APRIL 9, 1962, turned foggy and damp at 6 p.m. so the limousines for Hollywood's superstars were backed up behind the searchlights that stabbed into the clouds. This was a banner year for the Oscars -- 100 million fans would watch the ceremony through new hookups -- and the largest contingent of celebrities since the '40s was jammed into the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
While Greer Garson and Natalie Wood were having their hair done in Beverly Hills, a moderately successful ingenue named Rita Moreno flew into Los Angeles from Manila -- tourist class. She had blown her savings on a designer dress, picked up her mother and joined the crush of cars heading toward the searchlights. The next two hours slipped by in a daze as Moreno sat in a row awash with mink and custom-cut tuxedos.
"And the winner is -- Rita Moreno for 'West Side Story.'"
She gave her mother a token hug, ran the 50 yards to the stage, took her Oscar, shook it a little and started to cry as she walked into Hollywood history. Then she rushed back to the airport, boarded a midnight flight for Manila and disappearded from Hollywood sound stages for seven lonely years. Gossip columnists would quickly list her as the latest victim of "the Oscar curse," a nonexistent jinx dredged up year after year -- particularly when a winner failed to follow through and grab the pot of gold at the end of the Academy Award rainbow.
But in reality, Moreno made a calculated career decision. By rushing out of Hollywood without even attending the "morning-after" press conference, she avoided all three ingredients of the real Oscar backlash: She didn't cash in on her award. She shunned the withering glare of publicity. And she escaped being chained to a character.
"I was terrified at first," says Moreno. "I knew I had to get out of town because there was too much temptation. I could have taken any of those spitfire roles offered to me and made a bundle. I mean it's really demeaning after you've won an Oscar to be offered the same role over and over again.
"I don't believe that there is such a thing as 'an Oscar jinx,'" she says, "but it can be quickly turned into a downer by people who try to use it as a promissory note."
Oscar history boasts more success stories, rescued careers and quick fortunes than it does reversals. But some veteran stars like Joan Fontaine continue to speak of an "Oscar jinx." "The Oscar was a marvelous concept of some very responsible people," said Fontaine, who was named best actress in 1941 for "Suspicion." "It was supposed to be an event to make our business more dignified. But it just became a big monetary spectacle."
Fontaine has always felt that the Oscar hangover comes from the massive publicity. "In the '40s and maybe still today, winners of the Oscar seemed like members of royalty suddenly elevated to the throne. You suddenly had international recognition, preferential treatment. Naturally there is many a detractor, many an ill-wisher, many a doubter. They are gunning for you after you win. If you fail to see the press on the set, you've suddenly gone high hat. The critics are so hard on you they seem to want to tear you down. And producers and directors are jealous because they are used to being top dog."
Rod Steiger has taken the Oscar after-shocks from all directions and he, too, is convinced there is a curse. For five years after he won the best acting award ("In the Heat of the Night," 1967), Steiger rode the Oscar high with its trappings -- the six-figure salary, the media blitz and the chance to live his greatest acting fantasies. "It's like any other thing. You're No. 1 for a while, then you slip to three, then it's every man for himself," he said.
Steiger, who'd already made 40 films when the Academy honored him, cashed in his Oscar chit for chances to play Napoleon, Mussolini and W.C. Fields and to make two of the most bizarre and daring films of the '70s -- "The Illustrated Man" and "The Sergeant," a frank exploration of macho homosexuality. "Suddenly it began to dawn on me that I felt like a ballplayer who'd hit a home run in an empty ballpark," Steiger said. "The honeymoon was over the minute I did a film that didn't do well."
But Steiger has weathered his temporary change in fortunes and his year will have five pictures in release. "I wouldn't trade it -- I hate even to lose a tennis game," he says. "The Oscar opend up immense challenges."
It can open up enormous salaries.The "cash value" of an acting Oscar was a taboo subject during the Academy's first three decades. But the '50s changed all that when the studios started the massive, national post-Oscar campaigns that are now routine.
In 1940 Joan Fontaine's official loanout fee jumped from $25,000 to $100,000 after she was nominated for "Rebecca." After she won the best actress award for "Suspicion," Selznick Studios, which held her contract, charged as much as $200,000 per picture. (All figures are from Los Angeles Superior Court civil records). Fontaine herself continued to get about $12,000 per picture: "I never saw a cent of those increased fees. In fact, I sat idle for six months after the Oscar."
Vivien Leigh, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Loretta Young and Fontaine's sister, Olivia De Haviland, all had higher studio prices after taking home the big award. Fontaine feels these salary hikes contributed greatly to Oscar fallout. "It gave people a chance to say, or at least think, 'Is she worth it?' If the picture was a success, fine. If not, that was the first step back down."
Oscared stars of the '50s began talking about salary gains as soon as the morning after -- with the stakes going higher every year. Civil court records give plenty of examples: Marlon Brando got $75,000 for "Streetcar Named Desire" and took a post-Oscar jump to $1.2 million for "Mutiny On the Bounty"; Julie Andrews took $125,000 for "Mary Poppins," and $750,000 for the post-Oscar "Hawaii"; William Holden was in the moderate price range for "Stalag 17," won the Oscar and joined the million-a-picture range.
But "the economic honeymoon wears off the minute you do a picutre that loses money," says Steiger, whose per-picture pay jumped from about $100,000 to "at least $750,000" after his best acting Oscar. Steiger was reportedly paid about a million dollars for the massive failure "Waterloo." He has now coasted through the Oscar honeymoon dip and scored with "The Amityville Horror." "You suddenly become the latest fad," said Steiger. "I went up to the top and stayed there for a while. Then I did some pictures that weren't so lucky. But you pick yourself up for the climb back. And you try to remember that, 'some pictures you do for your soul -- most pictures you do to eat.'"
