The Oscars: Whatever Happened to …?

Does an Oscar win equal prestige? Yes. How about a career jump-start? Gwyneth Paltrow Well, er … Most of the time.

For every, say, Kevin Spacey who escapes indie fringedom to Hollywood stardom after bagging an Oscar (for 1995’s “The Usual Suspects“), there’s a Marisa Tomei whose film career seems jinxed following a win (for 1992’s “My Cousin Vinny“).

That said, let’s take a look at what the Oscar has done for last year’s winners. Or they Marisa Tomeis or Kevin Spaceys?

ROBERTO BENIGNI: After accomplishing the seemingly impossible task of sugarcoating the Holocaust with humor in “Life is Beautiful” and taking two Oscars (including the Best Actor trophy) for his feat, the larger-than-life Italian comic seems to be taking a smaller-than-life approach to things these days. After staking a supporting role in the comic-book fantasy “Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar,” a Euro production that still hasn’t been released in the States, Benigni has contented himself to a lecturing tour on Dante in Italy. “To be frank, I have had some offers. A lot of offers,” Bengini said of his on-screen absence to the Los Angeles Times last week. “But I didn’t like very much these offers. Unluckily it wasn’t so easy to find something for an Italian actor.”

Word has it that the actor intends to reteam with writing partner Vincenzo Cerami for his next project, in which he’d also direct and star.

Marisa Tomei or Kevin Spacey? Not applicable. He’ll always be huge in Italy.

GWYNETH PALTROW: A British accent did for a Yank, Gwyneth Paltrow, what it couldn’t do for fellow Elizabethan clone (and real-life Aussie) Cate Blanchett (“Elizabeth”) — namely, secure a win in the Best Actress race. After playing muse to the Bard in “Shakespeare in Love“, Paltrow did like Benigni and went the supporting-actor route, portraying the expatriate girlfriend of Jude Law in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Paltrow will be back in the star way in two upcoming 2000 films: the romantic-drama “Bounce” with ex-beau Ben Affleck and “Duets,” where she does karaoke under the direction of pap Bruce Paltrow. Marisa Tomei or Kevin Spacey? Too soon to tell.

JAMES COBURN: One would have to look to the direction of the tube in order to find Coburn following his surprise Best Supporting Actor win as the belligerent lush in “Affliction.” Since Oscar Night 1999, Coburn has been a TV exclusive, working steadily in mini-movies like “Noah’s Ark,” “Dean Koontz’s Mr. Murder” and “Shake, Rattle & Roll: An American Love Story.” Well, that is if you don’t count his uncredited cameo in the Mel Gibson flick “Payback.” Marisa Tomei or Kevin Spacey? When you’ve been around as long as Coburn, it doesn’t matter and you don’t care. You got your stinkin’ Oscar.

JUDI DENCH: After nabbing the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her brief, but apparently pretty effective, portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love,” Dench has been seen since playing James Bond’s boss, M, in “The World is Not Enough” and doing ensemble work with Cher and Lily Tomlin in “Tea with Mussolini.” Marisa Tomei or Kevin Spacey? Not applicable. She’s always be huge in theater.

STEVEN SPIELBERG: What another Best Director Oscar confirms is just the man’s virtual omnipotence in Hollywood. Since that mother lode of a war movie that was “Saving Private Ryan,” the self-made auteur has been picky, picky, picky about picking his follow-up project. After passing on helming the adaptation of “Harry Potter,” Spielberg only this month announced he’d made up his mind and would fill the directorial shoes of Stanley Kubrick in the sci-fi “A.I.” He also underwent emergency surgery to remove one of his kidneys in February. Marisa Tomei or Kevin Spacey? Steven Spielberg is always Steven Spielberg.

MIRAMAX FILMS: In 1999, this quasi-indie studio perhaps scored the best Oscar success story of all time by thwarting the anticipated stronghold of DreamWorks’ “Saving Private Ryan” and taking the Best Picture trophy for its giddy “Shakespeare in Love.” Miramax could do it again this year with “The Cider House Rules,” which literally came out of nowhere to claim seven Oscar nominations, second only to DreamWorks’ eight noms for “American Beauty.” Overall, though, 1999 was a pretty lousy year for the studio (not including Oscar night). It gambled big — and lost big — with pricey Sundance films like “Happy, Texas,” and saw its prized “Talented Mr. Ripley” come up short at the box office and at the Oscar nominations. All that, plus its gregarious leader Harvey Weinstein was waylaid by a bacterial infection for months. Marisa Tomei or Kevin Spacey? Marisa Tomei (at least to date).

–With additional reporting by Joal Ryan.