Oscar: Posthumous Nominations and Wins

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has been reluctant to bestow the Oscar Award posthumously.

Some suggest that the Academy’s reluctance stems from its belief that the awards should affect the careers of practicing artists. In some categories, such as the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for distinguished producers, and the Honorary Oscars, the rules state explicitly that the awards “shall not be voted posthumously.”

In 1939, Sidney Howard won a posthumous Best Screenplay Oscar for Gone With the Wind, to which other writers contributed but remained uncredited. Unfortunately, Howard was killed in a tractor accident on his Massachusetts farm a few months before the picture’s world premiere in Atlanta. Peter Finch is still the only player to have won the Oscar, for Network, after his death.

For the most part, the Academy is a rule-abiding organization.

In 1972, Raymond Rasch, Larry Russell, and Charlie Chaplin earned the Best Original Score Oscar for Limelight, a film that was made twenty years earlier. However, released in Los Angeles in 1972 for the first time, Limelight was eligible for nominations. Both Rasch and Russell were dead, but Chaplin accepted the award for a film, which had been banned in the United States for many years, though it was shown in Europe.

Posthumous nominations have been only slightly more frequent than posthumous 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 a few weeks before his death, on September 30, 1955, and Giant, which he did not complete, about a year later.

When the 1956 awards were presented, on March 27, 1957, Dean had been dead for eighteen 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 boxoffice success of East of Eden and Giant, but also helped to elevate his extremely brief career to a legendary status.

Spencer Tracy

Spencer 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 Oscar 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

Ralph Richardson received posthumous Best Supporting Actor 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.

In 1994, 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.

In other fields, too, posthumous awards and nominations are rare.

Cult composer Bernard Hermann, best-known for his Hitchcockian scores, received two posthumous nominations in the same year, 1976, for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and for Brian De Palma’s Obsession (the latter film was a tribute to Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo).

It was a fitting swang song for Hermann’s distinguished career, though the Academy decided to honor Jerry Goldsmith for The Omen (which happened to be another Hitchcock-inspired thriller).