Monday, January 26, 2009

A sad legacy ...

With the likelihood of Heath Ledger winning a posthumous Oscar for his role as The Joker in The Dark Knight all but a certainty now, it may be interesting to you to learn about the history of dearly departed actors winning a golden ticket to the Hollywood's golden derby after they have left us. Turns out Ledger is just the latest lamented member of a sad but small club.

Ledger, turns out, is the sixth actor to receive an Academy Award nomination postmortem, but this is the seventh time the event has happened in Oscar history. That's because the first posthumous honoree, James Dean, had the (mis)fortune of being nominated twice in back-to-back years after his death in a car accident in September 1955. Months after he died, Dean made the Best Actor race for his work in East of Eden, and followed that up the following year with Giant. Then came Spencer Tracy. His final collaboration with frequent co-star and longtime lover Katharine Hepburn was in Stanley Kramer's fuzzy-wuzzy race-relations parable Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Tracy already knew he was dying, and in fact Kramer and Hepburn had to fight the suits to keep Tracy in the movie, going so far as to put their salaries up in case Tracy passed during production. But he completed his work before dying on June 10, 1967, only 17 days after filming wrapped. When Guess was released six months later, Tracy was honored with a Best Actor nomination.

Other posthumous nominations include Sir Ralph Richardson in 1984 as Best Supporting Actor for Graystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes; and Italian actor-comedian Massimo Troisi in 1995 as Best Actor for the romance Il Postino. (Troisi put off important heart surgery to complete the film he co-wrote and died 12 hours after shooting his final scene; he also shared a nomination for the screenplay.) The only person to actually win an Oscar in such a manner, though, is Peter Finch. His iconic portrayal of madman news anchor Howard Beale in the 1976 satire Network sported major Oscar buzz; in fact, the Aussie actor was on his way to appear on Good Morning, America as part of the film's - and his - promotion when he dropped dead of a heart attack in the lobby of his hotel on January 14, 1977. Had Finch lived, he likely would have been nominated in the Supporting Actor category, but his sudden death may have been the impetus to propel him into the Actor category alongside his Network co-star, William Holden - whom, to be fair, had logged much more screen time than Finch. Nevertheless, Finch was the winner when the envelope was opened on March 29, and Finch's widow accepted the Oscar for him in one of the evening's most emotional moments.

The only question when it comes to Ledger's forthcoming Oscar is who will accept the award for him. His father? One of his Dark Knight co-stars? Director Christopher Nolan? The only thing we would want, of course, is that Ledger were still around to soak up the well-earned honors his Joker is reaping.

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