Every actor wants to win an Oscar. It’s the biggest dream in all of show business. Taking home one of those gold statuettes can have a profound impact on a performer’s career. It can drive up their asking price, sometimes by millions of dollars. An Oscar win can give them access to the best scripts going around Hollywood. It can make top directors sit up and take notice.
Except that, sometimes, none of those things happen. On occasion, an actor will win an Academy Award and then see their career decline rather than continue ascending. There are many reasons why this happens, and we’ve got fifteen case studies below to pick apart. Keep in mind, our intention is not to ridicule or mock these actors. We think they’re immensely talented, and we’re always pulling for them. But in each case, they had a piece of Oscar glory, only to discover that maintaining the momentum was a lot harder than it seemed.
Here are 15 Actors Whose Career Went Downhill After Winning An Oscar.
15. Adrien Brody
Adrien Brody won the Best Actor Oscar for his work in Roman Polanski’s 2002 drama The Pianist. He played Wladyslaw Szpilman, a real-life Jewish musician who, against all odds, survived the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto during WWII. The actor’s natural sad-sack features help to convey the inner anguish his character feels as he witnesses the atrocities taking place around him. Brody powerfully demonstrates that he is very skilled at making repressed emotions palpable.
After winning, the actor got a couple of decent roles in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, where he played Salvador Dali. He also made a string of flops (Predators, The Jacket, The Experiment, etc.). These days, he frequently pops up in low-budget, straight-to-VOD action pictures like Manhattan Night and Dragon Blade. These roles could be played by anybody. The fact is that Brody is inherently left-of-center in his performance style, and not traditionally handsome or athletic like a Tom Cruise or a Matt Damon. For these reasons, filmmakers haven’t really figured out how to make the best use of him, as Polanski did. Hopefully, a plum role will come his way again soon, because he may just be the most talented performer on our list.
14. Mira Sorvino
Woody Allen has guided many actresses to Academy Awards during his career. One of them was Mira Sorvino, who had her breakthrough role in the director’s 1995 comedy Mighty Aphrodite. She plays Linda, the biological mother of Allen’s adopted son. She’s also a prostitute. Sorvino is funny and charming in the role, taking the cliched role of a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and investing it with sincerity. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work.
As is often the case, when someone wins one of the supporting awards, they immediately aim to become the lead in movies. Sorvino certainly had the talent and the looks to be a major star. Unfortunately, the projects available to her as a lead weren’t ideal. Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic left her overshadowed by special effects, The Replacement Killers made her the “hot girl” next to Chow Yun-Fat, and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion was a bust that only achieved cult popularity later on. These days, Sorvino often works in faith-based films, including Like Dandelion Dust and Do You Believe? She’s quite good in these movies, but they don’t give her anywhere near the exposure that her Oscar-winning role did.
13. Mercedes Ruehl
The Fisher King, directed by Terry Gilliam, is the story of a suicidal radio shock jock (Jeff Bridges) who tries to heal his tortured soul by helping a homeless man (Robin Williams) who was inadvertently impacted by his actions. Character actress Mercedes Ruehl plays Bridges’ girlfriend, who has long tried to be patient and understanding with him, but now finds that patience pushed to the limit. She was named Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
Ruehl’s name was on everyone’s lips at the time, so admired was her work in the film. Winning the Oscar should have propelled her onto more big projects and delivered more meaty roles. Instead, the opposite happened. She got stuck in a generic “mom role” in Last Action Hero, and appeared in a bunch of flops, including Lost in Yonkers and The Minus Man. A string of TV movies and guest spots followed. While certainly talented, Ruehl was trained in the theater and usually brought a certain larger-than-life theatricality to her screen work. That’s great on the stage, but it doesn’t always work on film, which may be why she never vaulted onto the A-list, despite winning the Oscar.
12. Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Cuba Gooding, Jr. came into Jerry Maguire with some real heat. He’d appeared in the critical and commercial hits Boyz N the Hood and A Few Good Men, but his role as football star Rod Tidwell was his real breakthrough. From the moment he yelled, “Show me the money!” he was a star. When he accepted his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, his exuberant speech won America’s hearts.
