Does Oscar gold come with an Oscar curse?

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In the weeks leading up to the 85th Academy Awards the usual flood of articles about the so-called “Oscar Curse” or “Oscar Jinx” have started to appear. Journalists who write these superstitious stories usually play fast and loose with the facts in an effort to grab headlines and appeal to the public’s unhealthy obsession with celebrity gossip. These ongoing Oscar related fables often focus on actresses who have seen their promising careers nosedive or their marriages collapse after they take home a gold statue. I suspect these tall tales were originally encouraged by jealous costars or fellow nominees who wanted to knock the winners down a notch or two but the media continues to perpetuate them. The truth is that many actors cash-in; quite literally, after they win an Oscar and eventually end up being less discriminate about the roles they take in an effort to pay the mortgage on their million dollar mansions. And in Hollywood quality leading roles for women are particularly hard to come by so it’s not surprising that it can take an Oscar winning actress like Sally Field decades to land another part that’s noticed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As for blaming the collapse of an actor’s marriage on their Oscar win, it’s all too easy to forget about someone like Meryl Streep who has been married to the same man since 1978. Streep’s partner has been by her side throughout her record-breaking 17 Oscar nominations and 3 wins but you don’t hear much about that during award season.

In an effort to demystify the ongoing claims that winning a gold statue could end your career and destroy your personal life, I thought I’d take a closer look at an early tabloid story about the history of the so-called Oscar curse as detailed in a 1971 issue of the now defunct Screen Stories magazine. You’ll notice from the cover (shown above) that the magazine highlighted the careers of some of Hollywood’s most recognizable talents including Susan Hayward, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. If you’re anything like me you’re probably wondering what in the world these talented performers were doing on the cover of a magazine about the Oscar curse or jinx? The simple answer is that they were placed there to sell issues but the article’s author, Beverly Linet (Portrait of a Survivor: Susan Hayward, etc.) goes to great pains to link the ups & downs of these actor’s careers as well as their personal tragedies to their Oscar wins. If you think that sounds ridiculous, incredibly insensitive and outright bizarre you’d be right. But for the sake of argument let’s take a look at Linet’s claims.

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Susan Hayward received four Best Actress Oscar nominations for her roles in SMASH-UP: THE STORY OF A WOMAN (1947), MY FOOLISH HEART (1949), WITH A SONG IN MY HEART (1952) and I’LL CRY TOMORROW (1952) before she finally took home the gold statue for her scene-chewing portrayal of convicted murderer Barbara Graham in I WANT TO LIVE! (1958). Hayward originally came to Hollywood in 1937 attempting to win the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and had been a professional actress for almost 20 years by the time the Academy decided to award her work. Her turbulent marriage to actor Jess Barker ended in divorce and in 1955 the actress attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Hayward was obviously no stranger to personal tragedy and had experienced plenty of career highs and lows before her Oscar win so it seems incredibly odd that Screen Stories would single her out for their story but they did. Linet writes:

“The Oscar jinx, however, was to seek Susan out… Eaton (Hayward’s second husband) was struck dead in 1966, and with him went all her dreams of personal happiness. Susan returned to work in THE HONEY POT (1967) and VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) but her heart’s no longer in her career.”

Connecting the tragic death of Hayward’s husband, which occurred some 8 years after her Oscar win, and the subsequent decline of her career to a jinx isn’t just insensitive but it’s also hard to swallow and sweeps a larger problem under the rug. At age 50, Hollywood was no longer offering Hayward the kind of roles that had made her a big star and even though she delivered standout performances in films like THE HONEY POT it was only a matter of time before the roles would dry up completely. If anything, it’s worth noting that Hayward’s Oscar win at age 41 was a triumph in an industry that isn’t particularly kind to middle-aged actresses.

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Clark Gable won his first and only Oscar in 1935 for his role in Frank Capra’s classic comedy IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934). He was only nominated two more times for his standout performances in MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1938) and GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) but his impressive career can’t be measured by the number of gold statues he received. Today Gable is undoubtedly one of our most beloved and recognizable actors so why did Screen Stories think he was burdened by an Oscar curse? According to Linet:

“Winning an Oscar in 1934 for IT HAPPENED ON NIGHT (a movie about which he once said, ‘I thought I was being sold down the river, exiled to Siberia, when MGM loaned me to Columbia.’) helped elevate Clark Gable to ‘King of the Movies.’ But he was to know little peace or happiness in the decades that followed.”

