The Tired Gun

Or: Why winning an Oscar sometimes means losing sight of a career

Tomei got into show business almost 17 years ago, when she was a 19-year-old regular on As the World Turns; a decade later, in March 1993, she was an Oscar-winner. But she soon enough found out that the statue makes a nifty doorstop. It meant absolutely nothing. Indeed, there are still those who think Jack Palance read the wrong name. Maybe he did it on purpose. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe he just didn't like Vanessa Redgrave, Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, or Miranda Richardson--the other nominees in the supporting actress category. Then again, maybe he was drunk. Tomei now refers to her Oscar as "beginner's luck."

In some ways, hers is a fate no different from that of other women awarded the same honor. Geena Davis, recipient for her work in The Accidental Tourist, is now slumming it in a sitcom so lowbrow, it needs subtitles for the literate. Gwyneth Paltrow, Miramax's golden girl after Shakespeare in Love, was seen not long ago sharing a karaoke machine with Huey Lewis. Brenda Fricker, winner for My Left Foot, has all but disappeared, and perhaps none has fallen lower than Ghost co-star Whoopi Goldberg, now the permanent center square in a game-show wasteland. Historically, the Oscar has not been kind to its supporting actresses, but only because there remain so few good roles for women not named Helen Hunt. What Kevin Spacey and Michael Caine and Denzel Washington see as a crossroads, most women accorded such acclaim find to be nothing but a dead end.

Worse, stories circulated throughout Hollywood that Tomei began acting like an Oscar-winner before she proved worthy of the accolades, that she preened like a diva who had yet to record a note, alienating studio bosses who wanted little to do with a fresh-faced prima donna. Whether such tales are true or merely the stuff of sexist rumor--what's deemed confidence in a man is considered bitchiness in a woman, and so forth--is hardly the point. Tomei will say only that she felt "burned"--by whom, she won't say--and that she made wrong choices, but only because they were all she was offered.

What Marisa wants are bigger and better parts: Tomei is the best thing about What Women Want.
What Marisa wants are bigger and better parts: Tomei is the best thing about What Women Want.

After she won the Oscar, she says, "I didn't feel supported, let's put it that way. I don't know what the hell I was thinking, but it's not a community of artists. There's no mentorship happening. It's kind of like, "Let's eat our young,' and I didn't really know that. You grapple with, "What the hell is going on? Why is this so painful?' You have to just go through it, like everything else in life.

"I have been poorly advised," she says, and her voice again becomes soft. "I have had bad representation, the wrong agent or whatever. Or there's nothing to pick from, so I pick from the best of the worst, and that's not good either."

Her voice rises again, and she sits up in her soft, white chair. Hers is the tone of voice of someone sick of feeling sorry for herself, at least for the moment.

"But...I get to work with my friends. I've worked with my friends a lot. I've worked with women I admire and respect. I've worked with people my own age, which I like a lot. I feel lucky in some ways, so maybe I wouldn't have designed it so differently."

She says the last thing as though it just struck her as an epiphany.

"I would have liked to have had more choices. I would have liked to pick exactly what I want. But I must say I loved a lot of the projects, and a lot of actors don't even have that." She smiles, this time like she means it.

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