If Heath Ledger wins an Oscar on Sunday, history suggests his untimely death will have had little to do with it. For when it comes to the Academy Awards, death is almost never a good career move.
That may come as a shock to some Oscar critics, convinced the awards are far more about sympathy and public opinion than merit. Academy voters, they argue, love to vote for older stars who have yet to win (Henry Fonda, winning for On Golden Pond in 1982, at age 76), or actors who have endured serious tragedy or heartbreak (Elizabeth Taylor, who won for BUtterfield 8 in 1961, after nearly dying from pneumonia). And who deserves more sympathy in Hollywood than a respected actor like Ledger, who died at age 28 just more than a year ago, from what was ruled an accidental drug overdose.
But maybe Oscar voters aren't the softies their reputations suggest. Over the course of 80 awards ceremonies, dating to 1929, only six actors (Ledger is the seventh) have been nominated for an Oscar posthumously. And only one of them won: Peter Finch, who scored a Best Actor Oscar for 1976's Network.
Archetypal movie rebel James Dean, nominated for both 1955's East of Eden and 1956's Giant after he died in a car accident, didn't win. The great Spencer Tracy, nominated for 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, didn't win. Neither did two European actors, England's Ralph Richardson, for 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan , Lord of the Apes, or Italy's Massimo Troisi, for 1995's Il Postino.
And, in 1929, Jeanne Eagels gave what was, by most contemporary accounts, one of the greatest performances in early sound-film history, in The Letter. Dead of a suspected heroin overdose by the time the Oscars were awarded in April 1930, she was passed over in favor of Mary Pickford, whose performance in Coquette was one of the worst in her long and storied career.
"It's kind of like, out of sight, out of mind," says Gerald Graziano, author of So You Think You Know Oscar: Test Your Academy Award I.Q. "Peter Finch won because he died within a couple weeks of the voting, and [his death] was still fresh in the voters' minds."
Barring a major major upset, Ledger on Sunday night will become the second actor to win an Oscar after his or her death. Critics' associations from Boston to Washington have lauded his performance, and he's already won just about every supporting actor award there is, including the Golden Globe. His turn as The Joker, a villain of absolute, unquenchable evil who loves reminding Batman how they are simply two sides of the same obsession, was the engine that drove The Dark Knight to its box-office success. If an actor other than Ledger wins the supporting actor Oscar, Congress may be called on to investigate.
"Heath Ledger has been talked about and talked about and talked about, even before the movie came out, and it hasn't stopped," says Danny Peary, author of Alternate Oscars: One Critic's Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor and Actress - From 1927 to the Present. "The studio was very smart to push the film around him. It's almost as if he was the star of the movie, not Christian Bale."
Finch, who died in January 1977, a little less than a month before the Oscar nominations were announced, won for playing a similarly memorable character. As Howard Beale, the increasingly insane network news anchor whose worsening mental health becomes ratings gold, Finch got to rant and rave - which rarely fails to impress Oscar voters. Plus, he uttered one of the most resonant lines in movie history, when his character went on-air and urged viewers to throw open their windows and yell at the tops of their lungs, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
"Peter Finch had that classic line," acknowledges Peary. But even more important, he says, is that Finch went into Oscar season as a favorite, something none of the other posthumous nominees can claim. Both Richardson and Troisi died well before the nominations were announced and were never serious contenders to win.
Eagels, likewise, never had a chance, especially since Oscar winners in those days were chosen by a select committee, not the entire academy membership (probably not coincidentally, Pickford had several members of the selection committee over for tea before the awards dinner).
Dean was probably too much of a rebel for many 1950s Oscar voters to take him seriously. Both actors chosen over him, Ernest Borgnine (Marty) and Yul Brynner (The King and I) were far safer, more traditional choices.
Tracy, who had died about six months earlier, was among the favorites when the Oscar nominations for 1967 were announced. Although he lost (to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night), his co-star (and longtime lover) Katharine Hepburn won. Perhaps by honoring the still-very-much alive Hepburn, academy voters felt they were paying tribute to both actors.