Best Actress Oscar a precursor to divorce, U of T researchers say

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Newly engaged Natalie Portman may have reason to be nervous about her prospects for an Academy Award this month, after a new Canadian study confirmed the so-called "Oscar Curse," which says celebrity marriages are more likely to crumble after a wife wins Best Actress.Researchers from the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and Carnegie Mellon University studied more than 751 Oscar nominees from 1936 to 2010, and found the marriages of Best Actress winners were significantly shorter than those of either their fellow female nominees or their Best Actor counterparts.

Among married Oscar winners, 60 per cent later got divorced. The marriages of Best Actress winners lasted just 4.3 years, compared to 9.5 years for actresses who were nominated for an Oscar but lost. There was little difference among male actors: the average marriage for both a Best Actor winner and a nominee was about 12 years.

The researchers accounted for the age of the celebrities - women tended to be younger when they won Oscars than men - along with whether their husbands were also rich and famous.

From Katharine Hepburn, who divorced her husband a year after winning her first Oscar in 1933, to Sandra Bullock, who split from philandering Jesse James within days of winning last year's Best Actress award, the study found that famous actresses haven't avoided the challenges faced by other high-achieving women: the more successful they are, the more their marriages seem to suffer.

"I think it shows more that celebrities can learn something from how normal people lead their lives," said co-author Tiziana Casciaro, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the Rotman School of Management.

"You would expect that these rarefied elites are maybe perhaps immune to some of the patterns we see in normal people, but we didn't see that. The differences are less striking than one might have expected."

Traditional gender roles favour men who make more money and have more important jobs than their wives, she said. But when a woman gets a huge career and salary boost, such as by winning an Oscar, that can cause tension in the marriage.

"Both men and women may feel uncomfortable," Casciaro said. "It just doesn't feel natural; it feels forced in some way, and that can have many, many manifestations, like the small things, such as who does the household chores."

At the same time, women might find that career success gives them the chance to escape a bad marriage, she said.

"It might not so much be a curse, but a good thing, if you find someone who makes you happier."

Steady rate

Interestingly, the researchers found that divorce rates among Best Actress winners have always been high, even in the 1930s and '40s, when divorce was less common among the general public.

Although most of the Oscar-winning celebrities had relatively short marriages, the researchers found that the older they were when they won, the longer their marriages lasted. Oscar winners who had children with their spouses were also less likely to get divorced.

While recent Oscar-winners Halle Berry, Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon split up after revelations that their husbands had been caught cheating, the study didn't examine why so many famous women got divorced.

Infidelity came up often, but it wasn't the only reason, the researchers said.

"Some people are very tempted to just say success is a bad thing for these women, because their husbands will cheat on them," said Colleen Stuart, a Canadian post-doctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University.

"We're not confident that is necessarily what is going on," Stuart said.

Organizations: Rotman School of Management, Carnegie Mellon University

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