How Oscars Ruin a Marriage
Is the ultimate honor for women in Hollywood the ultimate castration for men?
For those who have to trail their leading ladies on red carpets and watch from their seats as those ladies make teary-eyed acceptance speeches, an Oscar win is, indeed, very often the latter. Just look at history. In 1938, after Jane Wyman won an Oscar for her performance in Johnny Belinda, she and Ronald Reagan divorced, causing the would-be president to quip, "Maybe I should name 'Johnny Belinda' as co-respondent.'"
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Which is why it's not a total shocker that just days after Sandra Bullock won her first Academy Award, and professed to Barbara Walters how much she loved her husband, biker bad boy Jesse James ("I never knew what it was like for someone to have my back"), reports surfaced that James has, rather, been going behind Bullock's back with a tattoo model who refers to him as the Vanilla Gorilla and wears patent leather pumps to bed. Though not officially confirmed, something unsettling seems afoot: On Wednesday, Bullock bowed out of the upcoming U.K. premiere of The Blind Side, which caused Warner Bros. to cancel the event.
If the "Vanilla Gorilla" story proves to be true, James wouldn't be the first plus one to act up when the limelight shines a little too brightly on his spouse—particularly when that success involves a little golden man. Just months after Reese Witherspoon won a Best Actress Oscar for Walk the Line, she and hubby Ryan Phillippe broke up after Phillippe was caught fooling around on the set of Stop-Loss with the then-unknown Abbie Cornish. (At the Golden Globes that year, where Witherspoon also won, when a reporter quipped to Phillippe, "Congratulations, you're the big winner," I watched as he replied coldly, "My wife is the winner." And two years after Halle Berry took home gold for Monster's Ball, she and R&B singer Eric Benét filed for divorce following allegations that Benét was unfaithful.
Then there was Hilary Swank, who split with the less-blessed Chad Lowe after her second Oscar win (for Million Dollar Baby). Ditto for Helen Hunt and Hank Azaria; and sweethearts (but not married) Julia Roberts and Benjamin Bratt. The latest Oscar curse casualties, it was announced this week, are Kate Winslet and director Sam Mendes, who have separated a year after she received her first Academy Award for The Reader, and he went home empty-handed for Revolutionary Road.
The dynamic of a woman's success—in the form of a bigger paycheck or other accolade—straining a marriage to the point of divorce is not limited to Hollywood, but the situation is more acute in a culture where success isn't always a tangible commodity, and is also, thanks to the media, extremely public.
"In Hollywood, so much of life is if you're up or down, or if you're powerful or not—to not feel united on the home front can be devastating, if there are all these jealousies or feelings of insecurity," said Hilary Black, the author of The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships.
"And I think there's a true cultural expectation implanted in people's minds, unconsciously or consciously, where men feel obligated to be more successful. That can put a lot of pressure on a marriage. People talk of this gender-equity game that's the result of a post-feminism culture, but I think that a lot of these people grew up watching the man be more successful."
"Money equals sex equals masculinity," said New York divorce lawyer Raoul Felder, who says, more or less, that the Cave Man culture still prevails. "Many men find it demeaning and emasculating when they're outdone by their spouse. It doesn't play well at the bowling alley to be second to the wife."
The situation is worse, he said, for stars, because "celebrities have very fragile egos." Compounding the problem is that "they live for whatever shows up in the news—that's their reality."
This certainly seemed to be the case on the red carpet at the Academy Awards this month, when Matthew Broderick was glumly trailing his wife Sarah Jessica Parker as the Sex and the City star was fawned over by the paparazzi and fashion police. The questions thrown Broderick's way inevitably had to do with his fabulous wife.
“Matthew Broderick was looking miserable the whole time,” said Beverly Hills psychiatrist and author Carole Lieberman, about Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker’s recent red-carpet appearance.
"He was looking miserable the whole time," said Beverly Hills psychiatrist and author Carole Lieberman. "She didn't win anything, but she has a big movie coming out, and she was just walking the red carpet where she was the main attraction. That may well doom that marriage."
Needless to say, one can't imagine less-famous spouses like Kate Capshaw (Mrs. Steven Spielberg), Rita Wilson (Mrs. Tom Hanks) or Jada Pinkett Smith (first lady to Will) displaying such poutiness.
According to Lieberman, the typical reaction for a man who feels professionally threatened, and thus insecure in a relationship, is to cheat. When a woman edges ahead, "the man's unconscious fear is that now that their partner is so much more successful, she is going to leave him. So what they do is cheat, that's typical, because they're angry. They're already angry for the rejection that they're anticipating."
Infidelity is "a way of taking control and not letting the woman leave them; to not have it be her decision."
"It's primordial," Lieberman continued, "and with celebrities, the idea of being broken up with is so much more devastating and humiliating because it's so public… So they need to show the world that 'I cheated.''
Hence the tawdry details about James' alleged months-long, sexaholic affair that began while Bullock was filming The Blind Side.
Ironically, this blight of embittered male egos resulting in marital discord—which feels as quaint as the 1954 film about this very subject, A Star Is Born—comes at a time when not only are more women marrying men with lower education and income levels than their own, but more of those marriages are working.
According to a Pew Research Center survey focused on American men and women between the ages of 30 and 44, in 2007, 22 percent of husbands were married to wives whose income levels exceeded their own, compared to 4 percent of husbands in 1970. And nearly a third of marriages, it's the wife who is more educated.
Marcia Reynolds, author of the upcoming Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, buys into the theory that more men are happy to be the co-pilot and emotional ballast as opposed to the alpha breadwinner in a marriage.
Indeed, Reynolds recently wrote an essay remarking on how Bullock and James epitomized this kind of relationship where the husband "stands by the side of his partner, not in front of her or behind her."
When told about James' possible bad behavior, Reynolds was disheartened, but said, "I guess maybe there could be a breaking point in that men will accept women for who they are to an extent. I hate for that to be true, but I'm sure you can look at it that way. It's too bad."
She then recalled how, in the Barbara Walters interview, when Walters joked about James being "Mr. Bullock," Bullock quickly interjected. "Oh, he'll never be Mr. Bullock."
No. Most likely, he won't be.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.