“I just won an Oscar, but will that help me earn a living?” So asked F. Murray Abraham in a note sent to me in 1984 – one that I have faithfully saved. Unlike some Oscar winners, Abraham was both modest and bewildered by his Amadeus triumph. He also correctly predicted the uncertainties of his future.
I thought of him last weekend in witnessing the “cool” displayed by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio at the SAG Awards. Where some stars may stumble over their fame, Brad and Leo deploy their celebrity to advance both their talent and their social conscience; even Brad’s personal peccadillos serve his cause – witness his playful backstage interactions with ex-wife Jennifer Aniston.
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While Pitt and DiCaprio relish the awards rituals, other stars, and indeed companies, are troubled by the time and money that fuel the now greatly shortened process. Actors cherish their kudos, but still ask if the statuettes realistically advance their careers relative to the demands placed on their lives. Do the winning films still gain a substantial boost from the noise and publicity of Oscar season?
Pitt and DiCaprio make good movies and cause good movies to be made, but they also have also observed the syndromes that have chipped away at the celebrity status of other stars. The ego gratification of awards season over the years arguably has prompted some stars to indulge in “over-reach.”
There are storied examples: Sean Penn’s courageous but all-consuming philanthropic forays in Haiti and Mexico; or Tom Cruise’s decision to take over United Artists and its decision-making machinery; or Ben Affleck’s decision to follow the award-winning Argo by plunging into the expansive problems of Live By Night.
Even a generation ago, the awards process seemed to bewilder rather than benefit some stars – witness Marlon Brando or even Jimmy Dean. Actors like Spencer Tracy and William Holden hated the studio publicity machines so fervently that during awards season they defiantly took refuge in their favorite neighborhood bars.
In purely financial terms, Oscar victories have not automatically translated into better roles and bigger salaries – Halle Berry did not benefit exponentially from Monster’s Ball, nor did Abraham, who, after Amadeus, subsisted as a character actor at that pay scale. He has since had a strong long run on Showtime’s Homeland which is nearing the start of its eighth and final season.
While the studios and streaming entities have lavished ever increasing amounts on award season—Netflix likely allocated over $60 million – there’s evidence that post-Oscar box office bumps no longer measure up to those of previous years, as in Shakespeare In Love or American Beauty. Green Book doubled its U.S. box office last year after winning the Oscar and took in $237 million overseas, but the studios are concerned that similar largesse may not await this year’s potential winners such as Parasite or 1917.
So why the ‘big spend”? For the studios, prestige is still on the line. For Netflix, prestige also translates into star talent and star packages which, in turn, translates into subscriber growth. While Netflix posted a quarterly growth of 8.3 million subscribers overseas, exceeding expectations, its increase in domestic subscribers missed its forecast for a third successive quarter, reflecting growing competition from rivals.
So do these numbers invade the space of DiCaprio or Pitt? During lengthy careers, neither has become enmeshed in the sort of cause celebre that enveloped many colleagues. Pitt, 11 years older, survived the rough-and-tumble job-hunting path of young actors before scoring in Thelma & Louise. He established Plan B Productions with Aniston and Brad Grey, but few predicted it would ultimately be responsible for 30 movies, including box office successes like World War Z and Oscar winners like 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight. His initial partners are no longer involved – Grey died and Aniston divorced — but Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner run its busy slate, including a project based on Harvey Weinstein.
By comparison, DiCaprio’s career has been more cautious but equally productive, yielding 54 awards ranging from the Oscar to the Scream. While Pitt was driving cars and playing bit parts early on, DiCaprio caught on quickly with This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
At the SAG Awards, the acclimation accorded Parasite reminded the audience of the vast changes overtaking the industry, but it was still Brad and Leo who “owned” the room – two stars, still in their prime, calmly conveying a sense of Hollywood stability.
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