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.
Such sentimental choices have become more and more rare in recent years, as voters have skewed younger and tend to be more interested in honoring their peers than their forebears. Neither Gloria Stuart, 87 at the time of her nomination for Titanic in 1998, nor Lauren Bacall, 72 when she was nominated for The Mirror Has Two Faces a year earlier, won the supporting actress Oscar, despite going in as heavy sentimental favorites. Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), who won over Bacall, was so shocked that she could barely get out of her seat when her name was called. Backstage, she admitted she was sure Bacall would win.
"I don't think the academy is sentimental at all, at least not as much as public opinion would have you believe," says movie critic Emanuel Levy, author of All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards. "There has been a huge demographic change in the structure of the academy. I suspect that the academy has gotten younger ... and that a lot of veteran members have been encouraged to retire."
Which, for Heath Ledger fans, should make for a celebratory Oscar night. If the awards go as expected, not only will their man win - and there's still no surer way of assuring screen immortality than winning an Academy Award - but he'll win for all the right reasons.
"The Dark Knight is a highly respected film, highly acclaimed," says Levy. "I don't think it will be a sentimental vote."
MORE ON THE OSCARS
In Sunday's A&E; section
* How the Oscars are bringing Homicide's Melissa Leo into the "new" mainstream.
* Help wanted: award show host. Why the once splashy job is one no one wants.
* Sun movie critic Michael Sragow picks his favorites for the big night.
* The Oscars aren't the only awards show this weekend. The Spirit Awards and the Razzies name their winners - and losers - tomorrow.
* Sun TV critic David Zurawik reviews the Oscar telecasts' top moments as they happen Sunday night on his blog, baltimoresun.com/zontv.
nominated short films at the Charles Theatre.
one out of six
The Letter, 1929
Despite a great performance, the actress, who died at age 35, lost to Mary Pickford in "Coquette."
East of Eden, 1955, and Giant, 1956
The 24-year-old rebel with many causes lost to Ernest Borgnine and Yul Brynner.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1967
The often-nominated actor died of a heart attack just weeks after finishing "Dinner."
The actor was 64 when he died mere weeks before he won the best actor Oscar.
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, 1984
Although nominated after he had died at age 80, the English actor was not considered a likely winner.
Il Postino, 1995
Also nominated for screenwriting for "Il Postino," the actor, 41 at the time of his death, lost in both categories.