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As Academy Award season approaches, it's not uncommon to hear talk about the "Oscar Curse," a mysterious jinx that has plagued past winners of the golden statuette.
While logic would dictate that winning Hollywood's most prestigious award should catapult its winner into the A-list, the sad fact is that many Oscar-winning performers have seen their career trajectories plummet as soon as they finish their acceptance speeches.
Although there have been no recent incidents of Oscar winners becoming unemployable immediately after walking offstage with their statuettes, CNBC.com remains ever vigilant should such a scenario transpire. In the meantime, read ahead to see the actors and actresses whose careers declined once they won the Academy Award.
By Daniel Bukszpan
Updated 21 Feb. 2013
Halle Berry was an ascendant star who first made a splash in the 1991 Spike Lee movie Jungle Fever. A decade of paying her dues followed, along with higher billing in major roles. Finally, in 2001 she appeared in Monster's Ball, a critically acclaimed drama starring Billy Bob Thornton and Heath Ledger. She was nominated for Best Actress for her performance, and in 2002, she became the first African-American to win the award.
Berry could now be choosy about picking her roles, but she was not well served by her choices. After the James Bond film Die Another Day and the X-Men sequel X2: X-Men United, she starred in Gothika, a psychological thriller that received almost entirely negative reviews, and followed it in 2004 with Catwoman, a critically-pilloried box office bomb that earned Berry a Golden Raspberry Award for worst actress just three years after winning the Oscar. Her most recent high-profile starring vehicle was "Cloud Atlas," a 2012 science fiction film in which she co-starred with Tom Hanks.
Mira Sorvino began her film career in the early 1990s, and in 1995 she starred in the Woody Allen film Mighty Aphrodite as an unintelligent prostitute and porn star with a very high voice. Despite the broad screwball nature of the role, Sorvino was nominated for the Oscar, and won it.
Despite her great promise, Sorvino, the daughter of actor Paul Sorvino, was unable to capitalize on her Oscar and parlay it into roles in prestigious films, or even in good ones. In the years following Mighty Aphrodite, she appeared in the dumb-blonde comedy Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, the giant-bug movie Mimic and the ultra-violent action movie The Replacement Killers. None of these movies constituted a suitable follow-up to her Oscar-winning star turn, and Sorvino has yet to do anything to break her out of her rut.
In the 1996 film Jerry Maguire, Rod Tidwell, a football player portrayed by Cuba Gooding, Jr., utters the line “Show Me The Money!” Those four simple words turned into one of the most oft-repeated catchphrases ever. Gooding won the Oscar for his portrayal of Tidwell, and between the award and the nonstop repetition of the catchphrase, he appeared destined for show business immortality.
It didn’t happen. This was in part because Gooding followed up the Oscar-winning performance with appearances in highly questionable movies, such as Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor and the homophobic comedy Boat Trip, which Roger Ebert described as “so bad in so many different ways, not only does it offend gays, it offends everyone else." The movie earned Gooding a Golden Raspberry nomination, but luckily for him he had the good fortune to be in competition for the award with Ben Affleck, who had starred in that year’s Razzie-sweeping Gigli.
Marisa Tomei built her career during the 1980s, appearing regularly on the television series A Different World. In 1992 she appeared in My Cousin Vinny as Mona Lisa Vito, a spandex-clad character in gigantic 1980s hair who predated Jersey Shore’s Snooki by two full decades. Despite being nominated alongside such actresses as Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Plowright, Tomei won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Tomei subsequently appeared in a series of films that did little but reinforce the notion that her Oscar win was a fluke. In 2001 she starred in the film In the Bedroom and was nominated for another Oscar, which suggested that she might have been on track to reverse the curse. However, she failed to win the award and went back to starring in B-movie fare like Anger Management and Wild Hogs. But in a bit of a comeback, Tomei was nominated again for an Oscar with her supporting role in 2008’s The Wrestler.
Mercedes Ruehl’s film career dates back to the 1970s. She has appeared in everything from action movies like The Warriors to comedies like Big and dramas like Heartburn. In 1991 she starred opposite Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, a modern-day take on the Arthurian legend. The film was widely praised by critics and nominated for several awards, and Ruehl walked away with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Ruehl’s next film after The Fisher King was Lost In Yonkers, which was based on a Neil Simon play and was the first film in which she received top billing. It didn’t do much for her, and as the years passed she appeared in smaller roles and smaller films. She has since appeared in such television docudramas as All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story and A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story.
Before the year 2000, Marcia Gay Harden was a struggling actress who had graced such cinematic monuments as Spy Hard and the 1997 version of Flubber. However, in the new millennium she starred in Pollock, an edgy biographical drama about the hard-drinking abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, and she won widespread accolades for her portrayal of Lee Krasner, abstract painter and wife of the artist.
After winning the Oscar for the role, Harden starred in 2003’s Mystic River, another Academy Award-winning film. However, other than that, she starred in a string of movies that came and went with little or no notice. In an interview with Premiere magazine, Harden said that winning the Oscar was one of the worst events of her career. “The Oscar is disastrous on a professional level,” she said in 2003. “Suddenly the parts you’re offered become smaller and the money less. There’s no logic to it.”