While it’s undoubtedly true that Gable suffered some horrible personal tragedies during his lifetime, it seems rather heartless and shortsighted to link them to his deserving Oscar win. The event that truly shaped Gable’s life and career was World War II. After his wife, the stunning and talented actress Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash following a war bond rally she attended in 1942, Gable immediately joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. He spent the next 3 years of his life in combat and was eventually promoted to major. When Gable returned from the war and his period of mourning, many of his close friends and observers noticed a remarkable difference in the man. He had visibly aged and seemed world weary and much more somber. His alcohol consumption had also increased, which probably led to his early death in 1960 at age 59.

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Katharine Hepburn (Note: Her name is spelled incorrectly on the Screen Stories‘ cover – yes folks, even printed publications make typos) currently holds the record for the most Oscar wins by any actor thanks to her performances in MORNING GLORY (1933), GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? (1967), THE LION IN WINTER (1968) and ON GOLDEN POND (1981). During Hepburn’s lifetime she was nominated for the Best Actress Award 12 times and her awe inspiring career has made her one of the most respected performers in Hollywood history. So how was she cursed by an Oscar win? I’ll let Linet tell you:

… the Oscar jinx all but destroyed her career. Between 1934-38 she appeared in 10 important pictures, but most were commercial failures. After being labeled “box-office poison” as the result of an exhibitor’s poll, Kate fled to New York where she triumphantly revitalized her career with THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940).

The only thing that being labeled “box-office poison” proves is that the box-office tells us absolutely nothing about how good a film is and how it will be remembered by history. Case in point, between 1934-38 Hepburn appeared in such quality films as ALICE ADAMS (1935), SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935), STAGE DOOR (1937), BRINGING UP BABY (1938) and HOLIDAY (1938), just to name a few. They may not have wowed audiences or critics at the time but today some of these films are considered classics and BRINGING UP BABY is often cited as one of the best comedies of the ‘30s. The lesson to be learned from this is that some Oscar winning actors currently being accused of carrying a curse or jinx are probably appearing in great films that critics and audiences are ignoring or overlooking.

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Today Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis are considered two of our greatest screen actors and their long and impressive careers are the stuff of Hollywood legend. But according to Screen Stories, both Tracy and Davis suffered personal hardships and tragedy due to their Oscar wins. From Linet:

Spencer, of course, received his first Oscar (for CAPTAIN’S COURAGEOUS) in 1937, the year following (Paul) Muni’s win. Spence was to win again the following year for BOY’S TOWN (1938), but although his career was never tarnished by the Oscar jinx, his personal life and well-being certainly were.”

“Sharing the stage with Spence when the 1938 Awards were handed out on the night of Feb. 23, 1939 was another two-time winner, Bette Davis. And like Spence, Bette was also to be hit by the jinx in her personal life. Bette’s 1932 marriage to band leader Harmon Nelson fell apart right after she won her first Oscar in 1935 for DANGEROUS (1935), and they were divorced in 1938 when she was making JEZEBEL, the film that brought her second Oscar.”

Beverly Linet goes on to describe the actor’s failed marriages, family deaths and troubled romances that occurred over decades as if these events were somehow linked to them receiving an Academy Award. While it’s true that both Tracy and Davis lead complicated romantic lives, it seems silly and downright callous to blame a lifetime of personal problems on multiple Oscar wins. Tracy’s religious background and alcoholism undoubtedly hindered his relationships and the independent success driven Bette Davis was probably never cut out for marriage to begin with. Today I think most people would look back at the lives of Tracy and Davis and consider them both blessed instead of cursed.

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According to Screen Stories, Elizabeth Taylor’s Oscar jinx apparently started in 1957 after her husband at the time, film producer Michael Todd, took home an Academy Award for AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS (1956). Todd was tragically killed in a plane crash a year later on March 22, 1958, the same year Taylor was nominated for her first Oscar acknowledging her performance in RAINTREE COUNTY (1957). Taylor was eventually remarried to Eddie Fisher and was nominated for an Oscar two more times for her roles in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958) and SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959) before she finally took home the gold statue in 1961 after appearing in BUTTERFIELD 8 (1960). I’ll let Linet take it from here:

“Now it was Liz’ own Oscar that began to jinx her life. Her marriage to Eddie Fisher turned into disaster and when she fell in love with Richard Burton during the filming of CLEOPATRA (1963), she became the object of the greatest abuse and public humiliation any Hollywood star had ever known. Even after she divorced Eddie and finally married Richard, the jinx couldn’t be broken. Liz won her second Oscar for WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) but the pictures that followed were all flops. And she was then plagued by a series of painful illnesses.”