Among those who took the Oscar and ran with it to new monetary heights, George Kennedy is somewhat of a legend. Thirteen years ago, "My salary was multiplied by 10 the minute I won," says Kennedy, who went to the Academy Awards thinking he would be beaten by Mickael Pollard. "After the award everything changed for me. But the happiest part was that I didn't have to play villains anymore. In that movie ('Luke') I was able to show a compassionate side of the character, and the Oscar drew an immense amount of attention to this. I began to get roles that were sympathetic. Now three out of four roles offered to me are good guys."
Kennedy says that "When a star's salary jumps to that superlevel level -- the big next step above my level -- the salary jump can backfire. [People ask], 'Does he have the charisma to demand a million dollars?'"
Another kind of Oscar backlash is more subtle and perhaps more damaging. Since the '30s, Hollywood's moneymen have often pushed actors through projects designed to cash in on the Oscar.
"Almost the morning after I won for 'Charly,' a film I had to guide through production, I was descended upon by the same, myopic Monday-morning quarterbacks who hadn't wanted to make the movie in the first place," says Cliff Robertson, who won the best-acting award in 1968. "In most cases their creative credentials had not improved over the weekend. They came up with a lot of money but a lot of junk."
This post-Oscar stampede toward the box office has resulted in some notable casualties. Susan Hayward, for instance, never made a critically acclaimed film after her win for "I Want to Live"; Bette Davis had to flee England and fight Jack Warner to keep herself out of B movies after winning the Oscar for "Dangerous"; and Jose Ferrer was rushed through an insipid series of films after wining for "Cyrano."
But career casualties inflicted on Luise Rainer and on Dorothy Malone, although two decades apart, are perhaps the most typical. Both actresses emerged from the semi-shadows to national prominence and were pushed into a series of dreary attempts to cash in.
It was Rainer's post-Oscar problems that caused Louella Parsons to invent the term "Oscar jinx." The year was 1937, and Rainer had just become the first person to win two best-acting Oscars in a row -- for "The Great Ziegfeld" and "The Good Earth." The publicity machine at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cranked up, and splashed the face of the "Viennese Teardrop" onto the cover of roto sections across America. Two years later, Rainer was a has-been, having finished three hasty pictures so dreary that they don't even appear on the late show. "I was just a piece of machinery with no rights," said Rainer. "They completely abused me. I was catapulted into the position of being a box-office attraction. Nothing could have been worse." Rainer fled Hollywood, rebuilt her acting career in London and never returned except for several television appearances.
Twenty years later, Dorothy Malone met the same fate. "Word got out quickly about 'Written on the Wind,' so I was already grossly overworked when I went to get the Oscar [in 1955]," said Malone. "The studio and my agents rushed to cash in. They put me into every dog that was made that year." The following year she was rushed into an incredible 15 films. It took a long-running television series, "Peyton Place," to put Malone back into the mainstream of Hollywood.
By the '60s, Hollywood attitudes had changed -- but not sufficiently to save Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison or Sandy Dennis from similar "cash-in" projects. Robertson feels the problem will never be erased: "Audiences have long algo attested to the commercial value of artistic merit, but it never seems to sink into the 14-year-old mentality of the great studio pundits. Talent will still be misused, illused or unused and an Oscar can't always overcome that."
Even when the award isn't used as a bargaining tool, it can trap actors in the type of role for which they won the Oscar. Oscar's 52-year history is full of examples: Gale Sondergaard became welded into her performance as the archetypical villainess; Audrey Hepburn to the wide-eyes gamine; and Shelley Winters to blowsy, fiery women beyond their prime.
Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine and Red Buttons have all built multimillion dollar careers off "typecasting" following their Oscar wins. "I started out the third decade of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as the 'man least likely,'" said Sinatra to researchers compiling a history of the Oscar. "I closed out that decade as a man given a second shot of life."
Noted Hollywood agent Martin Baum, whose stable of stars is full of Oscar winners, has also learned the hard way about the other side of Oscar "typing." When his client Sidney Poitier became the first black to win the best-acting Oscar, the industry "seemed to view it as a one-time win -- unlikely to be repeated," according to Baum. "We tried for months, unsuccessfully, to get financing for his next picture, 'To Sir, With Love,' but nobody would back it. Finally James Clavell agreed to write the script and to direct for only a percentage of the film. Sidney had to work at no salary just to prove himself again -- and that was after the Oscar!" "To Sir, With Love" went on to make $30 million.
Similarly, another of Baum's clients, English actress Maggie Smith, hasn't had a single film offer of any kind since she won her second Oscar for "California Suite" in 1979. Smith was named best actress in 1969 for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and was nominated two other times. "Maggie's Oscars have, I think typed her as a great actress," Baum said, "but not necessarily as a leading lady. They'll probably call when they have a part for a 'great actress.'"
This type of industry reaction stretches back to the early decades of the award, and by 1959 the pattern was so well established that Hedda Hopper asked: "Why is it that the industry constantly discovers new supporting talent, honors it with awards and then brings in a new crop every decade?"
In 1967 a longtime Broadway actress of great emotional depth, Estelle Parsons, won the best supporting actress Oscar for her wild portrayal in "Bonnie and Clyde." "I must have been offered dozens of 'Blanche' parts in the years right after the Oscar," said Parsons. "My salary went up. There was a lot more interest in me by the press and my name went up over the title." But Parsons routinely turned down carbon copies of the hysterical Blanche. "There are suddenly a lot of people who want to trade on the award. I could have really cashed in on it -- had a really big movie career. But who wants to do the same part over and over again? I made a pact with myself early on never to play the same role again -- and I haven't."