Originally created 02/11/02

When bad movies happen to award-winning stars



Mama, don't let your Oscar winners grow up to be action stars. Theoretically, at least, an Academy Award in one of the four acting categories serves as an affirmation of the winner's talent, raising the performer's stature and asking price and making more and better roles available.

It works that way for some actors. Tom Hanks transformed himself from a headliner in light comedies into one of America's most respected and beloved stars.

Before winning back-to-back Oscars for "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump," Hanks alternated between good films ("Big") and bad ("Joe vs. the Volcano"). Since he took home his golden bookends, his movie choices have been nearly flawless: "Apollo 13," "That Thing You Do!," "Saving Private Ryan," "You've Got Mail," "The Green Mile," "Cast Away" and voiceovers in the two "Toy Story" films.

Nicolas Cage, on the other hand, followed his Oscar win for "Leaving Las Vegas" by deciding to become a star of frequently mindless action films: "The Rock," "Con Air," "Face/Off," "Snake Eyes," "8 mm," "Bringing Out the Dead" and "Gone in Sixty Seconds." Usually, it works the other way around - you pay your dues in genre films and graduate to more Oscar-worthy material.

But Cage is hardly alone in that regard. A look at the post-Oscar careers of winners in the acting categories over the past 10 years proves that Hollywood's most coveted honor doesn't automatically catapult you into the pantheon of cinema.

Russell Crowe may be showing everyone the right way to do it. The winner last year for "Gladiator" (who should have won the year before for "The Insider") might be heading for consecutive Best Actor Oscars for his performance in "A Beautiful Mind." Only two men have ever done that: Tom Hanks and Spencer Tracy. Does anyone even remember the film Crowe did in between, "Proof of Life"? Does it matter?

Julia Roberts, reigning Best Actress winner for "Erin Brockovich," has made three movies in the interim - "The Mexican," "America's Sweethearts" and "Ocean's Eleven" - none of which will net her a nomination. But neither will they wreck her image as America's favorite "Pretty Woman" and as the biggest female star in Hollywood. That's just as important.

Kevin Spacey continued to make good choices after winning the 1995 Best Supporting Actor award for "The Usual Suspects." He won another nomination for "L.A. Confidential" and was one of the best things in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

But Spacey may be making the mistake of trying to live up to the prestige of the award since winning the 1999 Best Actor prize for "American Beauty." He is doing a 180-degree turn from that film's acid-tongued dropout to full-fledged Sensitive Male, and the transition hasn't been pretty.

"Pay It Forward" cast him as a facially and emotionally scarred schoolteacher. In "K-Pax," he was a man in a mental institution who says he comes from another planet and seems to have all the answers. "The Shipping News" stifles him altogether as a passive lump who moves to Labrador and learns the unsavory secrets of his ancestors.

If he's not careful, Spacey will find himself turning into Robin Williams, the 1997 Supporting Actor winner for "Good Will Hunting" who proceeded to make us forget he was once the funniest man on the planet. Williams developed a savior complex trying to rescue his wife from hell (literally) in "What Dreams May Come," as an obnoxious doctor fighting the establishment in "Patch Adams," as a man pitching false hope in the Warsaw ghetto in "Jakob the Liar" and as a robot who endures long beyond our own capacity to tolerate him in "Bicentennial Man." Comedy doesn't win Oscars, but self-importance sometimes does.

Seeing Gwyneth Paltrow in the trailer for "Shallow Hal," a Farrelly Brothers comedy in which she dons a fat suit for cheap laughs, might have constituted grounds for rescinding her 1998 Best Actress award, earned for her luminous performance in "Shakespeare in Love."

Her actual post-Oscar track record, however, isn't as awful as you might think. It's just that "Shallow Hal," which also wasn't as bad as it looked, came too soon after the truly dreadful "Duets," in which she played a karaoke singer. But she had an excuse there, too. Her father, Bruce Paltrow, directed the film.

However, she also made two movies that no one need apologize for, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "The Royal Tenenbaums."

We haven't seen much of Jessica Lange since she won her second Oscar, as 1994's Best Actress for "Blue Sky." After appearing in "Losing Isaiah," "Rob Roy" and "A Thousand Acres," she was largely relegated to scheming biddy roles in "Hush," "Cousin Bette" and "Titus." In the last one, at least, she was fiery and feral as Tamora, the queen of Goths.

But Lange suffers from the malady that eventually afflicts almost every actress in sexist Hollywood. Even Goths dare not go beyond the age of 40 and expect to continue getting good roles if they are female - and Lange is 52.

Carnegie Mellon University graduate Holly Hunter (1993 Best Actress, "The Piano") is only 43 but has been seen of late only in small roles in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Time Code." It didn't help that her Oscar follow-ups included the disastrous "Home for the Holidays" and the misconceived "A Life Less Ordinary."

There are exceptions to the age barrier for women, and Susan Sarandon is chief among them. The 1995 Best Actress winner for "Dead Man Walking" keeps racking up lead roles in mediocre movies that don't seem to hurt her reputation ("Twilight," "Stepmom," "Anywhere But Here"), along with supporting turns in the more specialized "Illuminata," "Cradle Will Rock" and "Joe Gould's Secret." But Sarandon, 55, did voiceovers in her last two films, the animated "Rugrats in Paris" and the animatronic "Cats and Dogs." Many producers prefer older women to be heard and not seen.

Age isn't a problem for veteran male stars, however - unless you are Jack Palance, the journeyman whose one brief shining moment won him the 1991 Supporting Actor award for "City Slickers."

Al Pacino (1992 Best Actor, "Scent of a Woman") keeps getting to chew the scenery in good films, including "City Hall" "Donnie Brasco," "The Devil's Advocate," "The Insider" and "Any Given Sunday." Anthony Hopkins (1991 Best Actor, "Silence of the Lambs") seems to have been in every other movie, some of them best forgotten ("The Road to Wellville," "Instinct") but many of them memorable ("Howards End," "Remains of the Day," "Nixon," "Amistad").

Tommy Lee Jones didn't have to run and hide after his 1993 Supporting Actor win for "The Fugitive." His subsequent films include "Cobb," "The Client," "Blue Skies," "Men in Black," "Rules of Engagement" and "Space Cowboys," to name just a few.

But Gene Hackman (who won his second Oscar as 1992 Supporting Actor in "Unforgiven") remains the all-time champ at never meeting a role he didn't like, even when he should have known better. He just turned 72, but in 2001 alone he made five movies, two of which were good, "Heist" and "The Royal Tenenbaums."

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