We all know how this story turns out. Taylor’s love life was a roller coaster but she obviously enjoyed the ride. And while it’s true that her film career may have never again reached the critical and commercial heights that she had experienced early on, the actress went on to appear in a series of interesting films that are slowly gaining cult status and new fans every day such as REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967), BOOM! (1968), SECRET CEREMONY (1968), X, Y AND Z (1972), NIGHT WATCH (1973) and THE DRIVER’S SEAT (1974). She also had a successful career on television that included appearances in many made-for-TV movies and popular soaps such as GENERAL HOSPITAL and ALL MY CHILDREN. But Taylor’s real success later in life was her ability to combine her business savvy with her philanthropy and AIDS activism. She became a poster girl for HIV/AIDS advocacy and undoubtedly helped save many lives in the process. If that’s the result of an Oscar curse or jinx, I’m sure many of us would happily risk it.

Further reading:
- Is there such a thing as an “Oscar curse”?
- The Oscar Curse: Winners who’ve flopped since their wins
- Is The Oscar Curse In Store For Jennifer Lawrence?
- The Oscar Jinx Stalks Hollywood
- Sandra Bullock and Kate Winslet: Victims of Oscar curse?

22 Responses Does Oscar gold come with an Oscar curse?
Posted By kingrat : February 21, 2013 5:04 pm

Some felt that Hayward put her career on the back burner after winning the Oscar, which had been a goal for her. Shelley Winters said that she knew her marriage to Anthony Franciosa was doomed after she won an Oscar but he didn’t. (The real curse there was marrying someone who would be jealous of your success.)

There has sometimes been a backlash against an Oscar-winning film or director. Ron Howard is a good example. The h8ers came out in full force after he won an Oscar for A BEAUTIFUL MIND.

Posted By kingrat : February 21, 2013 5:04 pm

Some felt that Hayward put her career on the back burner after winning the Oscar, which had been a goal for her. Shelley Winters said that she knew her marriage to Anthony Franciosa was doomed after she won an Oscar but he didn’t. (The real curse there was marrying someone who would be jealous of your success.)

There has sometimes been a backlash against an Oscar-winning film or director. Ron Howard is a good example. The h8ers came out in full force after he won an Oscar for A BEAUTIFUL MIND.

Posted By epclassicmovienight : February 21, 2013 10:36 pm

Reblogged this on classicmovienight.

Posted By epclassicmovienight : February 21, 2013 10:36 pm

Reblogged this on classicmovienight.

Posted By swac44 : February 22, 2013 12:07 am

Most of those Academy Award winners from the 1930s are dead now, confound that Oscar curse!

Posted By swac44 : February 22, 2013 12:07 am

Most of those Academy Award winners from the 1930s are dead now, confound that Oscar curse!

Posted By Gene : February 22, 2013 3:24 am

In any age the downside of a free press is that the reader must always beware.

Posted By Gene : February 22, 2013 3:24 am

In any age the downside of a free press is that the reader must always beware.

Posted By Doug : February 22, 2013 1:19 pm

This applies to everyone, but of course, Hollywood magnifies the
human experience.
Live well,a balanced life, do good work and all will often be well.
Kimberly,I like your example of Meryl Streep-a stable home life,
solid family-she is grounded and can apply herself and excel at her work.
Paul Newman-solid, grounded, was able to work his craft. We never would have seen him on “Celebrity Rehab”.
Then we have those who do not have that stability, who live a life so unbalanced that their personal demons/weaknesses eventually destroy them. Latest ‘celebrity’ example is the sad story of country singer Mindy McCready.
How many of Hollywood’s golden age fall into this category?
Spencer Tracy found some balance-his problems never affected his work. But when he was not working, he would sometimes lock himself in a hotel room for a week with cases of liquor.
Preston Sturges. Charley Chase. John Belushi. How much more could they have accomplished if they had had some form of grounding in their personal lives?

