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THE OSCARS

Hey, They Can't Have It All

The academy has an uneasy time with box-office names. Often it overlooks them. Sometimes it plays catch-up, honoring lesser roles later.

March 25, 2001|TOM O'NEIL | Tom O'Neil is the author of Variety's "Movie Awards" (Perigee Books), a just-published roundup of the Oscars, Golden Globes and 11 others. He's also the host of http://www.goldderby.com, where top pundits predict who'll win the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys and Golden Globes

Academy Award voters aren't shy about nominating superstars such as Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts for showy roles in films like "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Pretty Woman." But proclaiming big stars winners is another story. On awards night, both of them had their hopes quashed by the lesser-known actors--Daniel Day-Lewis (1990) in "My Left Foot" and Kathy Bates (1991) in "Misery."

Cruise and Roberts, box-office royalty for more than a decade, have earned other nominations--Cruise for "Jerry Maguire" and "Magnolia," Roberts for "Steel Magnolias"--but neither has yet claimed a chunk of academy gold. Most observers predict Roberts will finally get her due this year, but nothing is guaranteed at the Academy Awards, of course, as Cruise learned when Newsweek said he was a cinch to win for "Fourth of July." And if Roberts does prevail this year, the question remains: Why did she have to wait so long?

Roberts is not alone. Paul Newman didn't get an Oscar until his seventh nomination--"The Color of Money" (1986). Ditto for Al Pacino--"Scent of a Woman" (1992). Both fared better than poor Jim Carrey. His house could sink under the weight of the Golden Globe, People's Choice and Blockbuster awards on his mantel, but his Oscar fate is no laughing matter: He's never even been nominated.

"I'll probably have to accept my Oscar from my seat by the time I get it!" he once quipped to reporters. "I'll have to get somebody else to go up there as I slobber over myself!"

Why are Oscar voters so tough on the most successful stars but think nothing of giving awards to total strangers like first-time nominees F. Murray Abraham, Ben Kingsley, Hilary Swank, Anna Paquin, Marlee Matlin, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and many others?

The most common suspicion is jealousy, the belief that voters are stingy about giving filthy-rich actors more gold that they don't need. But "Entertainment Tonight" and Playboy critic Leonard Maltin poses another theory: "I think Oscar voters simply take some stars for granted."

Robert Osborne, author of "70 Years of the Oscar," agrees: "I've always felt that the reason Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck and Greta Garbo never won an Oscar was because they were never bad. It's a penalty you pay for being too good, too seamless. Also, superstars are so familiar to us, they're like family."

Oscar red-carpet sentry Joan Rivers suspects another factor might play a role too. "They're just too beautiful," she says. "Hollywood secretly thinks: They're too pretty to be taken seriously. . . . They're not up there on the screen because they're actors."

In 1958, Newman managed to transcend his reputation as the buff, blue-eyed star of "Somebody Up There Likes Me" and "The Long Hot Summer" when he starred opposite Elizabeth Taylor in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." The role earned him his first Oscar nomination. Variety had cheered Newman's "cynical underacting [and] command of the articulate, sensitive sequences" in the role, but he didn't have a prayer of beating David Niven ("Separate Tables") at that year's Oscar bout. Niven had already been hailed as best actor by the New York Film Critics Circle and Golden Globes, so Newman skipped the ceremony.

Newman attended the festivities for his next nomination, for "The Hustler" in 1961, but he lost to a stunned Maximilian Schell ("Judgment at Nuremberg"). Schell confessed to the press backstage, "I thought Paul Newman would win!"

Everybody thought Newman would win two years later when he was up for "Hud." "The academy might as well give him an Oscar right now and get it over with," declared the New Yorker when the film premiered. But he continued to suffer a string of bizarre defeats through "Cool Hand Luke" (1967), "Absence of Malice" (1981) and "The Verdict" (1982). He was present for all of those snubs and had had enough.

In 1986, it didn't matter that every Oscar pundit on the planet declared him a shoo-in for "The Color of Money"; he stayed home on gala night. He told the Associated Press that his courtship of the prize was "like chasing a beautiful woman for 80 years. Finally, she relents and you say, 'I'm terribly sorry. I'm tired.' "

When Newman finally hit the jackpot for "Money," it was because it was time, says Joel Siegel, entertainment reporter for "Good Morning America." "The voters were playing a game of catch-up, just like they're doing this year with Julia Roberts."

Siegel says that the problem with Roberts in the past was "we got used to seeing her in light comedies in which the acting wasn't obvious. It didn't matter that she was brilliant in them--or if she makes 20 great movies like 'Pretty Woman.' She makes one 'Erin Brockovich' and she's gonna win because of the serious substance involved."

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