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Life After Oscar

Winning can bring tantalizing opportunities -- as well as headaches now and then.

November 18, 2009|Randee Dawn

It was the high point of Michael Moore's filmmaking career, and he made the best of it. Standing onstage with his best documentary Oscar for 2002's "Bowling for Columbine," surrounded by his fellow nominees, he made one of the more heartfelt, polarizing speeches ever to follow such a win.

Afterward, things changed.

"It didn't get me into any parties back home in the Midwest," jokes the filmmaker, who recently released "Capitalism: A Love Story." What did happen was retaliatory: During a speech at a college, he passed around the award and got it back scraped up from a car key, and Moore's house was vandalized.

Additionally, financing for his next picture, "Fahrenheit 9/11," collapsed (though the Weinsteins rode to the rescue).

But it didn't alter the way he makes films. "I have final cut, and the studio does not see my films until they're completed," he says. "I've never had a studio suggest to me that if you do XYZ, that will improve your chances for an Oscar."

You'd be hard-pressed to find too many filmmakers, writers or even actors willing to admit that post-win they shifted their creative sails to ride with the winds. But there's little doubt that an Oscar win pulls the industry rigging a little tighter and that the opportunities that come in are sometimes too tantalizing to pass up.

With an Oscar win, suddenly the world is the "Cheers" bar: Everyone knows your name. "It makes you a player," says Julian Fellowes, who won in 2002 for his first produced feature screenplay, "Gosford Park." "It gives you the right to be there -- nobody questions that anymore. If you're brought in to discuss a movie, nobody says, 'Why are you here?' And I owe that to the Oscar."

Fellowes, whose latest film is "The Young Victoria," had been a character actor for years in Britain but was largely unknown in the U.S. When he got home, however, offers rolled in.

"In quite a short period, I'd written a show for Broadway, I'd published a novel, I'd had my own game show and I'd directed a movie," he says. "After a bit, you start to concentrate in some ways more on what you particularly want to do. Now I can do a smaller English project, which is completely outside what people would know me for, but in Hollywood I will do something that's nearer to what I'm known for, so I have the opportunity to mix it up."

Something similar (minus the game shows and so forth) happened to Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, who won for their screenplay of 2005's "Brokeback Mountain." "We got a greater variety of job offers," remembers Ossana; the pair's adaptation of "Boone's Lick" (a McMurtry novel) will be out in 2010.

But primarily, she says, it reminded people that westerns were not all that McMurtry could do. "A lot of people in Hollywood are young and don't even realize Larry wrote the novel 'Terms of Endearment,' " says Ossana.

There is an advantage to winning the big prize later in life, the way Ossana, McMurtry and Fellowes did -- less of a temptation to break out and make major changes, even if a wider variety of scripts and opportunities is appreciated. Pedro Almodovar won his best foreign film Oscar for 2002's "Talk to Her" and says things might have turned out differently for him had he won for one of his first outings.

"I'm pretty sure that if I had gotten an Oscar early in my career, I would have fallen prey to some really fancy project they would have thrown my way, and I consider it would have been a mistake," he says. "I'm glad I didn't get to make that mistake."

Hilary Swank is one actress who won relatively early on (for 1999's "Boys Don't Cry," followed by a 2005 win for "Million Dollar Baby"), but she says her script choices didn't change. "I don't tell my agent, 'Look for this, look for that, find true stories' or whatever," says the "Amelia" star.

But even as a two-time Oscar winner, Swank says she has limited say in those offers: "The only thing you can control is saying yes or no to a project. The rest is completely out of your control."

Still, if an Oscar win proves anything, it's that many winners would rather not have to go through the whole process again.

"Several someones said to me, 'How do you top "Brokeback"?' " recalls Ossana. "I said, 'I don't even think like that.' I'm happy and thankful at what we accomplished -- but Larry said, 'I hope we never get nominated again. That was exhausting.' "

For Moore, it's not about keeping your eye on the prize but about focusing on your audience. "When you're making a movie, it's best not to be thinking about [prizes] at all. As much as I am honored to have received an Oscar, I don't make my movies to win awards. I make them so the people who live in the Flint, Michigans of this country know there's someone going to bat for them."

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