THE BACK PAGES

OSCAR AND THE GROUCH

Behind every successful actress is a man... who was just leaving. What’s with Hollywood guys whose better halves are really better?

SHANDA DEZIEL November 20 2006
THE BACK PAGES

OSCAR AND THE GROUCH

Behind every successful actress is a man... who was just leaving. What’s with Hollywood guys whose better halves are really better?

SHANDA DEZIEL November 20 2006

OSCAR AND THE GROUCH

THE BACK PAGES

film

Behind every successful actress is a man... who was just leaving. What’s with Hollywood guys whose better halves are really better?

SHANDA DEZIEL

Well, at least Eric Benét admitted it. The no-hit R&B singer couldn’t handle being called “Mr. Halle Berry.” He put on a happy face the night his wife won the Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball, and smiled as she tearfully referred to him as “a joy of my life.” But deep down he was uncomfortable being merely the supportive plus-one. “It was hard for me to inhabit the skin of that man,” he said. “Not just that night, but pretty much every day.” Considering Berry chalks up the subsequent dissolution of their marriage to his sex addiction, it may simply behoove Benêt to play up the wounded ego rather than the roving eye. What’s certain, though, is that their relationship ended not long after Berry won the Academy Award and brought home the Little Golden Guy.

Others have felt Benét’s pain. Just ask the men formerly known as Mr. Helen Hunt (Hank Azaria), Mr. Julia Roberts (Benjamin Bratt), Mr. Hilary Swank (Chad Lowe) and, most recently, Mr. Reese Witherspoon (Ryan Phillippe). In fact, of those who won Best Actress Oscars in the past 10 years, only Frances McDormand and Charlize Theron remain with the men they thanked in their acceptance speeches—Joel Cohen and Stuart Townsend, respectively. (Nicole Kidman was still smarting from the recent breakup of her marriage when she won in 2003.) You could call it the other Oscar curse—the first Oscar curse being that after attaining the top film honour, both actors and actresses find themselves in a string of movies that bomb.

These days, all eyes are on the latest Oscar winner, Reese Witherspoon, and her husband, Ryan Phillippe. The question: is their split and his rumoured infidelity rooted in career/Oscar envy? Phillippe has had a good run of luck; he co-starred in last year’s Best Picture winner, Crash, and in this year’s buzzed-about Flags of Our Fathers. But when it comes down to it, Witherspoon is America’s sweetheart, and he’s the guy who looked good shirtless in Studio 54. She makes $29 million a picture and he makes $2.5 million. In the past, Phillippe’s been confident enough to joke about it. When they presented an award together at the 2003 Oscars, he handed his wife the envelope, saying,

“You open it, you make more money than I do.” Of late, though, the couple seemed to go overboard in their public show of affection.

Phillippe was embarrassingly enthusiastic when Witherspoon won the Golden Globe this year for Walk the Line,

jumping up and down, yelling, pumping his fist in the air and pushing her onto the stage. Later that night, asked how the couple would celebrate, Witherspoon replied, “With hot and heavy lovemaking. Our life is perfect— it really can’t get better.” While Phillippe eventually apologized for his exuberance, saying he was “plastered,” Witherspoon has yet to say sorry for making everyone gag. In any case, perceptive Hollywood watchers may have guessed back then that the end was nigh.

Now, if the tabloids and gossip columns are to be believed, the breakdown of the Witherspoon marriage, eight months after the Oscars, is a result of Phillippe’s supposed affair with his Stop Loss co-star, Australian Abbie Cornish—a Reese lookalike, six years her junior. But that could be career envy, too. As Ruth Houston, selfproclaimed celebrity-infidelity expert and author of Is He Cheating on You?—829 Telltale Signs, points out, infidelity usually gets the media’s attention and thrusts the forgotten celebrity spouse back into the public eye. Or, says Houston, “a lot of times people go for what is called revenge relationships.” In this particular case, she says, “I understand that she’s very exacting, so it just may have been too much for him to deal with.”

The Oscar curse is not a recent trend. It goes back as far as 1944, when Jennifer Jones, best actress for The Song of Bernadette, filed for divorce from Robert Walker the day after the awards. Jane Fonda left Roger Vadim within a year of her 1972 win for Klute; Marlee Matlin and William Hurt’s relationship ended months after her win for Children of a Lesser God; and the six-year marriage of Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh suffered the same fate after her 1993 win for Howards End. But the pattern has undeniably intensified in recent years. It’s now so common that actress/screenwriter Carrie Fisher admitted earlier this year that she and her friends used to bet on how long a marriage would last after the wife had won an Oscar and the husband hadn’t. “Regardless of how big the man’s box office was,” she said, “once the woman received the statuette, it seemed that the days of the marriage were numbered. For some men, at least, a woman flaunting an Oscar can feel like deliberate emasculation, and spell doom for the relationship.”

