Sunday, March 10, 2024

Flashback 2012: Are Oscar winners cursed? Only to overly credulous media

     What goes around, comes around. As in 2012, we've been without snow so long that we've forgotten what it's like. And it's Oscar time, again. This column from a dozen years ago recently popped up in my Facebook feed, and I thought I'd run it today, to get you in the mood for the Academy Awards. 

     Thus Chicagoans awoke to the indignity of snow Friday morning. Snow in February! Imagine that! Two whole inches and we can’t hope to see the sun until Saturday, with balmier, mid-40s temperatures not returning until the next day. The indignity of it.
    Admit it — you were feeling sorry for yourself. I sure was. I was almost offended, as if this weren’t allowed anymore, and somebody slipped up. Half a warm winter and we fancy that winter has been outlawed.

Odd people II

     Strange indeed. People also automatically embrace the most extreme explanation, ignoring less flashy causes. A streak in the sky? Must be a mother ship from the space aliens who constantly hover around the periphery of our vision, keeping tabs on us.
     Some of this is biological. There was little downside to seeing a murky shape in the dark and thinking, "Bear!" It served us a whole lot better, in evolutionary terms than shrugging and thinking, "Oh well, must be a bush." Those folks tended not to survive.
     We are machines of innate exaggeration.
     Still — "The Oscar Curse" — really?
     "A mysterious jinx that has plagued past winners of the golden statuette," reported last week. "While logic would dictate that winning Hollywood’s most prestigious award should catapult its winner into the A-list, the sad fact is that many Oscar-winning performers have seen their career trajectories plummet."
     Mysterious? Sometimes I’m ashamed to be a journalist, they can be so credulous. The notion has been repeated again and again in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s Oscars.
     None of the stories I saw breathed a whisper of what is really happening, perhaps because that would take actual logical, or rather, statistical, thinking. Two concepts.
     First, "Regression to the Mean." If there is an average performance — say the typical baseball batting average is .261 — and you excel, say one season hitting .350, then your subsequent performance will tend to deteriorate toward the average, to preserve it.
     So if you flip a coin and it come up heads five times in a row, while the odds are always 50-50 on your next flip, at some point you’ll likely have a run of tails, since the odds of heads will gravitate toward 50 percent.
     Thus, if the vast majority of movies are garbage — and they sure are — and an actor appears in an exceptional movie (the kind that generate Academy Awards) then the odds are greater that the actor will return to trash as opposed to somehow magically being projected into another great movie.
     The second concept at work here is non-random sampling. A piece last week in RedEye singled out five actors who were supposedly "curse victims" — Halle Berry, Cuba Gooding Jr., Roberto Benigni, Reese Witherspoon and Mira Sorvino — and cited their Oscar-winning performances and their subsequent dogs.
     They seemed to think that proves their point: Look! Halle Berry was in "Gothika" after she won an Oscar for "Monster’s Ball."
       The story didn’t mention that Berry was in plenty of lousy movies before winning her Academy Award. How can "X-Men: The Last Stand" be offered up as evidence of the curse when Berry also appeared in the nearly-as-bad "X-Men" prior to winning?
     You could just as easily gather together five actors who won Oscars and didn’t immediately appear in lousy movies. Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar in 1967 for "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" and won again the next year for "The Lion in Winter." Meryl Streep was nominated for 17 Academy Awards and won twice, and while Margaret Thatcher fans might grumble about her latest, you can’t say she’s been in a bad film.
     The Oscar Curse is like the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx or the sophomore slump, a fun fallacy reported as fact by those who should know better. If you excel now you’ll tend — on average — to slip later. Maybe that’s too sad a truth to report unvarnished.
     — Originally published in the Sun-Times, February 24, 2012


  1. Mary originally from HometownMarch 10, 2024 at 12:40 AM

    I am a transplanted Midwesterner, living West of the Chicago, Mississippi, and Colorado Rivers.

    Still wish I lived in Chicago, North of Bryn Mawr and East of Western.

    Your entry for Sunday March 10th is a gem.
    Calling out supposed stars, and their Hollywood mentality regarding "the Oscars" has been done before, but it certainly bears repeating,

    I love films, seldom see any at theaters, but stream on a laptop.
    It works well for me.

    I gave up watching the Oscars many years ago due to their organization continually choosing certain entertainment industry members as recipients, and somehow inexplicably ignoring others whose obvious talents are well known to the general public.

    Thanks for your efforts at clearing up what ought to be apparent to all.

    My real reason of commentating was to aplaud anyone who has little professional or

    1. North of Bryn Marr and East of Western would put you in Rosehill Cemetery.

    2. You beat me to it...I was about to say the same. I lived in Chicago and the northern suburbs (Evanston and Skokie) for 36 years. Never once went inside the walls of Rosehill Cemetery, although I always wanted to...very much. I mistakenly believed that you needed a gate pass or something. My loss. And from what I've heard and been told, a big one.

