There is nothing in Hollywood, save for marrying Tom Cruise, that will boost your career more than winning an Academy Award.
That bald gold man ensures “Academy-Award Winning” is attached to your person for perpetuity in movie trailers, on posters, in commercials for probiotic yogurt and most importantly, in contracts—promising at least a 20% increase in your asking price for all future gigs.
Why then, would a young, up-and-coming starlet (let’s call her Anne Hathaway) want to lose out on this embarrassment of riches? Perhaps to save her relationship.
If you’ve never heard of the “Oscar Curse,” let me give you the elevator pitch. It’s a theory that actresses who win the award for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress are much more likely to lose their significant other following the big win.
The curse dates all the way back to 1935 when Claudette Colbert won Best Actress for playing Ellie Andrews in the screwball romantic comedy It Happened One Night, opposite Clark Gable. Colbert’s husband at the time was Norman Foster, a journalist turned mediocre actor who would eventually give up the craft to focus on directing. The awards were held on Feb. 27th of 1935 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. By August of that year the pair had split.
The moral of the story is either, 1) don’t win an award at something your husband is bad at; or 2) starring opposite Clark Gable could ruin you for all other men.
Other victims include Joan Crawford, who won Best Actress for her title role in Mildred Pierce in 1946. Her husband at the time was the terribly handsome, but sadly meh actor Phillip Terry. The Awards took place on March 7, 1946 and the pair were divorced just a month later.
Jane Wyman won Best Actress in 1949 for her role as a deaf-mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda. She split from her husband Ronald Reagan later that year. Luckily Ronnie had other strengths.
More recently audiences have watched as Charlize Theron split from her longtime partner Stuart Townsend in the wake of her 2005 win for Monster, Hilary Swank ended her marriage with Chad Lowe after her second Oscar win for Million Dollar Baby, Reese Witherspoon filed for divorce from husband Ryan Phillipe after her win for Walk the Line, and Sandra Bullock saw her marriage melt down with reality star Jesse James after her 2010 win for The Blind Side.
Best Supporting Actresses are not immune. Both Renee Zellweger and Jennifer Hudson split from their longtime loves, Jack White and James Payton respectively, shortly after their Oscar wins.
It’s enough make any newlywed root for Sally Field.
Hathaway was married last September to fellow actor Adam Shulman. Never heard of him? Neither has anyone else. Shulman’s credits include guest spots on “American Dreams” and “The West Wing” and an appearance in what appears to be a straight-to-DVD spinoff of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Relationships are hard. They can be harder when two people work in the same industry and share the same dreams and goals. They can be harder still when two people work in the same industry, share the same dreams and goals, and one is consistently gracing the covers of magazines, winning little gold men, and taking calls from Harvey Weinstein.
“Naturally, a women looks for someone to have traits that are more muscular than herself. That is not only about the looks and physical strength but also the amount of self-confidence, and being the provider, mentally and financially. The stress is on him to find ways to be the alpha in the relationship,” explains dating and relationship coach Israel Irenstein.
Irenstein notes that one party’s success can lead to a cloying co-dependency that makes the other increasingly unattractive. “If he feels lucky to even be there, then she will lose attraction,” he told me about the worst case scenario for the Hathaway-Shulman union.
There is also the public relations pressure of being with someone who is so much more famous than you are. In real life this can come in the form of people constantly bragging about your spouse’s achievements at a cocktail party and then forgetting your name or your mom asking about your significant other’s awesome job before she asks about your more mundane one.
“That kind of outside pressure can be poisonous, and once the relationship develops any kind of adversity that poison may kick in,” Irenstein says.
Unlike the Best Actor awards, which are usually given for a solitary role, the Best Actress awards are often given to a woman who is somehow “having a moment,” wherein her career has reached a serious turning point and there is no going back to the kind of work she did in the past.
Hollywood.com’s Brian Moylan chalks the “Oscar Curse” up to superstition—albeit superstition with a price.
But all superstition is bred from reality. Academy Award wins may not cause a relationship to end, but a relationship has a higher likelihood of suffering when the balance of power is disrupted, i.e. one party becomes hugely successful and the other stagnates.
It doesn’t just happen in Hollywood. More and more women are outshining their men in the professional arena these days. Dr. Gilda Carle, the “Today Show’s” 30-second therapist, says she sees the “Oscar Curse” happen in all walks of life, often leading to the erosion of communication and extramarital affairs to buffer the pain.
Take the married yoga gurus who grew apart once one became a super-guru with their own DVD series and left the other one to teach downward dog to Brooklyn mommies on a Monday afternoon. Or the longtime married lawyers who split when one became partner (she not he).
Elizabeth R., 34, says her relationship with her husband Derek began falling apart after she was promoted above him at the architectural firm where they both worked.
“I wasn’t his boss, but I was making decisions way above his pay-grade,” Elizabeth told me. “It seemed to emasculate him. After awhile we stopped talking about work…and then we stopped talking altogether.”
“The only way to prevent a relationship’s derailment is to talk out your feelings and fears,” Dr. Carle explains. “Sadly, few couples—famous and not so famous—choose to do that.”
To see a gallery of couples who’ve fallen victim to the Oscar Curse, click here.
Jo Piazza is the author of the upcoming novel, Love Rehab: A Novel in Twelve Steps.