Academy has an uneasy time with box-office names

Academy Award voters aren't shy about nominating superstars such as Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts for showy roles in films like "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Pretty Woman." But proclaiming big stars winners is another story. On awards night, both of them had their hopes quashed by the lesser-known actors--Daniel Day-Lewis (1990) in "My Left Foot" and Kathy Bates (1991) in "Misery."

Cruise and Roberts, box-office royalty for more than a decade, have earned other nominations--Cruise for "Jerry Maguire" and "Magnolia," Roberts for "Steel Magnolias"--but neither has yet claimed a chunk of academy gold. Most observers predict Roberts will finally get her due this year, but nothing is guaranteed at the Academy Awards, of course, as Cruise learned when Newsweek said he was a cinch to win for "Fourth of July." And if Roberts does prevail this year, the question remains: Why did she have to wait so long?

Roberts is not alone. Paul Newman didn't get an Oscar until his seventh nomination--"The Color of Money" (1986). Ditto for Al Pacino--"Scent of a Woman" (1992). Both fared better than poor Jim Carrey. His house could sink under the weight of the Golden Globe, People's Choice and Blockbuster awards on his mantel, but his Oscar fate is no laughing matter: He's never even been nominated.

"I'll probably have to accept my Oscar from my seat by the time I get it!" he once quipped to reporters. "I'll have to get somebody else to go up there as I slobber over myself!"

Why are Oscar voters so tough

on the most successful stars but think nothing of giving awards to total strangers like first-time nominees F. Murray Abraham, Ben Kingsley, Hilary Swank, Anna Paquin, Marlee Matlin, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and many others?

The most common suspicion is jealousy, the belief that voters are stingy about giving filthy-rich actors more gold that they don't need. But "Entertainment Tonight" and Playboy critic Leonard Maltin poses another theory: "I think Oscar voters simply take some stars for granted."

Robert Osborne, author of "70 Years of the Oscar," agrees: "I've always felt that the reason Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck and Greta Garbo never won an Oscar was because they were never bad. It's a penalty you pay for being too good, too seamless. Also, superstars are so familiar to us, they're like family."

So far, Jim Carrey, above, and Tom Cruise have been given Oscar's cold shoulder. So has Julia Roberts, though many think her luck may change tonight.

Oscar red-carpet sentry Joan Rivers suspects another factor might play a role too. "They're just too beautiful," she says. "Hollywood secretly thinks: They're too pretty to be taken seriously. . . . They're not up there on the screen because they're actors."

In 1958, Newman managed to transcend his reputation as the buff, blue-eyed star of "Somebody Up There Likes Me" and "The Long Hot Summer" when he starred opposite Elizabeth Taylor in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." The role earned him his first Oscar nomination. Variety had cheered Newman's "cynical underacting [and] command of the articulate, sensitive sequences" in the role, but he didn't have a prayer of beating David Niven ("Separate Tables") at that year's Oscar bout. Niven had already been hailed as best actor by the New York Film Critics Circle and Golden Globes, so Newman skipped the ceremony.

Newman attended the festivities for his next nomination, for "The Hustler" in 1961, but he lost to a stunned Maximilian Schell ("Judgment at Nuremberg"). Schell confessed to the press backstage, "I thought Paul Newman would win!"

Everybody thought Newman would win two years later when he was up for "Hud." "The academy might as well give him an Oscar right now and get it over with," declared the New Yorker when the film premiered. But he continued to suffer a string of bizarre defeats through "Cool Hand Luke" (1967), "Absence of Malice" (1981) and "The Verdict" (1982). He was present for all of those snubs and had had enough.

In 1986, it didn't matter that every Oscar pundit on the planet declared him a shoo-in for "The Color of Money"; he stayed home on gala night. He told the Associated Press that his courtship of the prize was "like chasing a beautiful woman for 80 years. Finally, she relents and you say, 'I'm terribly sorry. I'm tired.' "

When Newman finally hit the jackpot for "Money," it was because it was time, says Joel Siegel, entertainment reporter for "Good Morning America." "The voters were playing a game of catch-up, just like they're doing this year with Julia Roberts."

Siegel says that the problem with Roberts in the past was "we got used to seeing her in light comedies in which the acting wasn't obvious. It didn't matter that she was brilliant in them--or if she makes 20 great movies like 'Pretty Woman.' She makes one 'Erin Brockovich' and she's gonna win because of the serious substance involved."