Like many performers, Gooding tried to parlay a win in the supporting categories into leading roles. Unfortunately, he either didn’t get very good offers, or didn’t have very good taste in projects. Or maybe it was a little of both. What followed his win was an embarrassing series of missteps: Instinct, Chill Factor, Rat Race, Snow Dogs, Radio, and the universally reviled Boat Trip. He eventually got to a place where he was stuck taking over for Eddie Murphy in the sequel Daddy Day Camp.
Giving credit where it’s due, Gooding does seem to be working on getting his mojo back. He had a small role in Best Picture nominee Selma, and his work playing O.J. Simpson in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story has earned him praise. We hope he keeps going in this direction.
11. Jean Dujardin
Jean Dujardin was a fairly well-known star in his native France before starring in The Artist, a modern-day black-and-white silent movie. He perfectly captured the distinct physicality silent movie stars relied upon to make up for the lack of dialogue. It was a dazzling performance, for which he was named Best Actor.
Starring in a movie that didn’t allow him to speak compensated for something that has undoubtedly hurt Dujardin in Hollywood: he has a thick French accent. That has likely limited him in some regard, as filmmakers may be reluctant to cast him in roles that don’t specifically require a Frenchman. We’re not saying that’s right, just that it’s very plausible, given the way the motion picture industry works. To date, Dujardin’s only other American films have been the George Clooney-directed dud The Monuments Men and a very small role in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. He will next be seen in Michael Bay’s Transformers: The Last Knight. Not exactly where you’d expect to find someone who won the Best Actor Oscar just a few short years ago.
Norman Jewison’s 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck stars Cher as Loretta Castorini, a Brooklyn bookkeeper who falls in love with the brother of the man she’s supposed to marry. He’s played by Nicolas Cage. The film was a huge hit, and it proved that Cher wasn’t just a good singer, but also a talented actress capable of carrying a picture. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress, proving that her solid earlier turns in supporting roles in films like Mask, Silkwood, and The Witches of Eastwick were no fluke. Suddenly, it seemed as though a whole new career was right in front of her.
But winning that Oscar was more or less the end of Cher’s high-quality cinematic streak. Her post-Moonstruck films — Suspect, Mermaids, Faithful, and, most recently, Burlesque — were all poorly received. None of them provided her with much of a chance to shine. The problem for Cher is that she was already an established icon in another field of entertainment. Moonstruck allowed her to disappear into a character and not be CHER for two hours. Her follow-ups didn’t do that, so audiences were always very aware of her Cher-ness (to coin a term) while she was on screen. Whether or not she plans to pursue film work again remains to be seen. If so, our fingers are crossed that she finds something that lets her go deep, the way Loretta did.
9. Kim Basinger
Sometimes, being beautiful can be a curse. Case in point: Kim Basinger. Although early performances showed talent for both comedy and drama, the actress was often cast in roles that emphasized her sex appeal. 9 1/2 Weeks, for example, was one big sex-a-palooza. Blind Date found her playing Bruce Willis’s dream girl, and My Stepmother Is an Alien had her portraying an extra-terrestrial who comes to Earth in the guise of a ridiculously attractive woman. You get the picture. (At least she got to be Vicki Vale in Tim Burton’s Batman.) Director Curtis Hanson saw something else in Basinger. He cast her as an old-school femme fatale in his 1997 classic, L.A. Confidential. It was a role that made great use of both her beauty and her talent. The Academy agreed, naming her the year’s Best Supporting Actress.
Basinger didn’t take the va-va-voom roles afterward, but her attempts to continue proving herself as a serious actress fell flat. Turkeys such as I Dreamed of Africa, Bless the Child, and Cellular did nothing to advance her career. The only really decent role she got after winning the Oscar was playing Eminem’s mom in 8 Mile — a movie directed by Curtis Hanson. These days, Basinger turns up mostly in supporting roles (Grudge Match, Fifty Shades Darker). She needs another collaborator like the late Hanson who understands how to tap into the substance underneath the beauty.
8. Roberto Benigni
It’s hard to say which Roberto Benigni performance is more impressive — the one in Life Is Beautiful, where he plays a Jewish librarian using humor to shield his little boy from the horrors of the Holocaust, or the one he gave when he collected the Best Actor Oscar for the film. It involved hugging everyone in sight, proclaiming that his body was “in tumult,” and expressing a desire to make love to everyone in the audience.
