Honorees happily return to trenches

Adrien Brody earned more than a gold statuette and the opportunity to kiss Halle Berry on Oscar Night 2003. His newfound status as an Academy Award winner allowed him to tackle projects that otherwise might not have come his way.

Even if the first taste of Oscar glory doesn’t lead immediately to the next red-carpet romp, it doesn’t mean the award won’t provide a career boost.

Brody, for example, used his good fortune to take on characters that other Oscar winners might be afraid to touch. Immediately after receiving his kudo, Brody played a mentally disturbed individual in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village.” (His first film to be released post-Oscar was “The Singing Detective,” but he had filmed that earlier.)

Certainly, Brody’s team could’ve argued that playing a crazy person immediately after becoming one of the most celebrated actors in the world wouldn’t be the best way to use that cachet he had just earned, but Brody and Shyamalan had a pre-Oscar agreement to keep the offer confidential prior to being nominated for “The Pianist,” and the actor chose to do the role despite some who might’ve thought it was a bad move.

“I had to make the decision on my own,” recalls Brody, who’s toplining “Cadillac Records,” which chronicles the history of the Chess Records label. “It was pretty complicated. After the Oscar, the goal was to find great dramatic roles, while at the same time I wanted to stay true to what inspired me as an actor.”

It’s a dilemma for many Oscar winners — to keep choosing projects that invigorate them, while being tempted by roles that offer huge financial rewards without an important role in the film. Having an Oscar winner’s name in the cast might be great for the studio, but not necessary for the actor.

“I certainly had to audition less and had already proven myself,” Brody says of the years after winning.

For Jackie Earle Haley, just getting nominated for an Oscar kickstarted a career that had been stalled for about 13 years. His critically hailed performance in “Little Children” created a slew of opportunities.

Following this year’s “Semi-Pro,” Haley has four pics lined up for 2009, including the buzzed-about “Watchmen” and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” with Leonardo DiCaprio.

“I’m still pinching myself … still in that trailer going, ‘No way,'” Haley says. “Is this really happening? I sure I hope I don’t wake up.”

Others, such as Chris Cooper, didn’t see a substantial change in the material they were offered. Cooper, who won the supporting actor Oscar for “Adaptation” in 2003, is still playing plenty of pent-up husbands and government officials in taut dramas — “Seabiscuit,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” “Jarhead,” “Syriana,” “Breach” — and has maintained his relationship with writer-director John Sayles.

F. Murray Abraham won for the 1984 pic “Amadeus” and then chose to co-star in a handful of projects with European directors that were mostly off the radar in the States. Though he never regained the celebrity he built with “Amadeus,” Abraham continues to work overseas.

Queen Latifah, currently co-starring in “The Secret Life of Bees,” had an increased workload after being nominated for an Oscar for “Chicago” in 2003. And the Oscar didn’t restrict her to just the bigscreen. Latifah has appeared in nearly two dozen productions over the past five years, covering both movies and television.

Keeping her roles varied — from a rapper to a crook to a matriarch in “Bees” — has been key for the actress’s post-Oscar career.

“I’m just not the type of person who is afraid to play anything,” she told talkshow host Tavis Smiley. “I could be like Ruby Dee, you know what I mean? As far as the kinds of things I do, I kind of base it on my life. To me, all options are always open.”

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