Oscar Actors: Ledger, Heath–Supporting Actor of the Year

This essay was written before the nominations were announced:

The Oscar race in the Supporting Actor category seems to be over.  Two months ago, I analyzed in this column the prospects of Heath Ledger to receive an Oscar nomination for “The Dark Knight,” for his scary, brilliant turn as the anarchic Joker.

Since then, Ledger has won the Los Angeles, the New York, the Broadcast Film Critics Awards, as well as the Golden Globe, the SAG Award, and last night the BAFTA Award in the U.K.  Thus, unless there is a major upset, Ledger should also receive, most deservedly, the Supporting Actor Oscar.

The only question is who will accept on his behalf?  His admiring director, Christopher Nolan, who has been doing the rounds this award season, or perhaps a family member from Australia?

When the critically acclaimed “The Dark Knight” opened in the summer, Heath Ledger walked out with the best reviews of his career.  Sadly, he was not there to read the raves; per reports, he died of accidental overuse of prescribed drugs last January, ironically on the day the Oscar nominations were announced (for achievements in 2007).

Voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) have been reluctant to bestow the Oscar Award posthumously. Indeed, in the Oscar’s entire history, only one Best Actor, Peter Finch for “Network,” has received the award posthumously.  However, unlike Ledger, Finch was still alive during the nomination process.

Yet a closer look at the annals reveals that several thespians have been posthumously nominated, including James Dean, twice in fact, for “East of Eden” (1955) and for “Giant” (1956).  More recently, the Italian actor Massimo Troisi received a posthumous Best Actor nomination for “The Postman” (“Il Postino”). It does help when the performance is contained in a high-profile, Oscar-caliber picture, such as “Network” or “The Postman,” both of which were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in their respective years, 1976 and 1995, respectively.

Jimmy Dean

Posthumous nominations have been only slightly more frequent than the actual awards. James Dean is one of few exceptions, earning two Best Actor nominations posthumously, for “East of Eden” and for “Giant.” Dean was killed in a highway car crash while driving his Porsche to Salinas to compete in a race. “East of Eden” was released in April, five months before his death, on September 30, 1955, but the nominations were made after his death. In the following year, “Giant,” which Dean did not complete, was released and nominated after the car crash.  When the 1956 awards were presented, on March 27, 1957, Dean had been dead for 18 months. Consensus held that Dean’s second nomination was influenced by the sentimentality factor, though his achievements in both pictures were outstanding. Dean’s Oscar nominations not only contributed to the box-office success of East of Eden and Giant, but also helped to elevate his extremely brief career to a legendary status.

Spencer Tracy

Tracy was also nominated posthumously for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a film that provided a grand acting reunion with Katharine Hepburn–it was their ninth film together. Were it not for the support and care of Hepburn, Tracy would not have committed to do the film. Fearful that he might not get through with the picture, the sickly but ultimate pro Tracy told director Stanley Kramer four days before shooting ended: “You know, I read the script again last night, and if I were to die on the way home tonight, you can still release the picture with what you’ve got.” Had Tracy lived, he would probably have won the Oscar, both for his acting and for sentimental reasons.

Hepburn’s third Best Actress was probably based on personal reasons too: she selflessly nursed Tracy throughout the demanding shoot. Acknowledging Tracy’s contribution to her performance, Hepburn said upon winning: “I’m sure mine is for the two of us.” Ralph Richardson received posthumous supporting nomination for his bravura performance in “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan” (1984), in which he played the eccentric Lord Greystoke. Undeterred by his death, the New York Film Critics Circle cited Richardson for his work. The Academy’s Acting Branch, too, confirmed Richardson’s genius and the fact that it was his last film with a nomination; the winner, however, was Haing S. Ngor for The Killing Fields.

Italian Troisi

In 1995, Italian actor Massimo Troisi (Il Postino) received the first posthumous Best Actor nod since Peter Finch in 1976. Troisi died just twelve hours after completing the shoot, a factor no doubt contributing to the film’s immense popularity.