Oscars 2024

Struck down, struck gold: the curious history of the posthumous Oscar

Heath Ledger, Peter Finch and Walt Disney are among the most famous stars to win Oscars after their deaths, something that is more common than you might at first think, writes Geoffrey Macnab

Wednesday 06 March 2024 11:09 GMT
Peter Finch, James Dean, Chadwick Boseman and Heath Ledger are among the stars who’ve won or been nominated for Oscars after death
Peter Finch, James Dean, Chadwick Boseman and Heath Ledger are among the stars who’ve won or been nominated for Oscars after death (Shutterstock/Sky/iStock)

In 1939, the Gone with the Wind screenwriter Sidney Howard was crushed to death in a freak tractor accident on his farm. A year later, he won the inaugural posthumous Oscar. It was the first of surprisingly many deceased winners and nominees, from James Dean and Spencer Tracy to Chadwick Boseman and Walt Disney.

For obvious reasons, there is always a surge of goodwill at the Oscars towards the recently dead. This year, the Canadian musician Robbie Robertson is up for an Oscar for his work on Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, his pared-down, mournful score giving the film its lurking menace. Robertson died last summer at the age of 80, three months after the film’s world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. He was one of Scorsese’s closest friends and one of his most trusted collaborators, the filmmaker describing his music as having “come from the deepest place at the heart of this continent, its traditions and tragedies and joys”. With an endorsement like that from Scorsese, it would be no surprise at all if he wins.

There is also a precedent for these kinds of posthumous awards campaigns. Think of Heath Ledger today and the image most likely to spring to mind is of the brilliant young Australian actor with his pale, powdered face as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). He played the part with a searing but melancholy intensity, grotesquerie laced with extreme pathos. The film was lent an extra resonance due to Ledger’s death in January 2008. By the time The Dark Knight hit the screen six months later, an intense and morbid curiosity had built up around what was suddenly one of his final performances. That curiosity later fed into the Oscar campaign for the movie.

“Warner Bros has managed to walk the line between elegy and ghoulishness,” wrote The New York Times in 2008, on the studio’s awards marketing for the film. “[They reminded] the public and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that one of the great performances in 2008 was the last of Mr Ledger’s career, but doing so without seeming to commodify his death.” Arguably, in this instance, Academy members weren’t just voting for Ledger’s astonishing turn as the Joker. They were paying tribute to a brilliant career cut short. They knew that the same actor terrorising Gotham City with such manic glee had also brought extraordinary subtlety and sensitivity to his role as the cowboy in a gay relationship in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain a few years before. No one was therefore surprised when Ledger won the Best Supporting Actor award.

Strangely, James Dean – who died in a car crash in September 1955, aged just 24 – was nominated in two consecutive years for posthumous Oscars and didn’t win either time. At the 28th Academy Awards, held in March 1956, he was up for Best Actor for his role as the tormented delinquent in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955). It would mark the first posthumous nomination for a male actor in Oscar history. The award went to Ernest Borgnine instead, for his performance as the lovelorn working-class butcher from the Bronx in the film adaptation of Delbert Mann’s Marty (1955). Borgnine wasn’t bad, but anyone who had seen Rod Steiger in the original TV version of the film would surely have agreed that he was far better. So why was Dean spurned? The speculation is that Academy voters were simply too suspicious of his status as a teen idol. Borgnine – in a dour realist drama – was a safer choice.

The same thing happened the next year at the 29th Academy Awards. Dean had been dead for 18 months by then and was nominated for his performance as Jett Rink, the farm hand who made it rich in Giant (1956). Again, he lost out, this time to Yul Brynner for The King and I (1956).

It would be another 20 years before Oscar decided to award an actor posthumously. Peter Finch, at first glance, didn’t look like the most viable awards candidate for Sidney Lumet’s news satire Network (1976). He may have had the film’s most showy part, playing a broadcaster and news anchor known as the “mad prophet of the airwaves”, but he wasn’t really its star. William Holden, as his producer and old friend at the network, and Faye Dunaway, as the radical but opportunistic young TV exec, both had far more screen time.

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, could net composer Robbie Robertson a posthumous Oscar this year (Apple)

But he was the chosen one for studio MGM, who pushed him in both the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories. And despite Finch’s famed opposition to publicity, he threw himself into Network’s awards campaign, giving hundreds of interviews. In January 1977, he taped a guest appearance on Johnny Carson’s chat show and was gearing up for another appearance on the daytime show Good Morning America when he collapsed in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel, never regaining consciousness. An autopsy revealed he had an undiagnosed heart condition. Finch’s death came just as that year’s Oscar race was heating up. As his biographer Elaine Dundy later wrote, he was “in the thick of it with his boots on, at the right place, at the right time”.

The Academy voters gave Finch the Best Actor award. Considering the commotion around his death, it would have been churlish to ignore him – even if many would have preferred the Oscar to have gone to Robert De Niro for his blistering turn as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976). Network’s writer Paddy Chayefsky (who also scripted Marty) reluctantly accepted the award on Finch’s behalf – then called Finch’s widow Eletha Barrett to come up on stage, where she made an acceptance speech.

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A tragic death doesn’t always mean an inevitable Oscar win, though. When Chadwick Boseman received a Best Actor nomination in early 2021 for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, just five months after his death at the age of 43, it was expected that he’d ultimately be awarded. When Anthony Hopkins ultimately claimed the prize for his role as a man experiencing dementia in The Father (2020), the shock in the room was palpable. Even Hopkins, who accepted his Oscar in absentia from Wales, seemed surprised and slightly embarrassed – he made sure to pay tribute to Boseman in his video acceptance speech.

Heath Ledger’s father Kim, mother Sally and sister Kate accept his Oscar on his behalf at the 2009 Academy Awards (Getty)

“They built the entire show around a Chadwick Boseman ending and then Anthony Hopkins won and didn’t show up,” tweeted New York Times journalist Kyle Buchanan on the night. Oddly, the ceremony had made the decision to close on the Best Actor announcement, rather than the traditional Best Picture award, leading to an extreme sense of anti-climax.

Traditionally, though, posthumous awards have provided the Oscars with some of its most moving moments – none more poignant than in 2009 when Ledger’s father, mother and sister took to the stage to accept the statuette. Their dignity and decency elevated the entire event, in the process making all the narcissistic backbiting that goes hand in hand with the Oscars suddenly seem redundant.

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