A-List: Missing Out on the Oscar Bump
By Sean Collier
February 5, 2009

So, I'm thinking about becoming a rap star, Reese. What do you think?

As the Academy would have you think, the little gold statues for Best Actor and Best Actress are powerful signifiers. To get one of those, you really have to be one of the finest performers we have. You can't sneak your way in, you can't buy your way in, you can't fake your way in – Supporting Actor or Supporting Actress, maybe, but not the big one. That's for the superstars.

In reality, there are certainly missteps. A weak year or an odd pool of candidates can lead to a less-than-ideal star taking home the gold. (This is where we make a joke about Cher.) Again, this is more common in the Supporting categories (This is where we make a joke about Jennifer Hudson, except we don't, because we're still very sad about all that,) but it's not uncommon that a Best Actor or Best Actress will not, by a long shot, be the best actor or best actress around.

Such second-guessing is the work of us critics and naysayers, though; the general movie-going public is more than happy to applaud any fine performance and line up at the box office again the next weekend. And, as studios have known for about half a century, the "Academy Award Winner" tag can be a pretty powerful marketing tool. Studios salivate at the prospects of linking a chain of Oscar holders together toward the end of a trailer; combine that with the added notoriety awards night gives a performer, and you'd have to figure that the career of a Best Actor or Actress winner would quickly skyrocket. Usually, that's just what happens.

Except, of course, when it doesn't. With little concern for whether the award was righteous or not, some performers can never seem to recapture whatever appeal or artistry got them to the show in the first place. For some, the big award is the absolute peak of their career, and they're content to relax through supporting roles and general celebrity thereafter. For others, attempts to capitalize on their glory backfire, and it's back to the drawing board. And some just buckle under the pressure of having to follow an Oscar-winning performance.

As the night approaches, I thought I would once again depart slightly from the traditional A-List format to investigate a few still-going careers that didn't really take off after they received the great big little gold man. All of these performers are quite gifted, and young enough that I'm not calling it a day for them; merely pointing out that they have yet to deliver on the promise of their previous roles.

With an appeal to Mickey Rourke to please fight at Wrestlemania, Oscar or no Oscar, The A-List presents Those Who Missed the Oscar Bump.

Helen Hunt (Best Actress 1997, As Good As It Gets)

Hunt, at 45, is ready for a career reboot. Her relative inactivity over the past few years might make us forget that she's one of the most awarded actresses around. She is one of only three women to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy in the same year, and the only actress to win four consecutive Emmys. She won her Oscar for a near-perfect performance in the complex romantic comedy As Good As It Gets; after Mad About You went off the air, she completed four films in the next year, including the high-grossing What Women Want, Robert Altman's Dr. T and the Women, and Cast Away. After that...not much of anything. She was part of the ensemble cast in Woody Allen's Curse of the Jade Scorpion in '01, and then took four years off from the silver screen. Despite making her directorial debut in 2007 with Then She Found Me, she hasn't had a hit since. If Hunt can shake the trappings of the romcom label, there might be some interesting work left in her.

Denzel Washington (Best Actor 2001, Training Day)

Look, far be it from me to take down Denzel. He's a fantastic actor, worthy of all the accolades he's received and his status as one the best performers we have. But since his Oscar-winning turn as hard-nosed narcotics officer Alonzo Harris in Training Day, he's played: hard-nosed police chief Matthias Lee Whitlock (Out of Time); hard-nosed ex-CIA operative John Creasy (Man on Fire); hard-nosed veteran Major Ben Marco (The Manchurian Candidate); hard-nosed detective Keith Frazier (The Inside Man); and hard-nosed special agent Doug Carlin (Deja Vu). So, basically one guy who keeps making his name more generic. In his spare time, he's launched into prestige films that didn't really turn heads (John Q, Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters.) American Gangster was certainly a breath of fresh air; Denzel seemed invigorated by the opportunity to commit the crimes for once. Hopefully this will inspire Denzel to seek out more roles outside of his comfort zone - after, of course, next year's turn as hard-nosed subway dispatcher Walter Garber in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.

