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And The Award For Worst Career After An Oscar Win Goes To …

With the Oscars less than two weeks away, we have a pretty good notion of who’s going to win the top acting prizes. Brie Larson (“Room”) has pulled together most of the top pre-Oscar acting prizes that have historically predicted the best actress Academy Award. We — along with basically every gambler on Earth — have Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Revenant”) the odds-on favorite to win a shiny statue for best actor.

Assuming that all goes according to the forecasts, what comes next for Oscar winners? After the big victory, a performer’s career can go several ways; an Oscar is far from a guarantee of continued success, and for every Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, there’s an Academy Award winner who is barely heard from again. The Oscars are a great opportunity to quibble over who had the best post-win career, but what about the worst?

Research has been done into the financial boon and potential bust of winning the prize, but what we really want to drill down on is this: Who was the most productive after winning best actor or actress, and how good were their movies?

I turned to Rotten Tomatoes to figure out how many movie roles a performer had both before and after winning an Oscar, as well as how many of those films received ratings of at least 50 percent, 75 percent or 90 percent on the Tomatometer. (A few notes here: For this analysis, I studied actors and actresses who have won best actor and actress Oscars since 1970, for a total data set of 45 actor wins and 45 actress wins. I would have liked to start earlier, but even though Rotten Tomatoes is one of the best online movie ratings sites, the further you go back in time, the more likely the ratings will fail to capture the actual quality of a classic film.1 Also, repeat Oscar winners — like Tom Hanks or Day-Lewis — get an entry in our data set for each victory; this allows us to see the impact of each win.)

First, let’s look strictly at productivity. How many movies did performers make after winning the Oscar?2 For actors who are still working, I normalized their post-Oscar films to a per-year rate through 2015. If a performer is dead or retired, I calculated a per-year rate through the last year he or she appeared in a movie or TV show. (That way people don’t lose out for inconveniently dying.3) I then translated those per-year rates into an average number of months between roles. For example, Anthony Hopkins made one movie every 0.5 years following his 1991 win; that means he made a movie once every six months on average.

1 Forest Whitaker 2006 3.4
2 Nicolas Cage 1995 4.8
3 Robert De Niro 1980 5.0
4 Tom Hanks 1994 5.4
5 Tom Hanks 1993 5.4
6 Anthony Hopkins 1991 6.0
7 Ben Kingsley 1982 6.1
8 Adrien Brody 2002 6.5
9 Kevin Spacey 1999 6.6
10 Geoffrey Rush 1996 6.7
33 Paul Newman 1986 15.0
34 Matthew McConaughey 2013 18.0
35 Jack Nicholson 1997 20.7
36 Jack Lemmon 1973 25.6
37 George C. Scott 1970 28.2
38 Daniel Day-Lewis 1989 29.5
39 Marlon Brando 1972 30.9
40 Daniel Day-Lewis 2007 36.0
41 Roberto Benigni 1998 43.2
42 Art Carney 1974 61.7
Production after best actor Oscar — average number of months between films
1 Cate Blanchett 2013 3.3
2 Julianne Moore 2014 4.8
3 Nicole Kidman 2002 5.1
4 Susan Sarandon 1995 5.1
5 Helen Mirren 2006 6.0
6 Kathy Bates 1990 6.2
7 Meryl Streep 2011 6.7
8 Jennifer Lawrence 2012 6.9
9 Natalie Portman 2010 7.2
10 Emma Thompson 1992 7.2
36 Jane Fonda 1978 19.8
37 Cher 1987 26.8
38 Helen Hunt 1997 29.6
39 Glenda Jackson 1970 31.6
40 Liza Minnelli 1972 37.7
41 Marlee Matlin 1986 45.0
42 Glenda Jackson 1973 49.7
43 Geraldine Page 1985 102.0
44 Jessica Tandy 1989 150.0
45 Katharine Hepburn 1981 366.0
Production after best actress Oscar — average number of months between films

It might be worthwhile to disregard recent Oscar winners who do very well or very poorly here, because of the small sample size. But at the top of these lists are some very busy people: Nicole Kidman, Susan Sarandon, Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker have all worked a lot. Nicolas Cage, who has become a punchline for his willingness to sign on to dumb projects, naturally slays. And if we learned anything from “The Intern” and “Dirty Grandpa,” it’s that Robert De Niro needs money.

On the other side, though, there are plenty of performers who worked sparsely after winning their Academy Award. Art Carney won for “Harry and Tonto” in 1974, but this is the first I’m hearing of it. Roberto Benigni won for “Life is Beautiful” in 1998, but the Italian actor hasn’t been busy since. Brando gets a pass, because Brando. Many of the low-productivity actresses were veteran performers who were honored toward the end of their careers, which makes sense — the roles are few and far between for older performers. Glenda Jackson has by far the best excuse for a dropoff in film work: She got bored after winning two Oscars and went into politics, serving in the U.K. Parliament for more than two decades.

