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Oscar Shock: 5 Surprise Best Actors (And What Happened Next)

Oscar Shock: 5 Surprise Best Actors (And What Happened Next)

With the Academy Awards now just a week away, large doses of scrutiny are being shoved down the collective throats of the twinkling stars standing in line and hoping for their very own statuette.

Odds are that when the nominations are announced every year, there will be at least one somewhat surprising contender, whether he/she be an unknown, or simply dwells in an artistically shunned corner of the film world…no names mentioned, Jonah. What is more of a startling occurrence is when said unfancied also-ran is announced as the victor, with their Celebrity Square suddenly expanding, and their face contorted with disbelief and unguarded astonishment in front of millions of amazed viewers.

But just how often is the wild card winner the champion of the future? Is the bookie-breaking hero of the night getting the ultimate kick start into superstardom and legend, an easily carried poisoned chalice, or the destiny of a one hit wonder? Here are some shock Oscar winners, and just how well they coped trying to follow up their colossal coup.

Adrien Brody

Kicking off proceedings is Adrien Brody, who in 2003 became the youngest man to claim the Best Actor in a Leading Role gong, and whose shock win (over Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson, among others) was one of the most memorable, and eventful, moments in the history of the ceremony.

Earning the award for his whole-hearted, warts-and-all performance as Wladyslaw Spzilman in The Pianist, his first major role in a big-name picture, Brody had the distinction of collecting the prize at the first attempt, with his first nomination bringing gold, quite literally.

Only 29 at the time, and something of an unknown quantity in Hollywoodland, the house was brought down upon the announcement of his name, seeming to suggest the opening of a wonderful chapter in the doubtlessly talented actor’s career. Sadly, Brody has not been able to build on such a glittering crescendo, and has never been in the running since.

His next big film after The Pianist was M. Night Shylamalan’s The Village, a mystery thriller with promise but ultimately maligned for its gaps in logic, while The Jacket and King Kong also did him no favors, despite a strong turn in the former.

A return to indie roots for well received roles in The Darjeeling Limited and The Brothers Bloom would suggest a change in direction, but such notions were quashed by blockbuster hero roles in the forgettable trio of Predators and The Experiment, as well as 127 Hours knock-off Wrecked.

Ultimately, Brody’s career trajectory since that wonderful night ten years ago can be best described as underwhelming. Though never in bad form, and showing versatility with a number of varying archetypal roles and challenges, there has been no hit film and no hit role, instead a meandering series of off-kilter thrillers and warm but unmoving quirky pictures, a series of movies lacking focus and direction.

He was last seen in 2011’s Woody Allen effort Midnight in Paris (incidentally a nominee for Best Picture) as Salvador Dali, a performance that has earned him much praise, and much reminiscence for the part that made his name. It’s a sad indictment that such a turn simply reminds fans of his abilities, rather than reinforcing his standing as a top class actor.

Tatum O’Neal

From the youngest in one category, to the youngest in any; Tatum O’Neal made Oscar history by claiming Best Supporting Actress in 1974 for her role in Paper Moon, opposite her father Ryan, at the tender age of just ten years old.

Of course, the path of child actors in Hollywood is a hot point. For every Drew Barrymore or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, there’s a Macauley Culkin, Edward Furlong or, God forbid, a Brad Renfro. Some simply do not grow into adult roles, and some have a rougher ride than others.

For what its worth, O’Neal has managed to find a balance after a soured, not to mention highly publicized, adolescence. After Paper Moon, she continued the trend with roles in the likes of The Bad News Bears and Nickelodeon, before graduating to teenage fare in the late seventies and early eighties. Marriage to tennis star John McEnroe followed, along with the decline of her acting career. Revelations about her private life became better known then her films, with the bitterly familiar route of abuse and drugs prevalent. The parts became smaller, the films unnoticed.

The release of her autobiography, containing yet more harrowing and damaging claims, saw her estranged from her father amid a sea of depraved memoirs, a separation that would last for years before finally reconciling, via Oprah of all people. In the 00’s, O’Neal carved out a more secure living as a TV actress, with roles in Wicked Wicked Games and, more notably, Rescue Me.

Adding the pressure of such an early honor on the small shoulders of one so young, and already overwhelmed by the fantastical, dreamlike world of child acting, in the end very nearly crippled Tatum O’Neal, and although she never threatened to reach such heights again, it’s a happy circumstance that it didn’t prove to be fatal.

Cuba Gooding Jr.

Another hugely memorable awards night moment occurred in 1997, when Cuba Gooding Jr. equally delighted and bemused Hollywood bigwigs with his exuberant celebration upon receiving the Best Supporting Actor statuette, channeling the extravagance of his winning role as Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire.

After a series of peripheral supporting roles and forgettable slop, with the notable exception of his fine performance in Boyz in The Hood, Junior won over the starch collars with his energetic turn as an arrogant, flamboyant NFL star, setting a strongly laid path towards bigger and better things.

