were hoping for Jennifer Lopez, Lupita Nyong’o or Awkwafina, they knew that their nominations were long shots. The public knows what makes up the typical, or “ideal,” Oscar performance: one to which older white filmmakers can relate.
A look into the Oscars selection process for this year, provided by the New York Post, shows how ingrained the idea of the typical Oscar winner goes. In the article, 91-year-old actor Terry Moore designates the movie “Hustlers” as “not an Oscar movie,” and its star, Lopez, as “more of a phenomenon than an actress.” He also says that Adam Sandler, who had an excellent performance in “Uncut Gems,” is not seen in Hollywood as a serious actor because “he does cheesy Netflix comedies that are really dumb.”
So it seems that to be seen as an Oscar-worthy actor, the potential nominees have to be serious actors who do serious movies. But then, when considering Eddie Murphy’s “Dolemite Is My Name,” a movie about making movies which is a very Oscar-bait-y offering, Moore says he didn’t like how Murphy seemed to be campaigning hard. Murphy did a lot of promotion for “Dolemite,” including a hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live” after he hadn’t appeared on the show for 35 years. Moore’s casual disdain — “I didn’t like his attempt for it” — suggests that Murphy wouldn’t have won either way. Damned if you campaign, damned if you don’t.
When You Don’t Play by the Rules
Actors truly are damned if they don’t participate in the Oscar campaign for their film. Punishing actors for not doing enough campaigning has been the most explicit example of the academy self-selecting actors who play according to their rules. Consider Mo’Nique, who won best supporting actress in 2009 for the film “Precious.” In a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Mo’Nique alleged that Lee Daniels, the director of “Precious,” told her she’d been blackballed in Hollywood and that several roles he had discussed with her, including roles in “The Butler” and “Empire,” had been taken away. Mo’Nique said she hadn’t “played the game.” She had won the Oscar in spite of refusing to attend award-season parties, and had also asked to be paid for appearances at said parties. A clip from the Steve Harvey show where she called out Daniels’, Oprah Winfrey’s, Tyler Perry’s and Harvey’s lack of support for her, went viral in early 2019.
So the best example of the Oscar Curse comes from an actress who won the award even though she didn’t play by the academy’s game. Mo’Nique is regularly listed among Oscar Curse examples, even now that she’s returned to acting with roles in “Bessie” and “Almost Christmas” and a stand-up comedy special on Showtime. Mo’Nique’s situation shows that the Oscars don’t have some self-fulfilling curse undermining the careers of their winners. They may just have their own standards and traditions to blame. Once the academy becomes more diverse and the arbitrary rules fade into the past, maybe there won’t be an Oscar Curse at all.