In case you hadn't heard, the Academy Awards are on ABC this Sunday. Regardless of what you think of the nominees, it is clear that the film business is at a crossroads. Fewer people went to the movies in 2011 than any year since Al Gore invented the internet; our nation's multiplexes are in the throes of an epidemic called sequelitis; and the Academy could barely settle on a host for Sunday's Oscars.
But this week, my focus is on the most vulnerable members of the Academy: The Actors. Actors have more at stake than anyone at this annual bacchanalia -- their faces are the most recognizable and their personas are most associated with the success or failure of a film. And, even more perplexing and daunting: winning an Oscar may actually be more hazardous to an acting career than losing. Winning an Oscar puts more of a microscope on an actor than dating Leonardo DiCaprio. The choices one makes in the years immediately following an Oscar victory can either enhance your status, or destroy whatever credibility that comes with an Academy nod.
While winning an Academy Award is probably a huge honor (I wouldn't know), an analysis of past winners shows a more complicated, even precarious set of consequences for the chosen few. Last year, on Grantland, Lane Brown brilliantly analyzed the damage certain actors have done to their Oscar standing, explicitly quantifying just how much their subsequent performances either burnished or tarnished their Academy Award. He, of course, measured this metric in units called 'cubas' (named for the epitome of the post-Oscar slump, Cuba Gooding, Jr.).
This was indeed a useful breakdown. But Brown (now culture editor at New York Magazine), missed an opportunity to do even more good with his analysis. First, he failed to provide these actors much needed advice on how to avoid the career lapses of those he analyzed. What good is pointing out the pitfalls, without offering counsel for better choices in the future? More importantly, he neglected to show how a good television role could actually be an antidote for cubas -- sustaining the health of a post-Oscar career.
The 'small screen' has become a refuge for many Oscar winners -- a rehab for cubas if you will. On TV an Oscar-winner can do good work, pick up some additional awards -- and get paid extremely well. What's more, TV offers a wider array of good roles for actors who win an Oscar but then find it difficult to find meaningful parts in a film industry increasingly dedicated to sequels, comic books and CGI.
I am not suggesting that these actors completely ignore their movie careers, but rather that this year's class of nominees; and the long list of past winners; consider what is now reality -- television is an important way to expand your talents, extend your career and rid yourself of cubas. For proof, just ask Anna Paquin (True Blood), Linda Hunt (NCIS LA), Anjelica Huston (Smash), Jessica Lange (American Horror Story), Sally Field (Brothers & Sisters), Richard Dreyfuss (Weeds and Parenthood), Kathy Bates (The Office, Harry's Law), Dianne Weist (Law & Order, In Treatment), Melissa Leo (Treme and Mildred Pierce), Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce), Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey) and, yes, even Dustin Hoffman (Luck). Look even further at past nominees, Gary Sinise (CSI: NY), Laura Linney (The Big C), Laura Dern (Enlightened, Recount, Citizen Ruth), William H. Macy and Joan Cusack (Shameless), Don Cheadle (House of Lies) and, yes, even Nick Nolte (Luck).
It's interesting that more women seem to take advantage of this television cross over -- perhaps because film offers fewer good parts for women over 45 than it does for men over 50, while TV is experiencing a golden age for "actresses of a certain age." Considering this, it's curious that MORE Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners have yet to cross over, given the propensity for winners in that category to all but disappear from film after winning. The Best Supporting Actress Oscar can be like the Bermuda Triangle of the film business.
There are a number of reasons that TV is a safer place for Oscar winners than film: there is more TV than film; TV development takes far less time than for movies; and TV does not live or die over the first weekend. Whatever the reason, right now, if you are an Oscar winner looking to avoid cubas, it's time to get over the 'it's not film' thing, and start looking at TV projects that enhance your statue and stature.