Posted By Doug : February 22, 2013 1:19 pm

This applies to everyone, but of course, Hollywood magnifies the
human experience.
Live well,a balanced life, do good work and all will often be well.
Kimberly,I like your example of Meryl Streep-a stable home life,
solid family-she is grounded and can apply herself and excel at her work.
Paul Newman-solid, grounded, was able to work his craft. We never would have seen him on “Celebrity Rehab”.
Then we have those who do not have that stability, who live a life so unbalanced that their personal demons/weaknesses eventually destroy them. Latest ‘celebrity’ example is the sad story of country singer Mindy McCready.
How many of Hollywood’s golden age fall into this category?
Spencer Tracy found some balance-his problems never affected his work. But when he was not working, he would sometimes lock himself in a hotel room for a week with cases of liquor.
Preston Sturges. Charley Chase. John Belushi. How much more could they have accomplished if they had had some form of grounding in their personal lives?

Posted By jennifromrollamo : February 23, 2013 6:57 pm

While I don’t give two hoots for the Hollywood curse, there have been some best actress winners who haven’t done anything successful for a while now…Renee Zellwegger, who it seems only a bit ago was everybody’s go to girl and darling, and Paul Sorvino’s daughter, who won for her part in Woody Allen’s movie, Mighty Aphrodite. (Sorry, I can’t recall Ms. Sorvino’s first name and I am not sure if I have the title of Allen’s movie right, either.)

Posted By jennifromrollamo : February 23, 2013 6:57 pm

While I don’t give two hoots for the Hollywood curse, there have been some best actress winners who haven’t done anything successful for a while now…Renee Zellwegger, who it seems only a bit ago was everybody’s go to girl and darling, and Paul Sorvino’s daughter, who won for her part in Woody Allen’s movie, Mighty Aphrodite. (Sorry, I can’t recall Ms. Sorvino’s first name and I am not sure if I have the title of Allen’s movie right, either.)

Posted By swac44 : February 23, 2013 7:03 pm

Not long after she got that Oscar, Mira Sorvino was here in Halifax shooting a crappy direct-to-video movie called Mob Girls co-starring Mariah Carey, when the diva was in full-on mental breakdown mode. Not a very pleasant experience, apparently. I guess it’s all timing.

Posted By swac44 : February 23, 2013 7:03 pm

Not long after she got that Oscar, Mira Sorvino was here in Halifax shooting a crappy direct-to-video movie called Mob Girls co-starring Mariah Carey, when the diva was in full-on mental breakdown mode. Not a very pleasant experience, apparently. I guess it’s all timing.

Posted By robbushblog : February 24, 2013 2:48 pm

Charlton Heston, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Alec Guinness, Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, Sean Connery, Walter Brennan, Gary Cooper, etc. and so on seem to have done quite well personally and career-wise after winning Oscars. Notice that I did include more men, but that is because the relatively short career life span of Hollywood actresses. This is also due to not looking at a list of winners. I’m sure there are many others who dealt with their personal and professional lives quite competently. Living and working in Hollywood seems to add a certain bit of volatility to one’s life, that is suffered by so many who do not win Oscars as well. The “Oscar curse” is a silly idea.

Posted By robbushblog : February 24, 2013 2:48 pm

Charlton Heston, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Alec Guinness, Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, Sean Connery, Walter Brennan, Gary Cooper, etc. and so on seem to have done quite well personally and career-wise after winning Oscars. Notice that I did include more men, but that is because the relatively short career life span of Hollywood actresses. This is also due to not looking at a list of winners. I’m sure there are many others who dealt with their personal and professional lives quite competently. Living and working in Hollywood seems to add a certain bit of volatility to one’s life, that is suffered by so many who do not win Oscars as well. The “Oscar curse” is a silly idea.

Posted By Jack Favell : February 27, 2013 2:50 pm

“Katharine Hepburn (Note: Her name is spelled incorrectly on the Screen Stories‘ cover – yes folks, even printed publications make typos”

That’s funny! It’s Scarlett O’Hara and Carole Lombard.

Posted By Jack Favell : February 27, 2013 2:50 pm

“Katharine Hepburn (Note: Her name is spelled incorrectly on the Screen Stories‘ cover – yes folks, even printed publications make typos”

That’s funny! It’s Scarlett O’Hara and Carole Lombard.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 27, 2013 2:55 pm

Ha! Thanks for spotting my own typos, Jack. They’ve been corrected.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 27, 2013 2:55 pm

Ha! Thanks for spotting my own typos, Jack. They’ve been corrected.

Posted By Women of the White House : February 27, 2013 8:47 pm

No Oscar curse. Just something called .. LIFE and HUMAN NATURE .. One can only have so much success.

Posted By Women of the White House : February 27, 2013 8:47 pm

No Oscar curse. Just something called .. LIFE and HUMAN NATURE .. One can only have so much success.

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