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'Oscar Curse' Study: Researcher Weighs In

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Most of us have heard about the so-called "Oscar Curse"--the theory that women who win the Best Actress Academy Award are doomed to divorce.

Now, researchers at the University of Toronto have the data to back it up. Their study, released last week, found that the effects of the "Oscar Curse" are actually real.

Researchers compared actresses who won Best Actress statuettes from 1936 to 2010 to those who were nominated but didn't win, and found that winners were, indeed, 1.68 times as likely to divorce as non-winners. Of the 265 married nominees, 159 eventually divorced--a whopping 60 percent. The same was not true for men--there was no significant difference in divorce risk for Best Actor winners and Best Actor nominees.

One of the researchers on the study, the University of Toronto's Tiziana Casciaro, chatted with us on the phone about the results.

Tell me about how you came to that conclusion--what was your methodology?

The finding, to be exact, is that Oscar-winning women get more divorced than Oscar nominated women, while we find no difference for men. For men, whether you win or are just nominated, there's no significant difference. We collected data on every single nominee from the inception of the modern Oscars--1936--all the way through last year, 2010. The analysis was conducted based on a comparison between the groups: The men who won and the ones who did not, and the women who won, and the ones who did not.

What surprised you most about these findings?

We were not particularly surprised. There's extensive research literature on the subject we didn't conduct. This type of pattern has been documented before in the general population. Our question was, does it apply to elites--professional elites? Do we see the same patterns replicated? It was nice to see that our findings were generalizable and consistent with what we know about regular people. Perhaps the only surprising thing is that there is no difference.

In the study, you refer to 'sudden status change.' What is meant by that?

Winning an Oscar can be construed as a big jump in professional status that an actor or actress has in their world and in the eyes of the broader audience. There are few phenomena that are so clean. You are never the same after you've secured an Oscar for Best actor or Best Actress. If you take that as a measure as a status increase, then you can see the consequences.

[It's also] one of those rare contexts where you have equal numbers of highly successful men and women. There are many many more men than women, if you look at CEOs for example. It's hard to do a rigorous study because you just have too few women.

Why do you think a Best Actress win affects women negatively and not men?

Multiple possibilities, as other research before ours has documented. One has to do with the general social norm that kind of requires a man to have higher professional and economic status over the wife. So whenever that social norm is violated, both husband and wife may feel discomfort--could be either one of them. We know from other situations that the strain that marriages feel under that circumstance is not unusual and people try to overcome it in a variety of different ways.

One study looked at couples where the wife earns more and has a more demanding job and you would expect the division of labor to shift towards the husband, but the wife may actually increase how much she does in the house and the husband decrease, just to make the marriage feel more "normal." It can be that the husband feels inferior and doesn't accept the lower status. [So the divorce could happen because] the woman who outgrows the relationship. Or it was [an] unhappy [marriage] to begin with and with the sudden increase in status feels like she can move on.

What is the rate of divorce for female Oscar-winners as compared to the general population?

I don't have that data. We do find that compared to women who are just nominated, the winners have a 63 percent chance of having a shorter marriage than the non-winners.

Did you take any other factors into consideration--for example, number of children?

Shared children decreased the probability of divorce. Across everybody, age decreased the likelihood of divorce, with no difference between men and women.

Did you explore why the marriages broke up--infidelity for instance ?

We had very limited data--you have to look at the qualitative data. Infidelity showed up as you would expect. More for men than for women. But we had such a small sub-sample of the relationships its hard to draw clear inferences.

What about the profession and income level of the man--does that affect whether or not an Oscar win for a woman results in divorce? Does it change based on whether the man is successful, or whether he is also an actor?

For income level its virtually impossible to get clean data. We had a measure for fame with a count on media mentions in the New York Times. For women, there was a positive relationship with rate of divorce--the higher the fame, the higher the rate of divorce. Not for men.

Does this affect any other Oscar winners other than Best Actress? Does it have an effect on Best Cinematography award winners, for example?

We only looked at this one because it attracted the most speculation. With the status increase it's the most obvious.

Has the rate of divorce for Best Actress winners changed throughout history--for example, did Best Actresses in the 1940s divorce less than Best Actress winners in the 1990s?

One of the things that is rather peculiar is that Hollywood people always got divorced, unlike more "normal" people, who in the 1940s and 1950s were less prone to that then they are today. That was a world that was always particularly at risk. We found relatively stable patterns over time.

Who are a few of the major actresses who divorced post-win?
Joan Crawford, in the old days. Bette Davis. More recent times--Halle Berry, Kate Winslet, Hilary Swank. Sandra Bullock is an interesting situation because while she divorced right after, the infidelity that led her to ask for divorce started before she won the Oscar.