Fame prompts strange choices post-kudos

With Golden Globe victories still dancing in their heads and Oscar ballots due Jan. 29, this year’s Academy Awards contenders are dreaming of the riches, and the rich work, to come from a win.

But don’t count on Oscar as a one-way elevator to filmic nirvana. More than a few winners have ended up stepping on a down escalator.

Yes, an Oscar can change one’s life. Judi Dench, for instance, is making a lot more now than she was four Oscar nominations ago. But, “Winning isn’t worth all that much to some,” says veteran Oscar consultant Tony Angellotti. “Meryl Streep is not going to get a dollar more if she wins this year.”

One publicist talked about the yearlong drought his actor client suffered post-Oscar, then “bam, bam, bam, a lot of roles started coming in. What was that? Did they think he already had too much work because he had won?”

And there are plenty of times when a performer hits a peak, then disappears for years. Director Michael Cimino and actress Brenda Fricker leap to mind.

And then there are people who keep working, but not much in films — Cher, for example. And Mercedes Ruehl and Jessica Lange seem to spend more time on stage than on a soundstage.

Observers say several factors can affect a post-Oscar career.

“When you’re speaking about talent, first you really have to ask the question: Are they sane?” one long-time observer says. Having an artistic sensibility sometimes leads to inspired, Oscar-worthy work. Sometimes, though, it leads to bad choices.

Cuba Gooding Jr. tried to cherry-pick projects, hoping for a repeat of 1996’s “Jerry Maguire” lightning. After “What Dreams May Come” and “Men of Honor,” Gooding abandoned his self-imposed Cuban exile for a broader range of roles, including such modest comedies as “Rat Race,” “Snow Dogs” and “Zoolander.”

As exiles go, few can compare with Daniel Day-Lewis, who won for “My Left Foot” in 1989, and earned another nom with 1993’s “In the Name of the Father.” Then he went on a long sabbatical, including time apprenticed to an Italian cobbler. Day-Lewis eventually gave cobbling the boot, making a return to acting this year in “Gangs of New York.”

Then there are the performers that some people wish had taken more time off.

Roberto Benigni had his pick of projects after his best-actor “Life Is Beautiful” win. But he made a befuddling choice: Who wants to see a 51-year-old Pinocchio, especially in a bad dub?

And there’s Kevin Costner, whose best picture/director double on “Dances With Wolves” but has directed only one pic since that 1990 western: “The Postman.” Now he’s directing a Western, “Open Range.”Fear of replicating one’s success may be one reason for a low turnout of work. Or maybe it’s that they’ve turned their interests in other directions. Certainly Costner and Mel Gibson have continued to work as actors. Ditto for Robert Redford, who has helmed only five films since his win for the 1980 “Ordinary People.”

Gibson braved quite a bit to pull together “Braveheart” in 1995. Since his big year, though, Gibson has stuck with acting, sinking his directing chops into only one quirky project: “The Passion.” Filmed in Latin and Aramaic and financed by Gibson, the pic about Christ’s Crucifixion has no subtitles, and no distributor.

Meanwhile, former King of the World James Cameron seemingly decreed he would only do TV projects after “Titanic” collided with box-office history. He’s prowled under sea for “Project Bismarck” and soared with sci-fi in “Dark Angel.” Cameron’s next silver-screen epic is a sequel, “True Lies 2,” and it isn’t expected to arrive until 2004.

Since conducting “Amadeus” to multiple wins in 1984, Milos Forman has directed three films, the last 1999’s “Man on the Moon.” Star F. Murray Abraham has chalked up more than 60 film and TV credits since then, many of them in European projects — but even hardcore fans might have trouble naming them.

There seems to be a perilous path for multi-hyphenates who win a screenwriting Oscar. Whither Emma Thompson, who showed wit in writing “Sense and Sensibility” but who’s mostly remembered only for “Wit” since? And will Ben Affleck and Matt Damon ever put pen to paper again, now that both are Bourne-again daredevils?

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