There is an outlier here that doesn’t make the table above: Day-Lewis’s Oscar win in 2012 for “Lincoln.” Given that he’s not retired but also hasn’t done jack since, Day-Lewis is the least productive by default. Get back to work, man — we need our fix.

Still, working is one thing; making quality movies is another. Among the best actor winners, Paul Newman, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Denzel Washington had the highest percentage of post-Oscar films with a 50 percent score or higher; among actresses, Marion Cotillard, Cate Blanchett and Streep come out on top.

By this metric, Day-Lewis (for his 2007 win, “There Will Be Blood”), Benigni and Jean Dujardin of the actors and Marlee Matlin, Jessica Lange and Hilary Swank of the actresses have had the toughest go of it after their win. But that’s not fair to Day-Lewis: While he fared poorly when we looked at the rate of films above 50 percent, he was behind only Jeff Bridges when it came to the highest batting average after we constrict our sample to truly great films, the ones with a 90 percent score or higher. This essentially means that when he was in a decent movie, it was “Lincoln.”

So who had the worst career? Strictly in terms of productivity, it’s Day-Lewis, but considering that’s his “thing” and he’s won three Oscars, we should give him a pass. Based on the data we have, Benigni didn’t pursue the kind of American movies that critics and audiences enjoy. And Matlin, who became the youngest-ever best actress winner for her work in “Children of a Lesser God” and is deaf, didn’t get subsequent film roles that made use of her ample talent.

Best actor winners had a slightly higher number of average annual roles than best actress winners (1.2 roles per year for men versus 1.1 roles per year for women, or one additional part per decade). And since this is the top of the acting field, it’s impossible to blame that gender difference on performance quality. Rather, this jibes with evidence that shows there are vastly fewer roles available to female performers than men.

Beyond batting averages, though, I pulled one more number for each of the performers: How regularly they cranked out great movies — essentially, how many months, on average, came between movies with a 75 percent rating or higher after an Oscar win. With a combined set of actors and actresses, these are the performers who most regularly cranked out the good stuff:

1 Cate Blanchett 2013 5.1
2 Tom Hanks 1994 10.2
3 Tom Hanks 1993 10.6
4 Marion Cotillard 2007 10.8
5 Sean Penn 2003 13.0
6 Forest Whitaker 2006 15.0
7 Gene Hackman 1971 15.0
8 Robert De Niro 1980 15.4
9 Jennifer Lawrence 2012 16.0
10 Ben Kingsley 1982 16.3
11 Geoffrey Rush 1996 17.1
12 Susan Sarandon 1995 18.0
13 Sean Penn 2008 19.2
14 Michael Douglas 1987 20.5
15 Robert Duvall 1983 20.8
16 Jeff Bridges 2009 21.0
17 Meryl Streep 1982 21.5
18 Philip Seymour Hoffman 2005 22.0
19 Emma Thompson 1992 22.2
20 Colin Firth 2010 24.0
Making good movies — average number of months between films with 75+ percent Tomatometer rating

Yo, we as a society just do not appreciate Tom Hanks anywhere near as much as we should. (Blanchett has had a stellar two years since her win for “Blue Jasmine,” but here I’m most interested in folks with a longer history.)

The table above looks at great movies, but Hanks slays it when we look for masterpieces: The guy won back-to-back Oscars and since then has cranked out 16 films rated at 90 percent or above. Thirty-one of the winning actors and actresses in my data set didn’t even make 16 movies after receiving their Oscar, let alone 16 movies that rate 90 percent or higher. Sixteen movies! Looking at the monthly production rate, Cotillard comes close, but that was since 2007. Only Richard Dreyfuss can compete with Hanks’s 16 movies: Dreyfuss made 10 movies that rated 90 percent or above after winning an Oscar for “The Goodbye Girl” in 1977. Tom Hanks does the work.

Listen, DiCaprio is one of the finest living practitioners of his craft. Don’t get me wrong. He’s one of the best. But Hanks makes DiCaprio look like Adam Sandler.


  1. When it comes to movie data, balancing the depth of the data with the quality of the data is important. In this case, I became concerned that Rotten Tomatoes only had ratings for early Hollywood movies that are well-known, which essentially means well-regarded. That’s a problem for performers who had lots of longevity. Take Katharine Hepburn’s win in 1981 as an example — 15 of the 21 films that Rotten Tomatoes has listed for her before that year are rated 75 percent or higher on the Tomatometer. That’s reasonable — she was a great actress with a great eye for good projects — but if that’s the case across the board, we’ll have a problem later on, because it means that there weren’t enough reviews of bad movies from olden times to get an accurate batting average. The Internet was invented, I’ll remind you, in the 1990s, not the 1950s. While this isn’t super relevant for this analysis — we’re looking at what comes after, not before — it wasn’t worth pressing our luck when we’re already working from a sample of 90 actors and actresses.

  2. To consider total output, I also gave performers credit for producing and directing work they did after winning. Ron Howard showed us that you can make the transition; there’s no need to be stingy here.

  3. So Peter Finch and Henry Fonda don’t appear in this analysis.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.