Things have not panned out as such, to put it mildly. While As Good As It Gets proved to be the surprise hit of 1997, its title proved to be dauntingly prophetic as far as Gooding Jr. was concerned. Lukewarm efforts in average pictures followed, leading towards a hugely damaging trilogy upon the turn of the century.

The noble but highly flawed Men of Honor gave Gooding Jr. the chance to play a real historical figure, Carl Brashear, in a film that proved to be a damp squib and a waste of a fine true life story, while a similar venture saw him portray the equally genuine Doris Miller in the utterly disastrous Pearl Harbor, a career torpedo for many involved. The same year’s Rat Race, a singularly unfunny and unloved wacky ensemble caper, sealed the deal of death.

Since then, it has been a barren working existence for the actor, mainly comprising second rate comedies and straight to video flops. 2008’s American Gangster saw him get back on the respectable horse, once again portraying a real person, this time crime lord Nicky Barnes, in a role that sparked hope of a comeback. It was, as yet, not forthcoming.

A series of bad, bad choices seems to have put paid to an acting career on an upward curve, which is now floundering in the doldrums of Walmart bargain baskets and late night cable TV fodder. A million miles from that glittering, infectiously loved up night on the red carpet, Gooding Jr.’s next project is One in the Chamber, an action movie with Dolph Lundgren; Quite an effective epitaph.

Marisa Tomei

Plucked from relative obscurity, Marisa Tomei stormed from the far reaches of television and B-Movie bit parts to wow and delight audiences and eventually secure Best Supporting Actress in surprise hit My Cousin Vinny in 1993, seeing off favorites Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson in the process.

It was an overnight ascent to the sharp focus of the glitz and glamour world of film, and one that would prove difficult to live down. Her position as a sought after performer was reinforced by parts in the ensembles Chaplin, The Paper and the misguided and bitterly unsuccessful Four Rooms. But, aside from the reasonable Welcome to Sarajevo, the rest of the 90’s proved a disappointment, degenerating into a string of TV movies and barely seen filler.

After moving back into the spotlight with the well grossing What Women Want, Tomei grabbed the collective attention of Hollywood once again with a darker role in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, earning a second Academy nomination in a performance arguably better than that which landed her the prize nine years earlier, far grittier and tough than cookie and charming.

From there on in, film roles proved to bigger and more credible, ranging from hit comedies such as Anger Management to the adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s Factotum. In 2009, Tomei received the third nomination of her career for her realistic, deeply human and thoughtful performance as an aging stripper in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.

In basic terms, the fallout of the role which bagged a shock Oscar can be summarized as inconsistent, at least in terms of exposure and success. It’s worth noting that despite her years in the wilderness, Tomei is a far more decorated actress than many of the more revered leading ladies of the screen, and her talents and skill set have increased and expanded. Despite occasionally threatening to disappear from our screens altogether, a series of mini revivals have rejuvenated and appropriately augmented her doubtless talents. Each of the three performances which earned her the noms vary hugely, yet all are attention grabbing.

Her solid work in this year’s The Ides of March and Crazy Stupid Love also show that this is no one hit wonder, and that the Brooklyn girl who stole many a red blooded male’s heart 19 years ago is still going strong.

Nicolas Cage

Seen as a wild card in Hollywood circles, crazy man Nicolas Cage’s deserved victory as Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1996 for his alcohol soaked, utterly convincing turn in Leaving Las Vegas established this Coppola family alumni as a leading player in the movie business, much to the surprise of those familiar with his oddball work in Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart.

To say that the Oscar he garnered put him firmly on the map is both accurate and also, in retrospect, ironically misleading. There’s no doubt that there is not a film fan or cinema-goer out there that has not encountered the name ‘Cage’, and heard it ‘roar’. However, this in turn manages to open another debate, about whether there’s such a thing as good bad fame.

Cage’s next step after the harrowing, soul baring Vegas was baffling in all quarters, with the conversion from insanity driven character acting into tragic leading man being scrapped in favor of a three pronged assault on the senses in the form of newly found action man heroics.

The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off heralded a new chapter in Cage’s career, and in so many ways they would signal its descent. The 90’s trailed off with more disposable pieces like 8mm, Bringing Out the Dead and Gone in Sixty Seconds, casting him as an unlikely ‘badass’ type.

Aside from a brief revival with Adaptation, which netted him his second nomination in a great dual role as writer Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin Donald, and the cult hit Matchstick Men, the 00’s proved even more miserable. Poor performances in bad films followed, with substandard fodder like The Wicker Man Remake, Knowing, Season of the Witch and Justice threatening to turn him into a laughing stock. But, in the typical enigmatic style of Nick C, there was room for a standout effort in the chaotic remake of Bad Lieutenant. It serves as a footnote that the talent is not gone, but that the passion seemingly has.

While some were afflicted, some had poor judgment and others lacked the luck or opportunity, for the most part Cage, the one who came out the biggest, simply doesn’t seem to give a crap.


Scott Patterson