Oscar win can be a one-act play

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Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke are fighting a steel-cage match for the best actor Oscar. But they might want to be careful what they wish for, or at least curb their expectations.

An Oscar for either would offer prestige, bragging rights and -- in Rourke's case, at least -- an acceptance speech that would be an instant YouTube smash.

But for all of these intangibles, a statuette, it turns out, offers few direct benefits to a star's career. In many cases, in fact, a win is followed by a lull.

Campaigns for acting Oscars offer a unique situation. Theirs often are the most-watched races, featuring recognizable faces and abundant awards-season media -- the type that's enhanced tenfold these days by the Web; video of Rourke's BAFTA acceptance speech Sunday already has drawn more than 35,000 views on YouTube, for instance.

But it's precisely because these races are so public that they often work as much against an actor as they do for him or her. Two years ago, Forest Whitaker, a talented thesp who can be great in a spontaneous news conference, looked uncomfortable when making acceptance-speech rounds for "The Last King of Scotland." Producers taken by his performance suddenly had a chance to see another side of him.

An Oscar winner with ironclad credentials doesn't see much of an effect, one way or the other: Russell Crowe and Penn ("Gladiator" and "Mystic River," respectively) landed meaty roles before they won statuettes and continued to do so afterward.

But a look at other recent winners shows that winning an Oscar not only is no guarantee of success.

Jamie Foxx, Adrien Brody and Whitaker celebrated watershed career moments during the past six years when they won their first statuettes, but eye-catching roles haven't exactly flowed since then.

Foxx, nominated for the 2004 films "Collateral" and "Ray," has starred in a host of respectable action vehicles, including "Miami Vice" and "The Kingdom." But outside of a turn in "Dreamgirls," his career post-Oscar hasn't looked much different. He has scored big-budget roles but not necessarily parts with more prestige.

Brody made the most of his Oscar moment in 2003 with a liplock of Halle Berry. But he didn't make much of his win after the glow faded. Pre-Oscar, he landed lead roles in smaller movies or character roles in ensemble pieces ("Bread & Roses," "The Thin Red Line"). Since then, he has landed ... lead roles in smaller movies or character roles in ensemble pieces ("The Brothers Bloom," "The Darjeeling Limited"). His one big get, "King Kong," proved a mixed bag.

Whitaker remains one of the harder-workers around, but his win, by design or circumstance, has paid few dividends: He's starred in such middling thrillers as "Street Kings" and "Vantage Point."

So why is there this statute of limitations? "I think when you get the Oscar, it doesn't just change what roles are offered; it changes what roles you think you can get," one manager said.

In other words, while there might be more scripts, actors will seek precisely perfect parts -- eliminating the risk-taking that led to the Oscar-caliber role in the first place.

Talent reps note that for some actors, there's the more practical factor of moolah, with stars taking as many gigs as they can. The cash-out might explain the lack of follow-up hardware.

Rourke, winning after what he describes as "f***ing up my career for 15 years," already has been making up for lost time: He has signed on at least three projects since his awards run began. Those parts include Sylvester Stallone-directed actioner "The Expendables" for Millennium Pictures, an unlikely bit of Oscar bait.

As Rourke continues to point out, there's nothing sweeter for an actor on the awards circuit than a comeback. After an Oscar, though, there might be nothing more true than a comedown.
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