The reputation of Oscar voters frowning on comedies is also why Carrey hasn't won, Maltin says. "But it isn't fair. Any actor will tell you that doing comedy is harder in many ways than acting in a drama, yet the academy rarely honors a comedic performance. The people who do it well make it look too easy."

Siegel agrees and adds, fuming, "Why hasn't Eddie Murphy ever won an Oscar? Eddie Murphy should've been nominated twice for 'Bowfinger'--for best actor and best supporting actor--for playing two parts! He was terrific in that!

"And Cary Grant!" Siegel adds. "Oscar voters never appreciated his genius as a comic actor!" Grant did receive two nominations for serious dramatic roles--as a doomed father in "Penny Serenade" (1941) and as a Cockney drifter in "None But the Lonely Heart" (1944)--but he ended up losing to superstars in blockbusters (Gary Cooper in "Sergeant York," Bing Crosby in "Going My Way," respectively).

Sometimes superstars do win Oscars for the films that made them famous (Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret," Barbra Streisand in "Funny Girl"), but, if they miss that boat, they often have a hard time getting on board again.

Oscar voters often take their time getting around to rewarding superstars and other enduring favorites, and then are forced to play catch-up.

That's what happened to Albert Finney in 1963 when he played the bed-hopping hero of "Tom Jones." At the time, Finney was a sudden superstar, also the toast of Broadway for "Luther," and was considered a shoo-in for best actor. But he lost to Sidney Poitier, who won for "Lilies of the Field," because, says Siegel, "voters felt guilty for not giving it to him earlier for 'The Defiant Ones.' "

After that, Finney suffered "just plain, simple bad luck," Siegel adds. He lost races for what Siegel calls Finney's greatest roles: as ego-mad, master thespian in "The Dresser" (1983) and drunken diplomat in "Under the Volcano" (1984). "Those were the days before the studios sent out videotapes to voters. Nobody saw those films," Siegel says. The winners turned out to be the stars of two more widely seen pics: Robert Duvall ("Tender Mercies") and F. Murray Abraham ("Amadeus").

Finney had lost an earlier Oscar when he was nominated for his turn as Hercule Poirot in "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974) because, Siegel says, voters "thought it was time to catch up with another veteran actor--Art Carney in 'Harry and Tonto.' "

There's a feeling that this year voters may want to catch up with Finney.

"It's hard to tell in Finney's case because he lives far away in London and has never really worked much in Hollywood," Osborne says. "You can feel the warmth" in town for local gal Roberts, he adds.

The voters' desire to bestow catch-up awards to beloved veteran stars is one of the reasons that Marlon Brando lost in 1952, according to Osborne. "Brando was the new, hot kid on the block" when he arrived in Hollywood aboard the hit "A Streetcar Named Desire," Osborne says, but Brando lost to "a true superstar who was overdue"--Humphrey Bogart ("The African Queen"). Voters finally caught up with Brando on his fourth nomination, when he won for "On the Waterfront" (1954).

Pacino shared Brando's bad luck in the best actor race when he was nominated for the first time, in 1974. "Pacino should've won for 'Serpico,' " Siegel says, "but that year it was time for Jack Lemmon's career achievement award in 'Save the Tiger.' By the time Pacino won, it was a catch-up award for 'Scent of a Woman.' "

Lemmon deserved to win best actor long before he finally did so, Siegel says. He did win an Oscar in 1956--in the supporting race for "Mister Roberts," a movie that vaulted him into lead-star status. But over the next two decades, the best actor statuette remained elusive, although Lemmon was nominated for what Siegel calls his greatest roles.

" 'Some Like It Hot' is the best comedy that Hollywood ever made!" Siegel insists. "Why didn't Lemmon win an Oscar for that? Or 'The Apartment'? What a wonderful piece of acting! But, no, he won for playing a serious role against type in 'Save the Tiger,' which was a good movie, but, come on, if you're gonna give Jack Lemmon a best actor Oscar for one movie, it's not going to be for 'Save the Tiger.' The same is true for Pacino in 'Scent of a Woman.' "

Lemmon, a bona fide superstar by 1973, seemed, like Newman, to have given up hope of receiving the top Oscar by the time he finally got it. As he took the statuette in hand, he looked befuddled and said to the audience full of his suddenly smitten peers, "I had a speech prepared--in 1959--but I've forgotten it.' *

Tom O'Neil is the author of Variety's "Movie Awards" (Perigee Books), a just-published roundup of the Oscars, Golden Globes and 11 others. He's also the host of www.goldderby.com, where top pundits predict who'll win the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys and Golden Globes.

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