Hilary Swank: Lisa O'Conner/Zuma Press
March 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Is Oscar a curse for actresses?

As some journalists would have it, woe to the actress who wins an Academy Award, since it seems a tactful way of saying, ”Congratulations on the one great star turn you’ll ever have. Now, welcome to Loserville.”

Consider Marisa Tomei’s Supporting Actress win for ”My Cousin Vinny” (1992), and Mira Sorvino’s three years later for a similarly kooky voiced role in ‘Mighty Aphrodite.” And think of Marlee Matlin’s triumph in ”Children of a Lesser God.” Here were three very young actresses who hit high points early and then struggled, in different ways and for different reasons, to match them.

But to relegate this trend to a curse is to completely discount the important factors at work: Just as certain novelists have one great novel in them, followed by a lot of drivel, so too can some actresses, limited in other ways, be capable of hitting one note, and hitting it brilliantly. And some critics would argue that Sorvino has the opposite problem: A virtuoso at accents, dialects, and disguises, she has never established her ever changing image in the public imagination long enough to become a Gwyneth style icon.

But more malevolent, I would argue, is the story that’s less sexy than a so called curse and, annoyingly, more true: There just aren’t a lot of great parts for women. Hilary Swank, last year’s Best Actress winner, could not have been more deserving of all the acclaim she received for ”Boys Don’t Cry,” but even if she’s brilliant in her next three films, the chances that the scripts will be as artful as ”Boys Don’t Cry” are next to nothing. Ditto for Holly Hunter’s hope of making another ”Piano.” Their wins honored not only the greatness of the actresses’ performances, but the roles themselves.

The reality is, while Hollywood is getting better about making room for female executives, the screen is not yet reflecting the change. If there had been a film about a woman marooned on a deserted island, you can bet the role — and the reviews — would have been as much about how good her ass looked in a bikini as how well she conversed with a volleyball. Ditto an epic about a female gladiator (”but did she fill out the breastplate?”). As for a Marquesa De Sade? I shudder at the thought.

There are, without a doubt, as many talented actresses as actors. But when you have to deal with ageism and sexism in ways that Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson couldn’t imagine, you’re already severely limited; assuming you want to work, well, it’s enough to make you understand what the Goddess of all Goddesses, Michelle Pfeiffer — a three time Oscar nominee — was doing trembling her way through ”What Lies Beneath.”

Still, there are exceptions: Emma Thompson, Judi Dench, and Holly Hunter, to name three. But to prosper after taking home their little golden men, they had to carefully navigate Hollywood by: a) taking on increasingly mature roles, b) being content as character actresses, and c) working on TV. Who knows, this year’s likely winner, $20 million dollar woman Julia Roberts, may be have the box office clout to change the old rules — but until that happens, we’d advise her to steer clear of broken mirrors and black cats.

Read All About Oscar 2001 for EW.com’s comprehensive Academy Awards coverage.

Or see photos from the nominated movies at People.com

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