According to the so-called “Oscar Curse,” revived in various media nearly every year, women awarded the “Best Actress” Oscar are doomed to suffer in their personal lives, and maybe even their professional lives, too. A few years ago, the New York Post, citing a few actresses who got divorced not long after winning—Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock, Halle Berry—compared the “Best Actress” list to a “roll call of romantic ruin.” But in spite of a few high-profile examples, the legend of the Oscar Curse may be more a sign of our discomfort with the idea of woman “having it all” than any actual correlation between winning an Oscar and getting divorced.
In a new paper in the journal Organization Science, Michael Jensen, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and Heeyon Kim, of the National University of Singapore, use statistical analysis to examine the consequences of winning an Academy Award on actors’ careers and personal lives. They found that an Oscar win or nomination had a positive effect on actresses’ careers, and—contrary to what proponents of the Oscar Curse would suggest—actually makes them less likely to get divorced.
Jensen and Kim’s research has its origins in a broader question: “When people suddenly move up in the status hierarchy”—like by winning an Oscar—“You’d expect it to be a positive event,” Jensen said. “But often you see that people do all kinds of crazy stuff. … Think of politicians who suddenly move into positions of power and then use that power in ways that are detrimental to themselves.” This pattern, as Jensen and Kim underline, applies to any number of situations.
To generate a sufficiently large and qualified sample of actors, Jensen and Kim created a list of about a thousand of the most successful films produced between 1930 and 2005, taking into account commercial success, as measured by box office revenue, as well as artistic recognition, based on Oscar nominations for Best Picture or Best Director. This yielded a sample of 808 “elite” screen actors, including 165 Oscar winners, 227 non-winning nominees, and 416 who had never been nominated.
In the five years following their Oscar recognition, nominees appeared in more films than non-nominees, and winners were cast even more often than nominees. And the halo conferred by an Oscar nod never fully dissipated: The number of yearly appearances declined at a slower rate for the rest of their careers.
But in the realm of the personal, the Oscar Curse may hold a grain of truth—but for men, not women. Winning or being nominated for an Oscar does appear to increase the risk of divorce, but only for male actors. Getting nominated or winning an Oscar actually seems to make women less likely to get divorced. Jensen and Kim calculated that, for men in their first year of marriage, the divorce rate is 96 percent higher for Oscar nominees and 205 percent higher for winners; for women in their first year of marriage, meanwhile, the divorce rate is 68 percent lower for nominees and 85 percent lower for winners. Jensen believes that men are less adept at handling the professional and romantic opportunities suddenly thrown their way. According to a Hollywood marriage counselor quoted in the study, “When you win an award like that, you get more offers than you could possibly deal with. It’s hard not to get caught up in it and to keep yourself grounded in a relationship.”
There’s one exception to the rule: If a couple is made up of two actors, and the Oscar is given to the woman, she is more likely than her non-winning peers to get divorced. According to Jensen, “Men have a harder time accepting that the spouse is more successful professionally.” Stars, they’re just like us.