Researchers speculate that the winners drive themselves into an early grave by working or partying too hard. Either way, the findings are another black eye for an under-appreciated profession, sighed San Francisco screenwriter Sam Scribner. "Writers are angst-driven creatures, and this is one more thing for us to get cheerless joy out of."
An academic study of the life spans of Hollywood types may seem frivolous, but research like this brings greater understanding into how stress and success affect health, says study co-author Dr. Donald Redelmeier, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and a scientist at Sunnybrook and Women's Hospital.
"This is the first study ever where higher status [in society] isn't associated with improved survival," Redelmeier says.
He was inspired to study people in the cinema as he watched the Oscars ceremony on television. "I was struck by how the people up on stage didn't look anything like the patients I look after in the hospital," he says. "It wasn't just their wardrobe and make-up and plastic surgery. It's the way they walk. They seemed so much more vivacious, and it seemed more than skin deep."
So Redelmeier hit the cinema encyclopedias. He discovered that Oscar-winning actors and actresses lived an average of 3.9 years longer than the losing nominees (the opposite of the trend for screenwriters). That study, published last year in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, found that many actors lived well past the life expectancy for their year of birth.
Redelmeier says an average of slightly less than four years of extra life may not seem like much, but it is statistically significant. If all cancer was cured, the world's life expectancy would only grow by 3.5 years, he says.
The study raises questions, however. He says, "We didn't know whether that increase in longevity was because the individuals behaved more prudently, trying to live up to their reputation, or because they experienced less harmful stress on a daily basis."
In the new study, Redelmeier tracked the vital statistics about all 850 screenwriters nominated for Academy Awards since the honors were first given out in 1929. This year's winners are included in the study.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives out two writing awards each year -- one for an original screenplay and one for an adapted screenplay, usually based on a book or play.
Redelmeier's new findings appear in the Dec. 22 issue of the British Medical Journal.
Redelmeier found that winning screenwriters died at an average age of 74.1, compared with 77.7 years for the losers. Winning more than once also contributed to dying younger, although frequent nominations had no effect.
In another twist, the winners who worked the most tended to die the earliest. "Being a winner seems to be detrimental, and being an intensely working winner seemed to be especially dangerous," Redelmeier says.
While overwork could be a culprit, he says the winners may simply "party too hearty" and wear down their bodies.
Screenwriter David Freed is skeptical about that possibility. "Most writers by nature tend to be reserved and withdrawn and not the sort of self-indulgent people that actors might be," says Freed, a former newspaper reporter who writes screenplays for TV movies from his base in Santa Barbara, Calif. "Writing is a solitary experience. It's just you and the blank page. You don't have a lot of time for that other stuff."
Richard Walter, professor of screenwriting at the University of California at Los Angeles, agrees that the writers aren't the best partyers. "They tend to be socially inept," he says.
If award-winning screenwriters are indeed dying earlier because of unhealthy activities, others can learn from them, Redelmeier says. "Greater success can sometimes lead to worse health if people fail to look after themselves. That is a message that may apply both inside Hollywood and outside Hollywood."
What To Do
While Oscar-winning screenwriters may not live as long as their peers, plenty of them stick around for quite a while. Three-time screenwriting winner Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend) is 95. Check the life spans of other screenwriters at the Internet Movie Database.
U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher has a few simple ideas about how to stay healthy and live long, even if you do win an Academy Award. See his recommendations here.
But if you're one of the brave few who would trade a few years of life for Hollywood, starlets and the red carpet, check Drew's Script-O-Rama and see how the big boys do it.