The converse, of course, isn’t true for recent Best Actor winners. Many have been single when they’ve won (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jamie Foxx, Adrien Brody, Russell Crowe).

And as for the ones who win whose partners are actresses (Tom Hanks/Rita Wilson, Sean Penn/Robin Wright Penn,

Denzel Washington/Pauletta Pearson), their marriages have yet to even falter. So what’s behind the curse? Are the men really threatened by successful women, as Carrie Fisher suggests? Or do the women just decide to trade up?

In some cases the spotlight itself is the problem. In the lead-up to the 2001 Academy Awards, Julia Roberts, who was expected to wed Benjamin Bratt, told David Letterman,

“I don’t have to win the Oscar.

I have my own little golden man at home.” When she stumbled toward the stage to accept the award for Erin Brockovich, it was Bratt who chivalrously helped her get a grip. Three months later, they were kaput. Bratt, it seemed, was the opposite of a spotlight seeker. Fie wanted a simple life; he cited the media attention and the Julia Roberts machine as the reason for the split: “It’s like a fly that won’t leave you alone,” he said. “It’s constant and ever-present and it disrupts any chance of peace. When you live your life at that level of fame it gets beyond your control. By the time you realize it, you’re stuck.”

Then there’s what happened to Chad Lowe and Hilary Swank after Swank won her second Oscar in 2005. When the two married in 1997, they were an even match: she was a minor player on Beverly Hills 90210 and he was an Emmy winner who was slumming it on Melrose Place. Come 2000, Lowe was starring in a schlocky made-for-TV John Denver biopic, and Swank, star of Boys Don’t Cry, was accepting the statuette for Best Actress at the Academy Awards—where she forgot to thank her husband. Five years later, Lowe was still without any high-profile acting gigs, and Swank swept another awards season with Million Dollar Baby. Worse, she seemed to make an art out of emasculating Lowe. At the Golden Globes she reeled off a litany of names, then joked, “Let’s see, is there anyone else?” At the Oscars, she dug the knife in deeper: “I am going to start by thanking my husband because I’d like to think I learned from past mistakes.” It didn’t stop there. She executiveproduced a game show that he hosted, Celeb-

rity Charades, but wouldn’t go on it. And as their marriage headed toward divorce, she outed him in Vanity Fair as having a drug problem. “Chad is very supportive of my career,” she said. “He is, I think, genuinely happy for my success. I think that any frustration for him stemmed from the lack of opportunities in his own career.”

It’s telling that Swank’s new boyfriend isn’t an actor at all. In fact, he is someone who is deeply invested in advancing her professional success: her agent. Roberts, meanwhile, is married to a cameraman, and Berry is currently with a Canadian model.

Vancouver gossip columnist Elaine “Lainey” Lui doesn’t believe in the Oscar curse at all. She thinks these breakups have nothing to do with success and everything to do with the fishbowl existence that Bratt referred to. “Oscar winners are generally people who win popularity contests— and the people who are most popular in Hollywood are the people who are the best at packaging themselves,” she says. “Reese didn’t win because she did a great job in Walk the Line,” says Lui. “She won because people love her. She’s done a great job at selling herself as Reese Witherspoon, America’s sweetheart, bright-light smile, Sweet Home Alabama.” The perfect marriage is part of the role. It was an arrangement, says Lui. Phillippe got to have fun and Witherspoon got all those great family photo ops as she campaigned for her Oscar.

If that’s the case, then maybe the real curse isn’t so much that actors get envious and leave when their wives win Oscars, but that Hollywood actresses are forced to unhealthily manipulate their personal lives in order to be more successful in their professional lives. The demands clearly aren’t the same for men. Single, married, divorced, unfaithful, abusive? Who cares. Anything goes for a Best Actor winner.

Whatever the curse may be, the high divorce rate among Best Actresses exists. And come Feb. 25, at the 79th Academy Awards, everyone will be watching the next winner—and her date. Just how profusely does she thank him? How genuinely does he smile and cheer? How happy are they? But who can really know the answers to those questions? After all, these people are actors. M