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What's Behind The Best Supporting Actress Curse? Plain, Old, Unmagical Sexism

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What's Behind The Best Supporting Actress Curse? Plain, Old, Unmagical Sexism

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What's Behind The Best Supporting Actress Curse? Plain, Old, Unmagical Sexism

What's Behind The Best Supporting Actress Curse? Plain, Old, Unmagical Sexism

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/467949931/467988130" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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As legend has it, women's film careers are "cursed" by winning the best supporting actress Academy Award. (From left) winners Marisa Tomei in 1993, Jennifer Hudson in 2007 and Mira Sorvino in 1996. Barry King/Liaison/Getty Images; Dan MacMedan/WireImage/Getty Images; Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Barry King/Liaison/Getty Images; Dan MacMedan/WireImage/Getty Images; Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

As legend has it, women's film careers are "cursed" by winning the best supporting actress Academy Award. (From left) winners Marisa Tomei in 1993, Jennifer Hudson in 2007 and Mira Sorvino in 1996.

Barry King/Liaison/Getty Images; Dan MacMedan/WireImage/Getty Images; Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

As if there's not enough controversy over the Oscars, there's also the matter of a curse.

This Hollywood rumor is often said to have started back in 1993, when Marisa Tomei won best supporting actress for My Cousin Vinny. Rather than going on to star in huge movies, as one might expect of a comely and talented Oscar winner, Tomei's film career fizzled. She appeared in small roles, or small films. Even the legitimacy of her win became an urban legend. Thus the curse: Winning best supporting actress is a career killer.

The A-list, movie-star promise that an Academy Award might suggest never materialized with Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) or Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King), either — even though both are extremely accomplished thespians with impressive resumes. And Jennifer Hudson virtually disappeared from the big screen after Dreamgirls. Amy Nicholson, chief film critic for MTV News, points to Kim Basinger as yet another classic example.

"She won for L.A. Confidential and then she just immediately had no work for three years," she says. "You look at a winner like Brenda Fricker, who won for My Left Foot — the same film that Daniel Day-Lewis won for, which turned him into a huge star. And three years later, you have [Fricker] playing roles like 'Pigeon Lady' in Home Alone 2. And you see that happen to a talented actress and you can't help but wonder — yeah, is there a curse?"

To be clear, Nicholson does not believe in this curse. Not at all. Not even remotely. This, she says, is plain, old, unmagical sexism. Basinger was 44 when she won best supporting actress. Perhaps part of the problem is that the category rewards numerous women who are older than 40, who are black or "ethnic," or who are character actresses, rather than traditional beauties.

"It's a symptom of the fact that there aren't a lot of roles," Nicholson says. "It's really just a symptom of the movies, you know?"

Then there's the expectation for Oscar winners to follow up with meaty, meaningful roles. If you're a best supporting actress who doesn't want to play a background wife or mom, that often means having to appear in smaller movies. Show up in a big blockbuster for exposure and to capitalize on your win, and you risk being mocked.

Nicholson says that happened to Angelina Jolie, when she starred in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider after winning best supporting actress for Girl, Interrupted. But Jolie helped prove that the best supporting actress curse is utterly bogus. "Now she's the most reliable female box office draw that we have," Nicholson says.

Curse? What curse? Above, best supporting actress winners Cate Blanchett in 2005, Penélope Cruz in 2009 and Anne Hathaway in 2013. Frank Micelotta/Getty Images; Jason Merritt/Getty Images; Jason Merritt/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Frank Micelotta/Getty Images; Jason Merritt/Getty Images; Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Curse? What curse? Above, best supporting actress winners Cate Blanchett in 2005, Penélope Cruz in 2009 and Anne Hathaway in 2013.

Frank Micelotta/Getty Images; Jason Merritt/Getty Images; Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Curse-truthers, look at the spectacular careers of Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Penélope Cruz and Tilda Swinton. Before Swinton's best supporting actress win for Michael Clayton, she flew under the pop culture radar for years. Now Nicholson says, it feels like she's in everything.

There's no talk of a best supporting actor curse, partly because the awards tend to be bestowed on established older stars of the Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin generation, or to sexy foreigners such as Javier Bardem or Christoph Waltz. Meanwhile, Nicholson says, female Oscar winners have to deal not just with one alleged curse, but two.

"Sure, you might win an Oscar for best supporting actress or best actress — but then you're probably going to get divorced," she says, sounding irritated.

This curse was taken seriously enough that researchers at the University of Toronto did the math. They found best actress winners have a 63 percent higher chance of divorce.

Yet another story Hollywood tells us about the perils of women having it all.

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