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When he won the best actor Oscar for his role in the Holocaust film The Pianist, Adrien Brody planted a passionate - and shocking - kiss on the lips of Halle Berry. It was a moment that connected them in more ways than the locking of lips. It has been five years now, and the movie world is still waiting for Brody to find a role equal to his 2002 star turn.
Brody, who co-stars alongside Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman in Wes Anderson's new movie, The Darjeeling Limited, is not alone. The Oscar landscape is chock-full of actors and actresses who reached the pinnacle of their profession when they captured the golden statuette - and then find themselves faced with the pressure to follow with an equally brilliant performance.
And public opinion can be swift - and cruel - when that doesn't happen.
"Winning an Oscar puts a huge spotlight on your career," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking company Media by Numbers. "It raises expectations and suddenly what an Oscar implies is that you are the best of the best.... It creates the expectation that you will do Oscar-worthy work."
Berry would know. She won best actress for 2001's Monster's Ball, only to follow that a few films later with the likes of Catwoman and Perfect Stranger. The critics pounced and seemed to relish the opportunity to shred both movies and Berry's performances. She has been struggling to find her footing since, but don't count her out yet - there is early awards season buzz building for her new movie, Things We Lost in the Fire.
Then there's Helen Hunt, so charming as the waitress who deals with the irascible Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets; she has yet to recapture the glow of that 1997 performance. Kevin Spacey, who delivered an absorbing and Oscar-winning performance as a suburban father in a mid-life crisis in the 1999 black comedy American Beauty, also has had trouble reaching those heights again.
One of the biggest puzzles is Cuba Gooding Jr., who won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for the 1996 film Jerry Maguire.
"This is a guy who, in Jerry Maguire, set the world on fire," Dergarabedian said. "He stole the movie." But follow-up films such as Snow Dogs, Boat Trip and, most recently, Daddy Day Camp have left his fans scratching their heads.
Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor, said some actors, like Joe Pesci, never demonstrated great acting range. "My Cousin Vinny and Goodfellas and Raging Bull, he's perfect in all of them. But there isn't a whole lot of difference (among them). He's still sort of playing the same guy in different variations," Rainer said.
He said some actors simply wear out their welcome in doing characters that are all too familiar. One prime example, he said, was Olympia Dukakis, who won best supporting actress for Moonstruck (1988) but who plays "the same kind of role over and over again in lesser movies."
Some actors are perceived as difficult to work with, Rainer added, and that might be a factor in why they don't get enough quality roles. But even when they're not, actors who find themselves in the role of a lifetime have difficulty migrating to other great film roles.
Film historian and critic David Thomson points to F. Murray Abraham, who won the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of the revenge-minded Salieri in 1984's Amadeus, and Patty Duke, who won a supporting actress Oscar for her role as a young Helen Keller in 1962's The Miracle Worker, as two such examples. "Louise Fletcher won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but she never really followed through. I think sometimes the parts win Oscars. They are the kind of parts that if you do well in it somebody is going to win the Oscar for it."
But these parts are sometimes so edgy, so extreme, so unusual, that they don't "give any indication how you would cast that person in the future," Thomson said. That's what happened in Brody's case, he said. "I think he's one of those people who is quite edgy and difficult to cast.... I think it's always likely that he's going to need special parts, unusual parts."
Dergarabedian mused that perhaps being nominated for an Oscar might be better for an actor's career than winning. He also noted that Brody won his Oscar for a small film, and that any expectations for him to carry a movie might be unfair.
"He never postured himself as 'I'm the best actor winner in a $100-million hit.' He won for a small film."
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