Thursday, March 18, 2010

What's really behind the Oscar-winning actress curse?

As Comrade Bingo's blog and others pointed out, Kate Winslet and now Sandra Bullock are just the latest casualties in long line of Oscar-winning actresses who have won acclaim just in time to see their marriages dissolve. Certainly the list is long: Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Charlize Theron, Helen Hunt, Reese Witherspoon, and many others from further back such as Emma Thompson, Jane Fonda or Jennifer Jones.  All of them split from their husbands shortly after winning an Oscar.

But is this a case of a woman's success being emasculating for a man?

I don't think it is. For one thing, Kate Winslet's spouse Sam Mendes won an Oscar himself for Best Director with his first film American Beauty a decade ago. The others perhaps weren't married to Oscar winners, but many were successful in their own right, such as Kenneth Branagh who is a fine director, writer and actor.

One should also consider that many men who win Oscars see their marriages end. It comes to mind that Alexander Payne split from his wife Sandra Oh not too long after he won an Academy Award for writing Sideways

What I think is at work here is the fact that many Hollywood marriages are doomed whether people win awards or not. They just don't seem to last. Making movies is very draining work with long days - often 12 to 16 hours if not longer - for great stretches at a time. Film workers often spend months apart from their spouses. It's a very hard way to maintain a relationship.

Added to that, actors are trained to make themselves very emotionally vulnerable and available to their co-stars. Often, they have to convince themselves that they're in love with their co-stars to make the film work. That's one reason why there are so many romances that start up on set between the romantic leads. The smart ones know that is a possibility and take steps to ensure everyone's emotional well-being.

That has always been a huge danger about acting - many actors come to identify with the characters that they're playing. I've always found it amusing to see how actors who are known as action stars so often end up becoming right-wing supporters of law-and-order Republicans.

As well as Hollywood marriages being doomed, another factor that comes into play with the Oscars is that both partners know that there is a business aspect to their marriage. Even though Hollywood is thought to be very liberal, they are also image-conscious. So there is pressure for them in a rather puritanical U.S. to always appear happily married even if they aren't. Or even if they're gay, as many people suspect about actors such as Tom Cruise or John Travolta (which resulted in one of the funnier jokes in the movie Brüno).

So I think many of these instances are cases where the marriages were dead or dying anyhow, but they hung on until after they won the award. It doesn't make anyone look good if they split before the Oscars, and for the nominee it might harm their chances. They just put on a show long enough so that they can get their prize, and then deal with the messy business of splitting up when it no longer can do any damage.

That kinda sucks, but that's show business.


  1. In eleven years, seven actresses out of ten is quite an impressive tally, even in Hollywood.

    In a way you're right, we shouldn't overstate what might amount to coincidence, but, surely, men are still not used to women being more successful than they are and winning an Oscar is one of the most public event any couple will ever go through.

    Either way, the entire phenomenon is certainly noteworthy.

  2. So then Sandra Bullock should have expected it. And yet, she got Blind-Sided....