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Curse of the Best Actress Oscar
(Filed: 30/07/2004)

Halle Berry is just the latest actress for whom the gold statuette has spelt a career slump, says David Gritten

Even three months ago it was clear that Halle Berry's Catwoman was a movie in trouble. Warner Bros showed a trailer of Catwoman in a West End cinema to a packed audience at a screening of Troy. Playing a graphic designer who can assume feline powers, Berry pranced about in an absurd tight black leather outfit with high heels, brandishing a huge whip and hissing gently.

Halle Berry as Catwoman
Cat among the pigeons: Halle Berry's latest outing is a flop

It might have delighted S&M fans, but the audience sat gaping in disbelief. Then two young men began barking: "Woof! Woof!" A witty response, greeted with hilarity, to a cat-related film that looked a total dog.

These misgivings proved justified. Catwoman opened last Friday in America to dreadful reviews, several joking about kitty litter. Roger Ebert, America's best-known critic, led the charge: "Tired and dated, with a plot that could have been phoned in from the 1960s." Audiences took the hint: it grossed just $17 million on its first weekend, and for such a big-budget action movie (costing $135 million to produce, market and publicise) there's no way back.

Yet the Catwoman catastrophe was unsurprising. Halle Berry, remember, suddenly became world-famous two years ago, winning the Best Actress Oscar for Monster's Ball, and weeping dutifully as she hugged her statuette. That she was the first black woman to win the award added to her lustre. Berry has now joined a long list of actresses to receive an Oscar, then struggle with career setbacks. The American Film Academy conveys the impression that winning an Oscar is the greatest gift life can bestow on a actress - but facts suggest otherwise.

Anjelica Huston, who won an Oscar in 1986 for Prizzi's Honor, used to tell reporters cheerfully that the award ruined her career. Certainly of the 20 actresses in the last decade to win Oscars, few have flourished as a result.

Halle Berry
Halle Berry accepts her Best Actress Oscar

Hilary Swank, named best actress in 2000 for her role in Boys Don't Cry, is a prime example. What became of her? A minor role with Al Pacino in Insomnia comes to mind. At this year's Sundance festival, I saw her in Iron-Jawed Angels, an HBO film (about American suffragettes) so awful it would be a shock to see it released here. Effectively, Swank is history.

Then there's Mira Sorvino, brainy, blonde and effervescent, best supporting actress in 1996 for Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite. Since then, she has made 25 films - but almost all are obscure. Again, her career has dwindled.

What of Helen Hunt, 1998 Oscar winner for As Good As it Gets? A role in a successful film (What Women Want) and two flops (Pay it Forward, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion), and that's about it. What did the Oscar do for her?

Even higher profile actresses suffer Oscar's curse. Gwyneth Paltrow's position seemed unassailable after her 1999 Shakespeare in Love triumph. But since then she's starred in a couple of barely-seen, high-minded duds (Possession, Sylvia) and broad comedies that misfired (Shallow Hal, View from the Top). Paltrow may yet come again, but now she's in a lull.

Nicole Kidman remains a star by any reckoning but, creatively, she peaked with Moulin Rouge and The Others, just before her Oscar-winning role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Since then, she's gone off the boil - somewhat miscast in Cold Mountain, hopelessly so in The Human Stain and unlikely to reclaim her pre-eminence in this week's Stepford Wives.

Nicole Kidman
 
Nicole Kidman: past her creative peak?

And let's not forget Julia Roberts, who seems to have floundered since her Oscar for Erin Brockovich three years ago. Up to that point, she was unquestionably the world's premier film actress. Since then she has been seen, sometimes only briefly, in forgettable stuff such as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Full Frontal. The recent Mona Lisa Smile saw her sharing centre stage with three younger actresses.

It seems an eternity since an awards-night favourite such as Meryl Streep (two Oscars and seven nominations in a 12-year spell) could turn her victories into career enhancement, hoovering up the best available female roles. These days, receiving an Oscar can seem like a recognition that an actress's most significant work is behind her. You'd have thought two of the most talented recent Oscar winners, Frances McDormand (Fargo, 1997) and Holly Hunter (The Piano, 1994) would have landed several great lead roles as a result. Instead, their screen presence has been largely peripheral.

Today, when you think of actresses who take major roles that involve varied, interesting work, you come up with names such as Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet. What do they have in common? That's right - not an Oscar between them.

Oddly, the curse tends not to strike British actresses. Judi Dench and Emma Thompson have carried on doing what they do with no change in their fortunes. As for Catherine Zeta Jones, who nabbed a supporting actress Oscar for Chicago last year, her stock has actually risen.

 
Hilary Swank
Not so Swanky now, Hilary?

Yet Halle Berry's post-Oscar victory career has been the most bizarre of all. For an actress to win an Academy Award in a searingly dramatic role, then re-surface next as a Bond girl smacks of perversity. Yet that's just what she did, playing Jinx in Die Another Day. Sure, she looked impressive, emerging from the surf in that bikini - but did no-one tell her being a Bond girl ranks alongside Playmate of the Month as a one-way ticket to obscurity?

Then there's Catwoman, immortalised on TV by Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar, and on film by Michelle Pfeiffer in the terrible Batman Returns. Played straight or for laughs, it's a no-win role; even Nicole Kidman turned it down, at a time when she seemed to take every part offered her. Berry might have seen this coming.

Now she's taking a low-profile route with two modestly budgeted films: October Squall, playing a rape victim, and Frankie and Alice, about a woman with multiple personalities. She's won her Oscar, had her big flop - and starting over again.

A word of advice to Charlize Theron, winner of this year's best actress Oscar: plot your next move very carefully.

7 February 2004: Become a serial killer – and win an Oscar [Charlize Theron]
4 February 2004: The arts column: why Kidman is losing by a hair [Nicole Kidman]
12 January 2004: Gwyneth in love [interview with Gwyneth Paltrow]
25 May 2002: And the winner is... [interview with Halle Berry]
27 March 2000: American Beauty wins five Oscars [Hilary Swank, 2000 winner]

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