I'm still breathing thankful sighs of relief that I was not one of the writers who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay the other night. This isn't just because I wouldn't know which way to look if I met Gwyneth Paltrow backstage. I want to live as long as possible, and according to a recent study in the British Journal of Medicine, writers who win Academy Awards live shorter lives than writers who don't win.
The sad statistics on writers are the opposite of the figures for actors. Oscar-winning writers live an average of 3.6 years shorter than their peers, but Oscar-winning actors live an average of 3.9 years longer than their fellow actors.
The 3.9 additional years that an Oscar gives an actor might not seem like much. However, one of the authors of the study says, "if you would cure all cancers in all people for all time for all of North America, you add only 3.5 years to life expectancy." So, maybe we've been wasting a lot of time and money on medical research, and should actually concentrate on acting classes.
The researchers, Donald A. Redelmeier and Sheldon M. Singh, were not surprised by the actor results, and neither am I. Actors who win are motivated to look and stay healthy to continue to work. They also have agents, lawyers, producers, studio heads, and yoga gurus whose incomes are tied to the actor's health. These are not the kind of people who are going to sit idly by while their actor/investment eats a gallon of ice cream or stays up for a week straight with a "dancer" he just met in Vegas.
Redelmeier and Singh point out that winning writers don't have the same kinds of incentives to live healthy lives. They work fairly anonymously, and nobody cares what writers look like or what they eat. (My wife cares, but statistically that's not enough). This might explain why writers don't get extra years after receiving an Oscar, but it doesn't explain why receiving this accolade and the success associated with it actually shortens writers' lives.
Good writers are great complainers. They criticize, they mock, they cry out for change. Also, their personal lives are filled with disappointment, rejection, and criticism. Someone is always telling them that their writing is no good, and they react by saying, "I'll show them." The success of other writers who are perceived as less talented is another incentive. They are pushed on by the knowledge that, "I'm a lot better than that hack."
So what happens when they receive an honor like an Oscar? What happens to a writer when he can't sit in a deli with other writers and complain that he's not appreciated? What happens to a writer when his beach house is just as big as the one owned by "that hack?" He loses some of his passion -- that's what happens.
Soon, these writers stop being angry at the world. Instead, they embrace it. They find themselves with nothing to complain about. Since they have nothing left to write about, they have nothing left to live for. That's why they die 3.6 years before they should.
Does this mean that I no longer dream about winning an Academy Award? Not at all. But I'm not going to be reckless with my life expectancy, either. I've got it all figured out. All I have to do is write a screenplay with me as the star. Then I'll win an Oscar for Best Screenplay and another one for Best Actor. The years I'll lose for writing will be offset by the years I gain for acting. In fact, I'll finish. 3 years ahead of the game. Bring on the beach house.
E-mail your questions and comments to Lloyd Garver
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver