Prestigious and prolific

For seasoned workhorses, Oscar is merely frosting on the cake

There are many ways an Oscar transforms an actor.

It can turn an arthouse player into an action superstar. Sometimes if performers win too early in their careers, Oscar-worthy material never finds its way into their lap again. Then there are the seasoned veterans — modern day legends blessed by Oscar later than sooner.

“For a veteran actor, an Oscar win is an exclamation point to their body of work,” says talent manager Johnnie Planco, whose clients include Peter O’Toole and Lauren Becall.

Michael Caine, Judi Dench, Morgan Freeman, and Tommy Lee Jones — who all took home supporting Oscars — each boast at least 60 credits. Most of them consider themselves character actors. Dench prefers “jobbing actress.”

“I’ve always regarded myself as a movie actor as opposed to a movie star,” asserts Caine, who appears in three films this year. “When an actor gets a screenplay, he asks, ‘How can I change myself to suit the script?’ When a movie star gets a screenplay, they ask, ‘How can I change the script to suit me?'”

Backing up his definition, Caine points out that Christian Bale worked 20-plus weeks on “Batman Begins.” If Caine works 28 weeks — that’s four films.

Despite box office windfalls and critical misfires, these versatile talents defy the Hollywood axiom that you’re as good as your last film.

“If that standard was true, I wouldn’t be here,” chimes Caine. “I think that notion is true if you’re a young actor and your last film was your first film.”

To the victor go the spoils

No doubt, the benefits that emanate from Oscar are the imminent pay bump and an influx of grade-A scripts. In terms of one’s price per pic, Caine noticed a 50% pay increase for the next picture after “Cider House Rules.”

In regard to their subsequent projects, these actors didn’t necessarily veer from the character roles for which they’ve been known, rather they took advantage of their win to accentuate their resumes. Planco points out that young Oscar winners will often take their time and opt for a follow-up film that’s as good as their Academy triumph — a waiting game that can result in the iron going cold.

For the most part, however, these vets didn’t hesitate on their next role.

At the age of 68 and four nominations into his career, Freeman finally won a supporting actor Oscar for his turn as an ex-pugilist in “Million Dollar Baby.” In the wake of his win, Freeman’s soothing voice was tapped for narration voiceovers on Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” and Warner Independent’s “The March of the Penguins.” Also over the summer, Freeman continued to exhibit his sage side as a blind man in Jet Li’s chopsocky headliner “Unleashed,” as a weapons expert who suits up the Dark Knight in “Batman Begins,” and as Robert Redford’s wizened sidekick in “An Unfinished Life.”

Though Freeman admits life hasn’t changed much since winning, the actor is taking the opportunity to break free of the saintly roles he’s boxed himself into, not to mention narration duties.

The actor will play opposite John Cusack in “The Contract” for “Driving Miss Daisy” helmer Bruce Beresford. Freeman plays a hitman who escapes a car hijack, and stumbles upon a hiker (Cusack) and his son in the forest. Still, the baddie is not unfamiliar territory; Freeman portrayed an assassin in 2000’s “Nurse Betty.”

Fifteen years after “Daisy,” Beresford remarks that Freeman is still an unaffected, straightforward performer; flexible to a director’s whims and suggestions.

Having also directed Jones, Beresford exclaims that both actors are so punctual to the set, that “you can set your watch by them.”

“They give you more confidence in the script,” Beresford says. “They immerse themselves so much, that the director sees that a project will work. It’s a different story with lesser actors.”

Oscar windfall

Dench’s win for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” shook her image as a pure stage actress, and enabled the then-65-year-old actress to accept more film projects.

“After acting in the American theater from 1958-59, I didn’t return to the country for 38 years,” says Dench, “No one knew who I was before the success of ‘Mrs. Brown.’ ”

Meanwhile, Caine, after winning his first supporting actor Oscar for “Hannah and Her Sisters” in 1987, realized he was getting a bit long in the tooth for leading roles and accepted his status as a character actor. He assesses that his accent had kept him away from playing a Yank until Lasse Hallstrom cast him as a New England doctor who runs an orphanage in 1999’s “The Cider House Rules” (it was the second time, after 1967’s “Hurry Sundown,” that the actor played an American). Caine credits his second supporting actor win for “Cider” for positioning him as a lead candidate for “The Quiet American.”

While these workhorse actors are thankful for their trophies, they’re also quick to note that an Oscar doesn’t open that many doors. Despite his supporting actor win for 1993’s “The Fugitive” as well as his boffo B.O. success with the “Men in Black” franchise, Jones was keen to produce his recent theatrical directorial debut “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” outside Hollywood.

He didn’t bother shopping it around town, as he was well aware of the industry’s unfavorable bias toward Westerns. Rather he made one phone call to Europa chief Luc Besson, a director who Jones knew would grant him creative control.

In the late ’90s, Jones harbored a strong desire to direct “All the Pretty Horses,” based on the novel of a writer he admired, Cormac McCarthy. After knocking on John Calley’s door at Sony, Jones discovered the studio hired Billy Bob Thorton for the project. In exchange, Sony asked Jones to write a draft of McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” The film never came to fruition due to the script’s intense violence.

“I don’t believe the prize is going to sway those who finance movies,” Jones says. “How many times a day does someone say ‘I have an idea, let’s go make movie.’ I don’t believe owning one of those statues makes it any easier to get a project off the ground. If you have a good script, you need to convince the powers that be that you’re confident and prepared.”

‘Tis the season

Discussing her routine during awards time, Dench — who plays a widow-turned-Soho art dealer in the upcoming “Mrs. Henderson Presents” — says, “I don’t attend any specific functions. Speculation on who might be up for an Oscar takes over the press, so you cannot be aware that it’s Oscar time again.”

The projects to which these veterans attach themselves don’t always reveal the most discriminating judgement. This year alone, Jones made a turn as a Texas Ranger in the poorly received cheerleader comedy “Man of the House,” which made $20 million domestically, and Caine appeared as Nicole Kidman’s feisty dad in the tepid comedy “Bewitched.”

“Often actors hear these dumb interview questions like ‘what made you choose this role?’ Well, maybe the actors didn’t choose it,” observes Time film critic Richard Schickel, who recently penned “Elia Kazan: A Biography.” “Perhaps they had sour investments, or maybe it was the only role they were offered that year; so they figured they’d grab it. It’s true of every actor, no matter how big a star, toward the end of a project’s run, they wonder if they’ll ever work again. It’s a human thing. These are insecure professions.”

Looking back at his string of critical and B.O. missteps from the late ’70s and early ’80s (i.e. “Blame It on Rio” and “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure”) Caine comments that it was merely work.

“I did every movie that came along, because I thought I would never work again,” he explains. “Here was a golden chance to go to Hollywood and work with Otto Preminger and Irwin Allen. I did the pictures for them because it was them! You don’t know going in if the film is going to be box office poison.”

But when does enough become enough?

“I think if I stopped acting, I would fall off the bough,” exclaims Dench. “At 71, I’m hardly going to say enough is enough.”

“Someone once asked me, ‘When are you going to retire?’ ” recalls Caine. “The fact is, the business retires you. The money becomes useless and then you realize, you’re like an old soldier. You quietly fade away.”

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