With that in mind, here is my list of 11 Oscar Winners Who Need a TV Show, STAT:
- Adrien Brody (Best Actor, The Pianist). Brody took everyone by surprise with his performance in The Pianist. He became the youngest guy to ever win Best Actor and even had an awesome acceptance speech -- that Halle Berry kiss was just so smooth. And then after Oscar night... not so much. While he's done some good work since winning, it's arguable that his best performance recently, was in a Heineken commercial. I think it's clear that the movies just don't know what to do with this smart, unconventional looking guy. And, with so much career still ahead, a few years on a really good show could help ensure he hasn't already peaked. Suggested Role: Brody would make a classic cable anti-hero, maybe a card shark in a TV version of Rounders or a drug addicted doctor opposite Eddie Falco in Nurse Jackie.
- Cher (Best Actress, Moonstruck). For god's sake just put her in Smash already.
- Reese Witherspoon (Best Actress, Walk The Line). It's a shame really -- Witherspoon had a good career ahead of her, and then she had to go and win the Oscar. Yes, she was terrific in Walk The Line, but since, it's clearly been tough to find good scripts that don't accumulate cubas. (Water For Elephants was a cuba machine.) The secret to her future success is not in Legally Blonde or Walk The Line, and it is certainly not in This Means War -- it's in Election. She was flat out great in that film (and in Cruel Intentions and in American Psycho). That type of dark dramedy caters to her mischievous (non-rom-com) side and it's a specialty that sets her apart from her peers. It's also a core competency of cable series right now (see Breaking Bad, Nurse Jackie, Shameless, Enlightened, Damages, etc). Hey Reese, find a script where you can be bad. Suggested Role: A fictional version of Heidi Fleiss or Christina Aguilera.
- Christoph Waltz (Best Supporting Actor, Inglourious Basterds). In yet another Tarantino, plucked-from-obscurity piece of casting, Waltz emerged from German television to play the role of a lifetime. Unfortunately, no one has known what to do with him since. (He too caught a lot of cubas in Water For Elephants.) If he continues to concentrate on American film, he is likely doomed to playing cartoon villains for the rest of his career. But what has been lost since Basterds is just how funny Waltz is. Suggested Role: Hey, Dan Harmon, do us all a favor cast him as a European Lit Professor in Community!
- Jennifer Connelly (Best Actress, A Beautiful Mind). One of the many awesome things to come out of the movie Labyrinth, Connelly has had the unfortunate distinction throughout her career of being the best thing in mediocre films. A Beautiful Mind gave her the chance to be in a generally all-around good film, with a number of other great performances. But those type of opportunities have not been plentiful since, and now Connelly is at that awkward tweener age for film actresses; over forty. In films, I fear she'll be relegated to playing the beleaguered wives and girlfriends of shallow main characters (The Dilemma, The Day The Earth Stood Still); but on TV, actresses of her talent, age and beauty are not forgotten, they are fêted. On television, she'd not only be a leading lady, but just by showing up, she'd be an Emmy contender. Suggested Role: Since American Horror Story is killing off everyone each season, I cannot help but hope that Ryan Murphy considers her for a juicy part -- that show just won Jessica Lange a Golden Globe to go alongside her two Oscars.
- Robin Williams (Best Supporting Actor, Good Will Hunting). He got his start on TV, but Williams seemed destined to win an Oscar, nominated three times in five years for Dead Poets Society, Fisher King (still his best performance) and Good Morning Vietnam. But it wasn't until he chilled out and took a back seat, a decade later, that he finally won for Good Will Hunting. Since then, he's made some really, really bad films (Death To Smoochy is the textbook example of how to earn cubas), yet still managed to turn in some very good performances in films no one saw (One Hour Photo, Insomnia). Despite a tendency to chew the scenery, the guy can act. Robin, stop making RV and Night At The Museum (please!) and come back to TV -- I promise, we won't make you wear the suspenders. Suggested Role: Williams needs a supporting role where his specific talents can thrive. Hey HBO, want a guaranteed Emmy win? How about Williams in Boardwalk Empire as a washed-up gangster; in Game Of Thrones as a undecipherable mystic (I do not watch the show nor have I read the books, so I apologize in advance for offending GoT nerds with the word 'mystic'); in Luck as a drug-addled gambler; or in Veep as a bipolar political mastermind?
