We’re rapidly approaching Hollywood’s biggest night. The one that’s supposed to mark one’s career as really, really important in the movie industry, and with the pomp and circumstance leading up to Oscar night already beginning to churn and bets in full swing as the nominees begin the “For Your Consideration” parade — what’s an Oscar really worth in Hollywood capital these days?

At the big Oscar nominee luncheon a few days ago we got a little glimpse into what the nominees are thinking thus far. We gather now that Pre-Oscar-watching is a thing that we do in preparation for the live event, like any good award-rubbernecker, we’ve got to hear about what the nominees are thinking while they walk the red carpet to go eat goose liver salad or whatever they serve at an Oscar nominee luncheon. Ergo we have already placed value on the words of “to-be” Oscar winners. Things like:

Anne Hathaway, on “rooms she can’t get into”: “I don’t know how to say this without sounding so obnoxious, but…I’ve been hanging out with Steven Spielberg lately! So it doesn’t feel like it.”

Oh, geesh. How So Very Precious. But this is the first step into cementing one’s image and going from “former Oscar contender to Oscar winner” thus starting the post-award cycle.

Not that she shouldn’t be flying high on the Oscar buzz magic carpet at this particular juncture, but we’ll forewarn Ann that even if she takes home the coveted award, life isn’t instantly made of creamed corn from there on out.

The thing that runs most of Hollywood, like the thing that runs most of everything, is money. And an Oscar nowadays doesn’t necessarily gain one instant access to the A-list club or the A-list income club as one may have believed once upon a time. There is still something out there called the “Oscar Jinx” or the “Oscar Curse” or, and if we’re going back several years, the “F. Murray Abraham Syndrome.” You’ll remember that he won a Golden Globe and an Oscar in 1985 for his role in Amadeus and then went on to do movies like Muppets from Space. Yeah, that happened. And it’s not the last time we saw the curse strike. Other members afflicted over the years are Cuba Gooding Jr., Marisa Tomei, Halle Berry, and even Gwyneth Paltrow.

What the curse consists of is the juxtaposition of the Oscar still being seen as Hollywood’s highest honor, yet no longer guaranteeing large paydays for actors, BUT the expectation remains that so and so Oscar winner will demand a higher salary than the studio is willing to pay. Ergo instead of Oscar winners finding great roles with salaries to match, you have Oscar winners taking big-budget flops in order to keep themselves in the style of living that they’ve become accustomed — and the studios reaping the rewards of putting an Oscar winner in their crappy movie to get audience butts in theater seats.

Ideally, taking the artistic indie movie following the Oscar may be the best thing for the craft of acting, but does little for lining the pocket. This is why Cuba took on a slew of flops and Halle Berry ran to Catwoman. Hoo-boy, Halle Berry. Her trajectory has been so steeped in awful, we’re rapidly forgetting the performance she gave that landed her the Oscar to begin with. Unlike Berry, some actors are able to stock a payload prior to making a real run for the meaty award films so they can be pickier about their next projects. Hmmm, Bradley Cooper anyone? While others careen from awful movie to awful movie and end up in something called Movie 43! (5% tomatometer score!)

Gwyneth Paltrow who’s starred in her own share of stinkers since winning an Academy Award ( Shallow Hal, Country Strong) said years ago that winning an Oscar made her unapproachable and too expensive in the minds of studio execs. Recently she’s taken relatively small roles in movies and appeared on television.

Ah, yes, television. The newest medium serving as a nice little respite for the Oscar winner or Oscar nominee who is staring down a spate of dwindling roles while finding themselves competing with an ever growing crop of ingénues who will work for cheaper and cheaper, as their names fall lower and lower on the “hot list.” Can television rejuvenate a career? Perhaps. And nowadays it’s not as risky a bargain as it was once viewed. Ask Julianne Moore, Kate Winslet, Kevin Costner, or Don Cheadle, but only if the show, mini-series, or television movie is a huge boffo hit, one that preferably wins one an Emmy or a Golden Globe. Yet, it’s still a little uncertain if the movie-to-television route can effectively bring one back around to Oscar gold and film’s welcoming bosom. The actor has to be more than a little discerning. You play around with guest appearances on Two and a Half Men, and you may end up never heard from again. We’re looking at you Emilio Estevez.

So eventually what one could surmise is that Oscars really do have a shelf life. The younger you achieve one is always better, but in addition, it takes some matter of skill and talent to flaunt the Oscar without it becoming an albatross around one’s neck that will tell studios and directors that the actor/actress will go into diva mode once hired for their big auteur film. In this regard the Oscar is seen as less than an award for merit, but a pass key into scrutiny and trepidation.

Unless you’re Ben Affleck.

It’s possible that the best thing that’s happened to him all year so far is being snubbed by the Academy – yet being heralded by most every other nominating entity in Hollywood.

He is almost single-handedly making the case for the ineffectiveness and diminished importance of the Oscar. Not only is it no longer a guaranteed meal-ticket, but it could be said that it’s not even a particularly great prognosticator or validator of talent — and that could turn the industry on its head. Basically the Academy really doesn’t want too many “Ben Affleck Syndromes” floating around that tarnishes the reputation of the highest critical film body. So more than likely they’ll throw him a bone later by way of the “make-up Oscar.” The one the Academy gives out for “pretty good” films, performances, or direction, in place of the ones that should’ve been awarded earlier that really deserved it. We’ve seen several talented people get the “make-up” Oscar. Martin Scorsese is a good example of having won the award in 2006 for The Departed after a long career going without.

So is it still better to win an Oscar than not? On the surface, sure, but beyond that, it seems to depend on the amount of mileage you can realistically see coming from it. Sometimes it seems better to be the artist who’s respected by producers and directors who’ll fight in the backroom to have you in their film because you’re that good — than be the in-your-face-star with an Oscar who’ll do anything.

If you’re Ben Affleck you’ll take the cred and comeuppance that comes from the snubbing — and everyone knowing it. For everyone else who’s serious about the art? It should really be about taking the money hit as long as possible to cement your place amongst the leaders of the field with good roles even if in small films, while keeping the flops to a minimum. Hey, even Meryl Streep made She-Devil and Death Becomes Her (We Love This Movie!) but she rallied in the leaner years chugging away at small films until paydirt — recognition, money, and respect. A career defined less by Oscar, but more by the consistency of loving the work and doing it well — at this point the Oscar is just an accessory.

Image: Flickr