Few careers have plummeted as precipitously as Benigni’s. His follow-up to Life Is Beautiful was the 2002 live-action Pinocchio, which he also wrote and directed. The film earned a dismal $3.6 million at the North American box office, and it currently sports a 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Benigni has been very low-profile ever since. He made one more picture in his native Italy, appeared in a segment of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, and had a supporting role in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love. That’s it. Benigni has always been a comedic live-wire. American films don’t know what to make of him. Since he writes and directs much of his own material, he should try to find something that inspires his passion like his biggest movie did.
Mo’Nique is one of the most unlikely Academy Award winners in history. Her work as a stand-up performer and comedic actress in no way suggested that she’d be able to play the abusive, damaged mother in Precious. And when the nominations came out, she refused to do the traditional campaigning (Q&A screenings, cocktail receptions, etc.) that most actors rely on to boost their chances. She won anyway. That’s how raw and powerful her performance was.
Theoretically, the Oscar win could have opened the door to more dramatic roles for Mo’Nique. Instead, she disappeared for five years, by her own choice. Not until 2015 did she reemerge, but even then, it was with Blackbird, a very low-budget independent film that was only released in 13 theaters. That same year, she had a supporting role in HBO’s Bessie that earned some good notices. Her only major studio movie since Precious is the recent Almost Christmas, an ensemble film that is closer in tone to her earlier, more comic pictures than to the one that earned her a gold statuette. As of this writing, Mo’Nique’s IMDb page lists no upcoming projects. In this case, it appears that the actress is either being uncommonly choosy about roles, or she simply doesn’t feel like working much.
6. Linda Hunt
The Year of Living Dangerously, released in 1982, stars Mel Gibson as a reporter covering a political coup in Indonesia. Helping him out is a dwarf photographer named Billy Kwan. The interesting thing is that, while Billy is a male character, he is played by a woman, Linda Hunt. Director Peter Weir’s first choice didn’t work out, so he opted to re-envision Billy as a gender-ambiguous character after seeing a picture of Hunt. Her work was widely admired, resulting in an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Hunt has worked continually since then, but she never again had a role that gave her so much to chew on. Her filmography consists of small parts in fare like Dune and Kindergarten Cop, plus some television work (The Practice, Carnivale). There’s nothing inherently wrong with these projects, other than that they haven’t provided her with much in the way of accolades, unless you consider a Teen Choice Award for NCIS: Los Angeles to be noteworthy. The sad fact is that it’s extremely difficult for diminutive actors to find strong roles in Hollywood. (Peter Dinklage has been the exception to the rule.) Little people are often cast in fluff or gimmick parts. Linda Hunt is talented, but she regrettably hasn’t been able to fully capitalize on her Oscar win.
5. F. Murray Abraham
Amadeus was the big Oscar winner for 1984, taking home Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Adapted Screenplay, and a bunch of technical awards. It also earned F. Murray Abraham the Best Actor prize. He played Antonio Salieri, the jealous rival to the brilliant composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played by Tom Hulce. Abraham gave the character a seething quality that made Salieri one of the silver screen’s most memorable antagonists. Even now, more than thirty years later, his performance is fondly remembered and universally admired.
We don’t mean to suggest that Abraham has had a failed career since Amadeus. Far from it. He has worked consistently in the intervening years. The problem is that the projects in which he has appeared are nowhere near the level of quality of his breakthrough film. They include indisputable flops like Last Action Hero, National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1, Muppets From Space, and, most recently, the DOA Colin Farrell thriller Dead Man Down. After his brilliant work as Salieri, Abraham should have had lifelong access to the same parts that people like Michael Caine and Anthony Hopkins routinely get. That may be changing, however. The actor had small roles in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. (He’s also currently on the acclaimed Homeland.) Hopefully, the current generation of filmmakers will appreciate the full scope of his abilities in a way previous filmmakers seemingly did not.
4. Renee Zellweger
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Renee Zellweger’s Best Supporting Actress win for 2003’s Cold Mountain is controversial. The film had the vibe of a prestige project when it came out, but many people felt that Zellweger was too over-the-top playing a Civil War-era woman who knows how to survive harsh conditions. In retrospect, her performance hasn’t held up too well.