In 1997, Roberto Benigni did with Life Is Beautiful what Jerry Lewis failed to do with The Day The Clown Cried.Life Is Beautiful told the story of Guido Orefice, an Italian Jew during World War II who uses comedy to help his family persevere during their internment at a Nazi concentration camp. Benigni played the main character, and he also co-wrote and directed the film. Although its lighthearted approach to serious subject matter had plenty of potential to offend people, the movie became an audience and critical favorite, and Benigni won the Best Actor Oscar for his work.
Benigni failed to follow up on his success. He made only five more films after Life Is Beautiful, one of which, an adaptation of Pinocchio, was received with such outright hostility by critics that it became the only foreign language film ever to be nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award. Not even the voice talents of Cheech Marin and Jim Belushi could save it, and the unanimously bad reviews were a world away from the accolades he had received just a few years earlier. Benigni’s last film, 2005’s The Tiger and the Snow, is a romantic comedy set in occupied Baghdad.
Film critic Leonard Maltin referred to any actor who wins an Oscar but fails to find success afterwards as “F. Murray Abraham Syndrome.” Abraham is best known for his Oscar-winning portrayal of Salieri, a rival to the composer Mozart in the 1984 film Amadeus, and despite winning the award, he followed it up with a series of roles in such fare as National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon and Muppets From Space.
Abraham began his career dressed as a bunch of grapes in a Fruit of the Loom television commercial, and he takes the whole thing in stride. While it’s never desirable to have a syndrome named after you, he’s been dismissive of the notion that winning the Oscar has jinxed him. He has been widely quoted as saying, “The Oscar is the single most important event of my career. I have dined with kings, shared equal billing with my idols, lectured at Harvard and Columbia. If this is a jinx, I’ll take two.”
In 2003, 29-year-old Adrien Brody became the youngest man ever to win the Oscar for Best Actor. He won the award for his moving performance in the film The Pianist, and scandalously accepted the statuette from presenter Halle Berry by dipping her and giving her a full kiss, on the mouth. The next day, critics began comparing him to Al Pacino and anticipating a career ahead full of challenging roles and brilliant work.
Unfortunately, since winning the Oscar, Brody has appeared in movies that have mostly defied the path that many predicted for him. One of his first movies after The Pianist was M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, which was poorly received by critics. A remake of King Kong followed in 2005, but it underperformed at the box office and was not the success that most had anticipated. By the time he appeared in 2009’s Splice and 2010’s Predators, Adrien Brody seemed to be in no danger of winning another Oscar.
In 1982, Linda Hunt won great acclaim for her performance in The Year of Living Dangerously. Despite the fact that it was only her second film, she gained widespread attention for her portrayal of the male dwarf Billy, and she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role, the first time anyone had won the award by playing a member of the opposite sex.
After winning the Academy Award, Hunt appeared in a baffling string of films that snuffed out her newfound stardom pretty quickly. Her first movie after the Oscar win was 1984’s Dune, which to this day is generally acknowledged to be one of the worst movies ever made. She also appeared in the screechingly awful Rosanne Barr vehicle She-Devil in 1989. Since then, she has found a niche doing voice work for animated films and video games, but the acclaim that she won with her 1983 Oscar is now a very distant memory.
The 1986 romantic drama Children of a Lesser God tells the story of a teacher at a school for the hearing-impaired who falls in love with a deaf woman, played by Marlee Matlin. While the filmmakers could have cast an actress with her hearing intact, they chose realism and cast Matlin, who is deaf in real life. The movie was her film debut, and she was 21 at the time when it was made, but neither her disability nor her inexperience held her back, and she won the Oscar for Best Actress, becoming the youngest woman ever to do so.
Despite the glorious start to her career, things stalled. Matlin was always typecast as the deaf woman in everything she did afterwards, and her career as a movie star soon faded. In 1993 she appeared in a memorable episode of Seinfeld in which she played a lip reader, and in 2008 she joined such company as Marie Osmond, Bristol Palin and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay by appearing on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars.
For two decades, Olympia Dukakis had played bit parts in forgettable movies. However, in 1987 she starred in the comedy Moonstruck and promptly stole every scene in which she appeared. Between her appearance in the film and the presidential candidacy of her cousin Michael Dukakis, she found herself in the spotlight after two decades of struggling. It all culminated at the Oscars, when she walked away with the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Dukakis went on to bit parts in high-profile comedies like Working Girl,Steel Magnolias and the Look Who’s Talking trilogy. However, after a few years it became clear that she was always going to be limited to supporting roles, and her star dimmed. She did, however, receive widespread critical acclaim for her portrayal of a transgendered landlady in the television miniseries Tales of the City.
In the 1980s, Geena Davis rose through Hollywood’s ranks quickly, first gaining notice in a small role in 1982’s Tootsie and finally winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1988’s The Accidental Tourist. Unlike some who suffered the Oscar Curse, she starred in another memorable film after winning the award, appearing alongside Susan Sarandon in the popular classic Thelma & Louise in 1991.
In 1995, she appeared in Cutthroat Island, a massively expensive box office bomb that single-handedly bankrupted its studio, Carolco. She followed it up with The Long Kiss Goodnight in 1996, which was ignored by moviegoers, and then appeared in three Stuart Little talking mouse movies. With her film career in decline, she turned to television and made commercials for Online Investments and starred in her own sitcom, The Geena Davis Show, which was cancelled after one season.