Best Actresses and the Oscar Curse

  • Halle Berry may be the queen of the post-Oscar dive. After her profile rose with an Academy Award, Berry released an X-Men sequel and a Bond film—both franchises she’d begun work on before her Oscar win. But then, seemingly enjoying her action rut, she made Gothika, then Catwoman, both evidently cushier and more lucrative than Monster’s Ball. Lately she’s been trying to break back into serious work, with the likes of Frankie and Alice, but few are buying.

  • Charlize Theron made the same shift into the multiplex—the year after she won for Monster, she showed up at the Oscars with hair dyed black for her big star turn in Aeon Flux. Turns out everyone liked her better in serious movies (happily, she released the bone-dry message movie North Country the same year).

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  • Nicole Kidman never bothered with an Aeon Flux of her own—since winning for The Hours, she’s taken the artistic path, strewn with film festivals and limited releases but little public love. Kidman's post-Oscar risks included a three-hour Lars von Trier drama, a Philip Roth adaptation, and a Civil War romance in the year after The Hours. None of them quite panned out the way she might have hoped (though Dogville had strong defenders at Cannes), and the serious Aussie took years to find her footing.

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  • The path of artiness was trod, too, by Reese Witherspoon, who followed up Walk the Line with the icky political thriller Rendition. Ever since, we’ve been reading fashion-magazine cover stories about “Reese’s Comeback.” We'll believe it when we see it.

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  • Then again, the equally unknown Hilary Swank’s first lead role after Boys Don’t Cry was as a French noblewoman in the fortunately forgotten The Affair of the Necklace, so newbies are advised to stay within their range. (Swank returned to her sweet spot—an earnest, hard-working all-American type—for Million Dollar Baby, then followed up her second Oscar win with a role as a socialite sexpot in The Black Dahliasome people never learn!)

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  • Julia Roberts has alternated between art and commerce, following up her Oscar role in Erin Brockovich with would-be hits The Mexican, America’s Sweethearts, and Ocean’s Eleven. Each did well, but took a toll on that America’s Sweetheart lustre.

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  • After months of promoting a movie and years of notoriety, any move a familiar actress makes can seem like a comedown. On the other hand, the out-of-nowhere Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard has had a charmed life post-Oscar, taking roles in nothing but prestige pictures. Her first role after winning was in Public Enemies, an unimpeachable if little-loved summer movie, and she emerged from Nine unscathed, too.

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  • Dame Helen Mirren (to you) turned up in some of the most godforsaken projects of the decade after winning her Oscar (which is worse, Inkheart or State of Play?), and then got another Oscar nomination, and the chance to use a machine gun in Red. To her credit, Mirren knows she’s above the material. On every talk-show appearance and awards-show presentation, she plays up her randy, saucy persona—of which her films, good or bad, are but a part. An actress wins her Oscar in part by charming everyone, and the clever ones can charm the voters into giving them another shot.

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  • Sandra Bullock won an Oscar after a year of ubiquity, and got the chance to weigh her options after everyone remembered they liked her. She chose Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (likely to be the most twee film ever). But it may also be Oscar bait—allowing Bullock to escape the curse.

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  • At least Swank attempted, however awkwardly, to strike while the iron was hot. Helen Hunt, after winning for As Good As It Gets, spent two more years in TV purgatory on Mad About You. By the time she was set free—appearing in Dr. T and the Women, Pay It Forward, What Women Want, AND Cast Awayall in 2000—the heat was gone, and she seemed like a ubiquitous, highbrow Courteney Cox.

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  • Maybe ladies who know they’ve just mounted a successful comeback want to rest on their laurels and escape the pressures of the marketplace for a while. Winslet certainly did after her Oscar win for tormenting men in both German and American accents. She took some time, and eventually chose Roman Polanski’s God of Carnage adaptation (a very classy choice) and a Mildred Pierce remake on HBO. What do you get the Oscar-winner who has everything? An Emmy.

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