      Old cemeteries are such inviting and enjoyable places to spend time, weird as that sounds. Looking at the headstones and wondering about the lives the residents led. Seeking out the history of your town, and the famous, and the infamous. Enjoying the quietude of the pastoral and parklike grounds.

      Northeast Ohio has quite a few such places. I partake of them often. Of course, such visits also evoke melancholy feelings, and somber thoughts. But I'll not go there. Not today, anyway.

      The Oscars? Meh. Feh. Haven't watched that circus in fifty years. Got tired of the back-patting and the butt-kissing a long time ago. Don't care at all for Hollywood, no longer enjoy what it produces, and I have neither the time nor the tolerance for any of today's so-called celebrities...and whatever it is they do, either on-screen or off.

      Have always had but one question about celebrities: Exactly what the hell are we "celebrating" here, anyway?

    3. That's a shame. Rosehill is quite beautiful. In my younger days, when I thought I would be A Chicago Writer, I wanted to be buried there. Now I'll be glad to be with my wife's family in Des Plaines, or wherever the heck that cemetery is.

    4. My wife and I made arrangements for cremation last March. A huge relief, to be honest.

      Used to think about scattering my ashes into the Wrigley ivy. The Cubs now take a very dim view of such many people have illicitly done it over the years that the custom has actually blighted the ivy itself. So she can dump them into Lake Erie for all I care, or maybe at a park bench with my name on it.

      Or she can do it the Irish widow's way...put them into an hourglass on the mantel. Then her ne'er-do-well spouse will finally have a good steady job.

    5. There are regular tours of Rosehill. I took one years ago, it was great. As you enter, there's circle of cannons surrounding a flag. They're cannons made in Richmond for the traitors of the Confederacy, captured by an Illinois regiment. There are thousands of graves of Civil War vets there. There's one grave I saw marked by only a small metal disk that's now partially embedded in an asphalt roadway that says that man received the Medal of Honor in the Civil War. At the Northeast corner is a tall obelisk that's the grave of Long John Wentworth, the mayor in the 1850s. He didn't want his name on it, so people would have to ask whose grave it was, but his family put it on there anyways.

    6. One can be north of Bryn Mawr and east of Western and not be in Rosehill. While I've been in about a dozen Catholic cemeteries searching for ancestors, I've not been in Rosehill. Mt. Carmel has half the characters from The St. Valentine's Day Massacre and I once met a couple of New Yorkers who came there to smoke a cigar with Al Capone. The grass was worn away at the foot of his headstone, and they were not the first fans there that day. They had to wait their turn.

  2. So the warning against peaking too soon?

  3. I guess you missed the "new curse" in Hollyweird.
    It turns out that everyone who was in that stupid selfie with the host Ellen Degeneres several years ago is now cursed.
    They're really stupid about these things:

  4. Hey Neil, here's a Substack link to an article about language, about words, that I happened across after reading about those dreary conspiracy theories.

    As a man of words I think you'll enjoy it:

  5. I've always liked wandering around old cemeteries which I thought was kind of weird or morbid. I was attending a dinner meeting once with several vendor's customers when one mentioned enjoying visiting old cemeteries and I blurted out "Oh I thought I was the only weirdo for liking old cemeteries so much." My brother moved from San Fran to Healdsburg, about 70 miles north. My SIL took me around to area and we wound up in a very old cemetery. There were a group of white headstones, a whole family. The father's headstone said something like "John Smith who came across the prairie from Ohio with his family in 1845...". I can't remember the rest but found it so moving. And so many children's headstones. And there's the Mission Dolores cemetery in SF which is just beautiful. I've since come across many people who enjoy cemeteries, old or new.

    1. My grandfather died 12 years before I was born. I never knew him. Near his grave, in a suburban Jewish cemetery, stands a huge headstone, the size of a small car. There rests a whole family...both parents and two teen-age daughters. They all died on the Near West Side, on Christmas Day of 1908. Too early for a car wreck. Maybe a train wreck? A fatal fire? Took me fifty years to finally find a newspaper story that revealed the cause of their deaths.

      Their living quarters, behind a storefront, had no electricity. Just gaslight. The merchant father closed up on Christmas Eve, and then hung his coat on a gas jet before hitting the hay.. The weight of it cracked the gas pipe. The escaping gas killed all four family members in their beds.

      Two Chicago papers from December 26th had widely differing accounts of this tragedy, and even different names for the victims. One stated that two young sons had survived by being elsewhere, while the other never mentioned any additional kids. Perhaps it was not uncommon for Chicago police reporters on deadline to just make stuff up. Fake news, 1908 style. What the hell, just another sob story about poor immigrants, right? That headstone haunts me to this day. Who put it up? A customer? Those nameless sons?


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.