Still, an Oscar is an Oscar, and Zellweger’s seemed to solidify the heat she had garnered after memorable turns in Jerry Maguire, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Chicago. Winning for a movie set during a historical era may have put the actress on a bad path. With her chirpy voice and charmingly spunky quality, Zellweger is most definitely a modern woman. She seems out of place in period pieces, yet she followed up Cold Mountain with more of them: the Great Depression-set Cinderella Man, the Western Appaloosa, and the 1920’s football comedy, Leatherheads. She alternated these with more subpar Bridget Jones sequels, plus some intensely failed attempts at recapturing the Jerry Maguire rom-com magic (New in Town, My One and Only). A self-imposed six-year absence didn’t help matters any, either.
Today, Zellweger seems to be trying to decide where she fits into the industry. Last year’s Bridget Jones’s Baby failed to make much of an impression. We’ll see if her next picture, the faith-based drama Same Kind of Different as Me, will put her career back on solid ground.
3. Marlee Matlin
Children of a Lesser God was Marlee Matlin’s first film, and she won the Best Actress Oscar for it. How’s that for a debut? The 1986 film is about a speech teacher (William Hurt) at a school for the hearing-impaired who falls in love with a young deaf woman working as a janitor there. He encourages her to learn to speak out loud, and eventually, they fall for each other. Matlin, who is deaf in real life, brought heart and fire to the role.
As you might reasonably expect, parts that specifically call for deaf performers are few and far between. Consequently, post-Oscar, Matlin got stuck in things like the cheap-o 1993 thriller Hear No Evil, in which she plays a deaf woman being stalked by a mentally unhinged cop, and the 1999 drama In Her Defense, which casts her as a deaf wife accused of murdering her husband. In fairness, Matlin has found some television success, landing recurring roles on The West Wing and The L Word, in addition to a memorable guest spot on Seinfeld. But because filmmakers rarely wanted to cast her in roles that weren’t written for a deaf actress, she never had another chance to grab the gold like she did with Children of a Lesser God.
2. Haing S. Ngor
What happens when you’re not a professional actor but you win an Oscar anyway? For answers, look no further than the case of Haing S. Ngor, who was named Best Supporting Actor for his turn in 1984’s The Killing Fields. The film is about two journalists (Sam Waterston plays the other one) reporting on genocide in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s reign. Ngor was actually a professional obstetrician before making his screen debut. He was also a survivor of Cambodian prison camps, having been detained and tortured. Only after being spotted by a casting agent at a wedding did he decide to try this new line of work.
There simply aren’t a lot of parts for Cambodian actors in Hollywood, and good ones are even fewer and further between. Ngor did what he could, including spots on episodes of Miami Vice, Highway to Heaven, and China Beach. He additionally had small roles in Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth and the 1993 Michael Keaton/Nicole Kidman drama My Life. Nothing else in his filmography ever came remotely close to The Killing Fields, though. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime role. Unfortunately, Ngor’s real-life story has a tragic ending. He was murdered by three gang members in 1996 outside his home in Los Angeles.
1. Tatum O’Neal
Tatum O’Neal has a very unique distinction in the motion picture industry: she is the youngest performer ever to win an Oscar. (In her case, Best Supporting Actress.) She earned that honor at age ten for her work in the comedy Paper Moon. This wildly funny and undeniably touching 1973 film centers around a con artist (played by O’Neal’s father Ryan) who swindles people out of money during the Great Depression with the help of a little girl who may or may not be his daughter. Young Tatum displays maturity beyond her years in the role, perfectly playing a kid who is far more perceptive and intelligent than most of the adults with whom she crosses paths.
Three years later, O’Neal hit the big-time again with her second film, The Bad News Bears, and she had a minor hit with the 1980’s teen sex romp, Little Darlings. For the most part, though, she was unable to make the leap from child star to adult star. The older she got, the harder it was to find quality roles like she had in her younger years. The most noteworthy films she made as a grown-up are The Runaways and This Is 40, both of which only utilized her briefly. O’Neal’s most visible screen work of late was a now-cancelled reality series called Ryan & Tatum: The O’Neals, in which she attempted to repair a fractured relationship with her father in front of the cameras. In spite of clear talent, transitioning to mature roles proved incredibly difficult.
What are your thoughts on these actors? Why do you think they had trouble holding onto success after winning Oscars? Let us know in the comments.
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