A mixed blessing for some, Oscar can be a huge career boost

HOLLYWOOD — At times during its looniest twists and turns, it’s hard not to agree with those who have tired of the Oscar race, wearily passing it off as a bloated ego parade or, even worse, meaningless. But before they roll up their tents and go home, they might consider Ernest Borgnine.

Before he starred in the minibudget indie “Marty” (1955), about a struggling working-class guy, Borgnine was a bit player who worked for scale. Once slated as no more than another TV project from the pen of Paddy Chayefsky, “Marty” struck a national chord with its look at the kind of blue-collar lives the studios routinely ignored. And Borgnine’s performance led the charge, earning him the actor Oscar.

It also helped bump Borgnine out of the working class of actors into the penthouse suites, where he could command a then-staggering $200,000 per film.

“You might be able to mark that point as the time when winning the Oscar, or even being nominated, began to really mean something,” says “Inside Oscar 2″ author Damien Bona. “From the time they were conceived in the late ’20s, and on through the mid-’50s, the studios had such a grip on story development, production and stars’ careers that it didn’t really matter if you had Oscars or not. It didn’t make a difference that Bette Davis was her generation’s most nominated and winning actress. She couldn’t translate that into more power for herself, or get out from under her contract with Jack Warner. She even tried to flee to England to get away from him, and it still didn’t work.”

With the postwar burst of pent-up, frustrated stars (such as Humphrey Bogart and, later, Burt Lancaster, whose company produced “Marty”) forming their own shingles, the early signs of the eventual studio system collapse were materializing, and a new kind of free market of independent contractors meant that an Oscar nomination and/or win could translate into a major career boost.

Nearly 50 years later the impact is hardly diminished.

But what does it actually feel like, being in the midst of this Oscar wave, and what does it feel like afterwards, when, in Kevin Brownlow’s phrase, the parade’s gone by?

Although he remained a household name in movies into the ’70s, Borgnine never translated his Oscar into true stardom, “because he wasn’t a leading man type. He was always second or third bill,” notes Bona.

Not so for Michael Caine. The son of a Cockney fish-market porter and a cleaning-woman mother, Caine might’ve struck most studio execs as a bit rough around the edges. But as it did in the ’60s for fellow Brits Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Richard Harris and Alan Bates, Michael Caine’s Oscar nomination for “Alfie” (1966) made him a star in America — an essential step, in Caine’s view.

“I was in disbelief at the news (of the nomination for ‘Alfie’), because for a British actor, the Oscar is a sort of impossible dream. Even though many of us have won it,” says the Cockney actor, currently in the running for his lead in “The Quiet American.”

The stream of Hollywood offers came rushing in even though Caine generally chose U.K. and Euro-based projects in “Alfie’s” wake: pics like “The Italian Job” and “Get Carter.” “What I discovered,” Caine recalls, “was that just by having been nominated, by taking the leading role I could help a British movie open in America.”

Indeed, the six-time nominated actor — who has won twice for supporting roles in “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1983) and “The Cider House Rules” — observes that his most recent Oscar win seemed to make him more bankable than ever. So that when the deal was struck with Harvey Weinstein and Miramax to make “The Quiet American,” Caine’s star billing was a cinch, “as long as I had a younger co-star — Brendan Fraser.” Caine is clearly in the lead again, with upcoming starring roles in “Secondhand Lions,” with Robert Duvall and Haley Joel Osment, and Norman Jewison’s “The Statement.”

Fifteen minutes of fame

For many winners, though, the Oscar ends up eliciting a lot of mixed emotions, which may seem odd to those on the outside enviously looking in. For producer Douglas Wick, it was one thing being nominated in 1988 for “Working Girl,” but winning for “Gladiator” (along with partners David Franzoni and Branko Lustig) was “both extraordinary, yes, but ordinary at the same time. The extraordinary part is that everyone you’ve ever met in your life — assuming they have a TV — is watching you win the Oscar, so the responses you get echo across your whole life up to that date.”

“But on the ordinary side,” he continues, “you quickly realize that you have to get your next movie going, and make sure it’s good. It’s not so much pressure that you feel, but for about 10 minutes everyone thinks you know something, that you hold the key to the big secret that makes a best picture. It’s this weird magic feeling.”

The moment when the “Gladiator” win crystallized for Wick happened the morning after the win. “We were running late getting my daughter to her fourth-grade class,” he says, “and I took her to her classroom. When we walked in, the whole class stood up and cheered. That meant more than anything.”

Wick saw that the script development process became a bit easier because of the interest in him and his Sony-based unit Red Wagon Entertainment (co-run with his producer wife, Lucy Fisher), and that he could better attract a busy actor’s attention with a role, “but soon, you’re back to the regular tasks of doing everything to get the movie right. You have this Cinderella life for a brief time, but then, it’s back to sweeping up the fireplace.”

“I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed when I was nominated,” says Focus Features topper and producer-writer James Schamus about his noms for script and song for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” “But then, this opposite emotion kicks in, which whispers in your year, ‘Maybe they won’t take my projects again.’ It’s really a defense mechanism to keep me from getting too carried away.”

It’s what Schamus terms “a dual-consciousness experience, and I’m sure you’ll find that most of those who attend the Oscar show hoping to win have a similar mindset at work. For the writer, the Oscar — along with only the (Writers Guild of America) award — is the one where you don’t get a funny range of feelings from pleased to puzzled. You’re just honored. But then, my inner Calvinist child responds that tomorrow is another day and pretend that nothing has happened.”

Moore of the spotlight

Four-time nominee (including her pair of leading and supporting noms for, respectively, “Far From Heaven” and “The Hours”) Julianne Moore worries a bit that the Oscar campaigning has perhaps taken “away a little of the joy of being nominated, because in some cases the campaigning gets to be about the bottom line, which isn’t what the Oscar should be about. I have great fun with it, myself, maybe because it seems that every time I get nominated, I’m getting pregnant or having a baby.

“Suddenly, when you’re nominated, you feel like you’re some kind of candidate for serious actordom. I’m shopping at Ralph’s here in L.A., and strangers in the parking lot are waving at me shouting their congratulations. It’s really wild — they actually know who I am.”

“After my nomination for ‘Boogie Nights,’ I saw that the amount of offers for roles increased considerably, and so did my choices. Maybe that’s the hard part afterwards — deciding what to do, where to go next. In my own case, I think it was made easier because I was invited to work again with directors I love, like Paul (Thomas Anderson, ‘Magnolia’), Robert Altman (‘Cookie’s Fortune’) and Todd (Haynes, ‘Far From Heaven’). That makes it easier to sort out the choices.”

Like Moore, Martin Scorsese has seen his share of nominations — six, including his current bid as director of “Gangs of New York” — but tries not to focus on the idea of being branded the perpetual bridesmaid. “I don’t know if (winning an Oscar) is the missing piece to the puzzle,” says the venerated filmmaker. “The missing piece to the puzzle has been put together by a lot of lifetime achievement awards, in a way.”

The latest of these has been bestowed by the Directors Guild of America. “People have turned around and said, ‘Well, you have never won an Oscar, but the films have been held up,'” adds Scorsese. “And that has been very gratifying. But it still would be wonderful to get one; that would be very nice.

“And also, I would be able to handle it now. They did me a favor not giving it to me early on because, I don’t know, maybe it would have gone to my head too soon. Maybe it is best to have gotten the films made. Maybe now, if I do get it , it might be the right time emotionally.”

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