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What's Behind The Best Supporting Actress Curse? Plain, Old, Unmagical Sexism

Feb 24, 2016

As if there's not enough controversy over the Oscars, there's also the matter of a curse.

This Hollywood rumor is often said to have started back in 1993, when Marisa Tomei won best supporting actress for My Cousin Vinny. Rather than going on to star in huge movies, as one might expect of a comely and talented Oscar winner, Tomei's film career fizzled. She appeared in small roles, or small films. Even the legitimacy of her win became an urban legend. Thus the curse: Winning best supporting actress is a career killer.

The A-list, movie-star promise that an Academy Award might suggest never materialized with Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) or Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King), either — even though both are extremely accomplished thespians with impressive resumes. And Jennifer Hudson virtually disappeared from the big screen after Dreamgirls. Amy Nicholson, chief film critic for MTV News, points to Kim Basinger as yet another classic example.

"She won for L.A. Confidential and then she just immediately had no work for three years," she says. "You look at a winner like Brenda Fricker, who won for My Left Foot — the same film that Daniel Day-Lewis won for, which turned him into a huge star. And three years later, you have [Fricker] playing roles like 'Pigeon Lady' in Home Alone 2. And you see that happen to a talented actress and you can't help but wonder — yeah, is there a curse?"

To be clear, Nicholson does not believe in this curse. Not at all. Not even remotely. This, she says, is plain, old, unmagical sexism. Basinger was 44 when she won best supporting actress. Perhaps part of the problem is that the category rewards numerous women who are older than 40, who are black or "ethnic," or who are character actresses, rather than traditional beauties.

"It's a symptom of the fact that there aren't a lot of roles," Nicholson says. "It's really just a symptom of the movies, you know?"

Then there's the expectation for Oscar winners to follow up with meaty, meaningful roles. If you're a best supporting actress who doesn't want to play a background wife or mom, that often means having to appear in smaller movies. Show up in a big blockbuster for exposure and to capitalize on your win, and you risk being mocked.

Nicholson says that happened to Angelina Jolie, when she starred in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider after winning best supporting actress for Girl, Interrupted. But Jolie helped prove that the best supporting actress curse is utterly bogus. "Now she's the most reliable female box office draw that we have," Nicholson says.

Curse-truthers, look at the spectacular careers of Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Penélope Cruz and Tilda Swinton. Before Swinton's best supporting actress win for Michael Clayton, she flew under the pop culture radar for years. Now Nicholson says, it feels like she's in everything.

There's no talk of a best supporting actor curse, partly because the awards tend to be bestowed on established older stars of the Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin generation, or to sexy foreigners such as Javier Bardem or Christoph Waltz. Meanwhile, Nicholson says, female Oscar winners have to deal not just with one alleged curse, but two.

"Sure, you might win an Oscar for best supporting actress or best actress — but then you're probably going to get divorced," she says, sounding irritated.

This curse was taken seriously enough that researchers at the University of Toronto did the math. They found best actress winners have a 63 percent higher chance of divorce.

Yet another story Hollywood tells us about the perils of women having it all.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As if there's not enough controversy over the Oscars, there's also the matter of a curse. For decades now, a rumor has circulated in Hollywood that winning best supporting actress will kill your career. NPR's Neda Ulaby looks at what's really going on.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Best-supporting-actress-curse truthers trace its origin to Marisa Tomei’s win for the movie "My Cousin Vinnie" back in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARISA TOMEI: Thank you so much (laughter). This is such a great honor to receive this.

ULABY: Tomei was then honored with rumors doubting the legitimacy of her win. And like other victims of the so-called curse, Tomei did not then star in a bunch of big movies, as you might expect. She joined the ranks of Mira Sorvino and Mercedes Ruhl, whose film careers basically fizzled after winning for "The Fisher King" and "Mighty Aphrodite," or Jennifer Hudson, who hasn't had any movie parts that compare with her role in "Dreamgirls," or Kim Basinger, Amy Nicholson, who's chief film critic for MTV News.

AMY NICHOLSON: She won for "L.A. Confidential," and then she just immediately had no work for three years.

ULABY: Basinger was then 44. That's part of the problem. Best supporting actress rewards lots of women who are older than 40, who are black or brown or who are not traditional beauties.

NICHOLSON: You look at a winner like Brenda Fricker, who won for "My Left Foot" - you know, the same film that Daniel Day-Lewis won for, which turned him into a huge star. And three years later, you have her playing roles like pigeon lady in "Home Alone 2." And you see that happen to a talented actress and you can't help but wonder, yeah, is there a curse?

ULABY: There's not a curse, Nicholson says. There's plain, old, un-magical sexism.

NICHOLSON: You know, it's a symptom of the fact that there aren't a lot of roles. It's really just a symptom of the movies, you know?

ULABY: Then there's the expectation that Oscar winners should take meaty, meaningful roles. For this kind of actress, that often means tiny art house movies. Show up in a big, dumb blockbuster for exposure and capitalize on your win, and people make fun of you, like when Angelina Jolie followed her best supporting actress win for "Girl Interrupted" with "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" and its dialogue like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER")

ANGELINA JOLIE: (As Lara Croft, grunting).

NICHOLSON: But nobody makes fun of Jeff Bridges going from "Crazy Heart" to "Tron" or Christian Bale going from "The Fighter" to Batman. There's a strange double standard.

ULABY: Amy Nicholson says Jolie helped prove that the best supporting actress curse is bogus.

NICHOLSON: And now she's the most reliable female box office draw that we have.

ULABY: Or look at Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Penelope Cruz or Tilda Swinton. Before her best supporting actress nomination, Swinton flew under the radar for years.

NICHOLSON: But then she wins for "Michael Clayton," and suddenly she's in every single movie. I mean, she's even here, you know, this month in a Coen brothers movie playing two roles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAIL, CAESAR!")

TILDA SWINTON: (As Thora Thacker) Don't confuse me with my sister.

ULABY: There's no talk of a best supporting actor curse, says Nicholson, because those wins tend to go to established, older stars - Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin - or to compelling foreigners like Javier Bardem or Christoph Waltz. Meanwhile, lady Oscar winners have to deal not just with one alleged curse, but two.

NICHOLSON: Sure, sure, sure, you might win the Oscar for best supporting actress or best actress, but then you're probably going to get divorced.

ULABY: Believe it or not, this curse was taken seriously by researchers at the University of Toronto. They did the math. They found best actress winners do have a 63 percent higher chance of divorce -yet another story Hollywood tells us about the perils of women having it all. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.