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Heath Ledger's death-defying bid for 'The Dark Knight': Why so serious

January 22, 2009 |  8:56 am


Congrats to the ghost of Heath Ledger — who died exactly one year ago today — for doing what even one of the Oscars' favorite live fellows couldn't do: snag an acting nomination for portraying a cartoonish villain in a superhero flick.

In this case, the Joker, of course, in "The Dark Knight." Jack Nicholson's Joker in Tim Burton's "Batman" was widely hailed by film critics in 1989 and earned him a nomination in the lead acting race for comedies/musicals at the Golden Globes, but he lost to Morgan Freeman ("Driving Miss Daisy") and was snubbed at the Oscars. Nicholson is so beloved at the Oscars that he currently holds the record for most nominations among male actors (12) and win (three, tied with Walter Brennan).


Al Pacino earned an acting bid in the supporting slot at the Golden Globes in 1990 as Big Boy Caprice in "Dick Tracy." He lost to Bruce Davison ("Longtime Companion"). Pacino went on to reap an Oscar nom for that cartoonish role too, but lost to Joe Pesci ("Goodfellas").

Heath Ledger's nomination marks the seventh for a posthumous performance. The others: Jeanne Eagels ("The Letter," best actress, 1929), James Dean ("East of Eden," best actor, 1955), James Dean ("Giant," best actor, 1956), Spencer Tracy ("Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" best actor, 1967), Peter Finch ("Network," best actor, 1976), Massimo Troisi ("Il Postino," best actor, 1994).

Only Finch pulled off a victory from the grave. He died of a heart attack just weeks before Golden Globe and Oscar voting. Prior to that, Robert De Niro ("Taxi Driver") swept the early critics' awards, but Finch claimed posthumous wins at the Globes and Oscars.

By comparison, Heath Ledger, as noted above, died a year ago. When another heartthrob star was nominated after dying young and tragically — James Dean — there was half a year between his demise and his Oscar loss. Does that matter in Ledger's case?

Most Oscarologists now say that Heath Ledger is a shoo-in to win, but beware: Upsets happen most frequently in these supporting categories at the Academy Awards. Let's recall a few recent shockeroos in this slot: James Coburn ("Affliction") and Jim Broadbent ("Iris").


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Photos: Buena Vista, Warner Bros.

NOTE: An earlier version of this blog post neglected to mention Pacino's Oscar nomination for "Dick Tracy." That info has been added.

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