Tim Purtell
February 06, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Twenty-five years ago, Penelope Milford came from seemingly nowhere to win a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her turn as Jane Fonda’s pal in the antiwar drama Coming Home. Though she didn’t win the Oscar, you would think an acclaimed performance that caught industry attention would segue into a long, comfy ride on Hollywood’s A list. Think again. No sooner had her moment in the Oscar spotlight dimmed than her film career virtually followed suit.

In the mysterious world of Best Supporting Actress nominees, it seems, not everyone ends up on the Meryl Streep path.

Back in the ’30s and ’40s, when the studio system was in place, the supporting-actress category offered reward to character actors who lent…well…support to the stars. It was akin to a caste system in which everyone knew her place and didn’t cross boundaries. (Besides, the Thelma Ritters of that era had long, fruitful careers with multiple nominations — and even the occasional win.) When actors became free agents, the category evolved into more of a stepping-stone. It could be a shot at stardom (like Streep in 1978’s The Deer Hunter).

Or not. Susan Kohner’s nom for 1959’s Imitation of Life led to a Universal contract, but five films later she retired to marry designer John Weitz (and rear American Pie codirectors Chris and Paul Weitz). Ronee Blakley was never able to duplicate her Nashville success despite a nomination for the 1975 film. Here, five nominated actresses talk openly about their fling with Oscar and how it affected their careers.

”God, my story is so boring,” says Mary Wilt (Nee Badham), laughing. Actually, it’s anything but. Plucked from an open cattle call at age 9 to play Gregory Peck’s daughter Scout in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Wilt is among the few in that rarefied club of juvenile nominees. (And it was no stunt: Her unstudied and touching rapport with Peck is the heart of the film.) For most actors, the honor would have been icing on an extraordinary cake. But for a young girl who rarely went to the movies, ”it was no big deal. I wanted to be a large-animal vet.” On Oscar night, Patty Duke was the winner for The Miracle Worker, but Wilt’s loss was softened by an after-party where she got to sit on Danny Thomas’ knee. The nom led to more work, but after appearances in several TV shows and two more movies, she retired at the ripe age of 13. (Her older brother, John Badham, continued in the business, directing Saturday Night Fever.) ”I had a wonderful time,” she says of her Hollywood career, ”but I wanted to find out what else I could do.” A tension-filled shoot on 1966’s This Property Is Condemned, a Tennessee Williams drama in which she played Natalie Wood’s sister, influenced her decision to bail out. ”It gave me a taste for what the business was probably more accurately like,” she says. ”Before then, I had been kept in a very comfortable little box with lots of cotton cushions.” Now 51 and living on a farm in Virginia with her husband of 29 years and two children, Wilt still feels Mockingbird’s pull. In conversation she’ll often refer to her longtime (and now sorely missed) friend Peck as Atticus. And several times a month she’s invited to speak at high schools and colleges about the movie and Harper Lee’s book. ”I’m still on the road with this,” she says.

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