Halle Berry (Best Actress 2001, Monster's Ball)

Poor, poor Halle. The Oscar came in 2001. Then she went to Bond. Feel free to enjoy Die Another Day for what it is, but keep in mind – they made that, then they said "the hell with it, let's start this over." Then back to the X-Men. Then Gothika, a low-rent horror waste that never, under any circumstances, should've contained any talented performers. And then Catwoman. I do not need to rehash Catwoman in this space, but even Berry acknowledges that film was an atrocity. Then more X-Men. Then something called Perfect Stranger, which is another horror movie with Bruce Willis; I can honestly say I had no idea this film existed. Seriously, Halle – what the hell? Did you develop an allergy to good movies? Do you have a phobia of directors who know what they're doing? Are we being punished for something? We're sorry, Halle, for whatever it was. Now tighten your chinstrap and get back in the game.

Adrian Brody (Best Actor 2002, The Pianist)

He's one of the best actors around, but Adrian Brody is not built to be a big movie star. Making a long career out of smaller films and supporting roles, Brody worked himself half to death filming The Pianist. He upset the heavily favored Daniel Day-Lewis come Oscar night, before delivering easily the most memorable acceptance speech of the decade. Then, it seems, someone decided it was time for him to go mainstream. He made the now obvious mistake of going full retard in M. Night's Shayamalan's clunky The Village, then slogged through the confusing time-travel thriller The Jacket. He played a vital if simple role in Peter Jackson's divisive King Kong, but looked like he wasn't having much fun. After a turn in the near-miss Ben Affleck vehicle Hollywoodland, he retreated back into his comfort zone, with fine performances in Manolete and The Darjeeling Limited. This year, Cadillac Records failed to catch on, but I'm still holding out a lot of hope for The Brothers Bloom. And next year, we get the positively thrilling prospect of seeing Brody act for Dario Argento, in the serial killer flick Giallo. I'd wager that Brody's ship has been righted.

Jamie Foxx (Best Actor 2004, Ray)

From the moment Ray was released, Foxx seemed like a shoe-in for the Oscar. He racked up awards leading to Oscar night – among others, the Golden Globe, the SAG Award, and the BAFTA Award – and when his name was announced, exactly no one was surprised. Such a breakthrough year for the former In Living Color star seemed like a portent of things to come, but very little of note has happened for Foxx since. 2005 saw Foxx take on the rightfully forgotten action flick Stealth and the not-quite-what-it-could've-been Gulf War I drama Jarhead; 2006 included the unnecessary Miami Vice movie and Dreamgirls – and if anyone tells you that Dreamgirls was a good movie, you have my permission to laugh really, really hard at them. Another unremarkable Iraq drama, The Kingdom, followed. It took Foxx four years to pick a seemingly suitable follow-up to Ray – and that film, The Soloist, has been delayed right out of Oscar season. If I had to pick one performer on this list that probably won't regain their former stature, I'd regrettably pick Foxx.

Reese Witherspoon (Best Actress 2005, Walk the Line)

Reese stole an Oscar from the impossibly skilled hands of Felicity Huffman back in 2005. While she was certainly the best thing about Walk the Line, throwing an award at her felt a little bit premature; she's going to do some amazing things on screen, she just hasn't gotten around to them yet. And in the three years since claiming her title, she's...not gotten around to much of anything, actually. She didn't appear on screen for about two years after Walk the Line, coming back with the barely-noticed political thriller Rendition (a film I was pretty sure I had seen, until I realized that it's not the same movie as Lions for Lambs.) After that, a supporting role in the just-as-audience-starved fable Penelope, and (shudder) Four Christmases. Perhaps directors aren't willing to take a chance on Reese, despite her Oscar; as talented as she is, she still looks like Elle Woods to some. Within the next couple of years, she'll work on projects from James L. Brooks and Cameron Crowe; hopefully, one or both will be worth her (and our) time.