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Oscar’s Curse

Advice to nominees: Be careful what you wish for.

Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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In a few weeks, it is all but certain that Natalie Portman, the exquisite 29-year-old who gave the year’s most frightening performance in Black Swan, will collect an Oscar as best actress. The award will cap her uncommonly graceful transition from mature preadolescent (in The Professional and Beautiful Girls) to piece of human furniture in a special-effects blockbuster (the last three Star Wars movies) to hip indie-film princess (Garden State) to mainstream movie star. The only person to do it as seamlessly was Natalie Wood, and that was half a century ago. Since she is someone who has been working steadily in pictures for 17 years, the Black Swan Oscar would not only be in honor of her work in that movie, but almost a career capper, a Lifetime Achievement kind of thing. So it will be Natalie Portman’s night.

Oscar’s Curse

Natalie Portman

Todd Williamson / Wire Image / Getty

The problem is, she would be far better off not winning​—​because there are few things worse for a present-day actress than having won an Oscar. The careers of Oscar-winning actresses tend to stall, freeze, go into reverse, or sputter out afterward. You’ve heard of the Sports Illustrated jinx? The Oscar jinx is just as devastating, only in this case, it affects women disproportionately. This is true for actresses both in the leading and supporting categories. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Oscar doesn’t poison the lives and careers of male winners in the same way, though it has been problematic for them, too.

Consider the following: Gwyneth Paltrow wins for Shakespeare in Love in 1998 after a hard-charging run for a couple of years with performances that dazzled everyone (in Emma, Flesh and Bone, Sliding Doors, and Moonlight and Valentino). And after that? With the exception of two deeply depressing turns, one as Sylvia Plath and the other as a possibly insane mathematician in Proof, this enormously talented and able actress has done nothing​—​nothing​—​of moment.

Charlize Theron, the spectacularly beautiful South African, was also having a terrific time in fare as varied as The Devil’s Advocate and The Italian Job when she uglied herself up to win in 2003 as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Her career since has combined tiresome social-consciousness stuff (North Country, about sexual harassment) and bad superhero stuff (Hancock, with Will Smith).

Rachel Weisz, who was having a very interesting career starring in big-budget trash (The Mummy) and art-house junk (Stealing Beauty) won in 2005 in the supporting category for The Constant Gardener and promptly vanished. So, too, eight years earlier, did Helen Hunt, who won for best actress in As Good As It Gets and then seemed unable to find another job.  Halle Berry won in 2001 for Monster’s Ball, saw her part in an X-Men sequel boosted in size to take account of her new status, and then disappeared. (She tried to get back in the game this year with a multiple-personality part in a movie called Frankie and Alice, but she didn’t score the Oscar nomination she was clearly praying for.)

Want more? Hilary Swank won two Oscars, in 1999 and 2004. Then, in case you like symbolism, she played Amelia Earhart. Julia Roberts, who was probably the biggest female star ever, won in 2000 for Erin Brockovich and then went nine years playing a few supporting roles before making two colossal duds, Duplicity and Eat Pray Love. Nicole Kidman put on a lot of makeup to play Virginia Woolf in 2002’s The Hours, then made a lot of money for a few years until it became clear nobody in the world could stand the sight of her when she didn’t look like Virginia Woolf. Renee Zellweger won a supporting actress Oscar in 2003 for Cold Mountain, which describes the condition of her career.

The most striking case is probably Reese Witherspoon. She won in 2005 for Walk the Line after supplanting Julia Roberts as the most bankable female star in Hollywood. And since? One PC movie (it was called Rendition, and aren’t you lucky you never saw it) and two hideous comedies (Four Christmases and How Do You Know). She has a magical-realist 1930s circus movie coming out soon. That should kill off whatever is left of the delight so many people took in her winsome cleverness.

The Oscar seemed to induce pickiness, self-seriousness, and joylessness in these actresses, so that they either made bad choices or no choices at all. It may also have taken away the drive they had to strive and succeed, because they had reached the pinnacle and there was nowhere to go but down. Which is where they went.

So good luck on Oscar night, Miss Portman. Maybe you’ll be lucky and lose.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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