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33 Days: Natalie Portman and the Oscar Pay Bump

January 30, 2011

The Best Actress Oscar often comes with a bump in asking price for its winner, but are the winners actually worth it? Leaving aside the years where academy tastes overlap with the audience and focusing on the average winner, it seems like the answer is no. The pool of talent vying for lead actress is rarely drawn from the same pool of women who attract audiences into the theater. Other than being able to have trailers and posters advertise the presence of an Oscar-winning actor in some forgettable dreck, what is the real value of a Best Actress Oscar?

The Hollywood Reporter wrote:

For Portman, a best actress victory could propel her into the Reese Witherspoon stratosphere of $10 million-plus a picture, a lot more than the high-six figures she made on the $13 million Swan — just as Halle Berry’s asking price shot up to more than $10 million after her win for Monster’s Ball. (There were few takers; ditto for Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman).

There’s a lot to unpack in that parenthetical statement: “There were few takers; ditto for Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman”. Before Portman begins spending her pay increase let’s examine the fortunes of some recent Best Actress winners.

    Helen Hunt. In 1998 Hunt earned an Oscar for her performance as a waitress in James L. Brooks’ As Good as it Gets. Since her win she’s appeared in a handful of roles with her most prominent opposite Richard Gere in Altman’s Dr. T and the Women. Perhaps she could command bigger salaries if there was anyone interested in paying them. While there’s nothing shabby about a resume that includes a successful long-running sitcom and a truckload of Emmys, there’s nothing to suggest winning the Oscar had a lasting impact on Hunt’s career.

    Reese Witherspoon. Since winning her statuette for playing June Carter Cash, Witherspoon has busied herself in a variety of forgettable fare, which might have netted her a nice paycheck, but probably left the studios questioning whether it was money well spent. Her most recent box office bomb – How Do You Know – enjoys a 31% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes!

    Halle Berry. Halle was already a box office draw and A-lister prior to becoming the first black woman to earn a Best Actress Oscar. Still that didn’t prevent her from making some critical missteps in her choice of projects. To place so much emphasis on the Catwoman debacle is to miss out on other stinky performances in: Gothika, A Perfect Stranger (with Willis) and the second X-Men sequel.

Arguably, nabbing the statuette does come with the potential for a pay bump. Agents and handlers can ask, but there needs to be someone eager to pay. In addition, a pay bump in no way guarantees a quality bump. If Portman wins, to be sure there will be more scripts to sift through, but it’s unlikely a win will place her in the running for parts currently shopped to Meryl and Tilda! More likely, Portman will find herself competing for the top tier roles in a field crowded with Oscar winners whose pay bump is no match for the lackluster career offerings post Oscar win.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2011 11:45 am

    When I first saw her in The Professional and Beautiful Girls(a couple of my favorite flicks) as a very young girl showing more acting chops than most A-listers, I knew she would go on to impress not just with her performances but with her choices in roles. I think that is what truly sets her in the category of Meryl Streep or Tilda Swinton. The two of them have kept doing what made them great to begin with. They have not focused on the paycheck and focused more on finding new and interesting roles to play. The three of them turn in Oscar winning performances on almost every part the play. (every part not set in a galaxy far, far away that is)

  2. January 30, 2011 12:44 pm

    I agree with you. I’m actually kind of disappointed the studio is campaigning so hard for Portman when it’s unclear this award would do anything she’s not already doing on her own. She is an accomplished actress who makes smart choices about her roles and keeps evolving. I even liked her in those Star Wars prequels. I liked her in Garden State and I just couldn’t believe I could like her or that movie period. Have you seen her work in Heat? it’s subtle and overlooked, with all the quality female acting work happening in the film.

    Neither Best Actor or Best Actress does what studios think it does. It doesn’t really make understudies into stars; it recognizes quality performances (sometimes) and sometimes that means the person will be considered for a wider range of roles.

    Now the star making statuette is Best Supporting Actor. That will change a man’s career prospects overnight. Just ask Denzel, Tommy and George.

  3. January 30, 2011 1:13 pm

    I think there simply aren’t enough decent jobs for female actors in the mass market. It’s like being promoted out of the jobs that got you the promotion: these actors are now priced out of the lower budget and indie films that got them all the critical attention they’re being rewarded (and awarded) for.

  4. January 30, 2011 2:14 pm

    Truly. I think the paucity of quality roles in this particular age bracket is chief among the woes. Portman will now find herself in competition with Paltrow, Scar-Jo, Amy Adams, Carey Mulligan for the three or four high profile girlfriend/wife parts that are ultimately not especially Oscarlicious or steeped in quality.

  5. HSofia permalink
    January 30, 2011 4:23 pm

    If she wins Best Actress then people like my parents and in-laws – middle aged people who spend a lot on movies without reading or writing about them not read about them – will know her name. So I’m seeing a lot more boring romantic comedies in her future.

  6. January 30, 2011 4:30 pm

    Agreed. She’ll definitely be in a bunch of mainstream, safe offerings.

  7. January 30, 2011 11:07 pm

    I like thinking about this now being Oscar-winning Natalie Portman:

  8. January 30, 2011 11:14 pm

    Is there any chance Annette could still pull a win off?

  9. January 31, 2011 10:26 am

    @Raymondj, I am started to think it’s possible. It might be a Susan Sarandon thing where the Academy is waiting for Bening to be appropriately humble because nobody should be so happy and pleased with themselves.

  10. January 31, 2011 10:27 am

    HAHA. Omg, I used to watch Natalie’s rap more than “d*ck in the box”

  11. January 31, 2011 10:37 am

    I think this is Annette’s “The Client” or “Lorenzo’s Oil”. Maybe next year for her.

  12. January 31, 2011 5:16 pm

    HSofia, Snarky’s Machine, bingo. It seems like every time someone wins best actress, she gets shunted into a bunch of shitty roles for the rest of her career. It almost seems like they’re afraid she can’t do it again so they’d better have her phone it in.

  13. Megan permalink
    February 19, 2011 11:09 am

    What about Kate Winslett? She still gets great parts. So does Nicole Kidman. I’m not sure I agree with your premise.

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