- Joe Pesci (Best Supporting Actor, Goodfellas). What's up with this guy? Over the course of his career, he's done drama, he's done comedy (no, you are not a clown!); he's even done music. But for the past decade he's done almost nothing -- nada. Hey Joe, it's time to get back in the game. Don't leave Gone Fishin' and Lethal Weapon 4 as the last two things on your resume! Come over to TV -- it's a good gig and the catering is excellent. Suggested Role: A tough guy investigator on a nice CBS procedural drama, something where he can bring the Jersey but also play the humor. Just imagine what Pesci would have done with Cracker.
- Hilary Swank (Best Actress, Boys Don't Cry & Million Dollar Baby). Swank clearly has acting chops. However, someone needs to give her more to do than visiting Chechen Birthday Parties and staring in films like New Year's Eve (I'm still not sure which of these offenses was worse). Despite two Oscars, Swank's been enormously under-utilized since her last win. Again, she's in that odd tweener age where film actresses seemingly fall through the feature cracks, but where TV gives them great roles and wins them Globes and Emmys. Hillary, grab a TV show and show your stuff. Suggested Role: She could definitely command her own show, but Showtime should scoop her up for three of their series -- an alcoholic love interest for Frank on Shameless; a mysterious CIA agent on Homeland; and a sexy rival consultant for Don Cheadle on House of Lies.
- Frances McDormand (Best Actress, Fargo). I could watch McDormand do anything -- sing the national anthem, read a phone book, even darn socks. And, frankly, she doesn't necessarily need the work (she was just on Broadway, her husband will always give her good film roles), but on TV, we'd get to see here perform weekly, and she would all but be guaranteed an Emmy nomination (and maybe we can keep her out of Transformers 4). Most importantly, someone has to convince her and the Coens to turn Fargo into a TV show!!! How awesome would THAT be? "Oh sure I'll investigate that murder, as soon as I scrape off my windshield... you bet'cha!"
- Cuba Gooding, Jr. (Best Supporting Actor, Jerry Maguire). The very person for whom cubas were named, Gooding took what was perhaps one of the best Oscar moments in modern history... and squandered it. However, if TV can resurrect his tarnished Oscar cred, it could do anything. I'm not sure how good an actual actor he is (hard to tell from Snow Dogs and Radio), but I am 100% convinced in the curative powers of television. C'mon Hollywood, let's make his career the poster child for the TV comeback! We can do it! Suggested Role: Give him an NCIS spin-off and call it a day -- NCIS Seattle; they have the Navy there, don't they?
- Marisa Tomei (Best Supporting Actress, My Cousin Vinny). Ever since Jack Palance announced her win, Tomei has had a hard time finding roles that match her talents and can help overcome the rumor that Palance misread the envelope. And although, she's recently given great performances in The Wrestler, Crazy Stupid Love and especially Cyrus (see it!), she's mostly been wasted in secondary roles, in small movies, that not many people see. She was awesome in Rescue Me a few years back, and she deserves a chance to prove that she really did deserve that Oscar. Suggested Role: Tomei won for a comedy and Cyrus proves she can still play funny. What if Larry and Marisa hooked up on Curbed?
There are many, many more talented Oscar winners whose careers could use a good dose of TV. Get F. Murray Abraham (doing tons of guest spots these days) a recurring role on Sons of Anarchy! Gwyneth Paltrow already did Glee, how about a recurring character on Portlandia? Shirley MacLaine is joining Downton Abbey, now let's get Kim Basinger (embodiment of the Supporting Actress curse) or Jodie Foster in that castle! And even though Bill Murray didn't win his Oscar, he should have, and he should be back on TV, where we will finally get him a trophy. How about a series about a washed-up golfer?
So, 2012 Oscar Nominees, as you're walking the Red Carpet this Sunday, contemplating your next move, remember this: TV is The Cure For cubas!