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Heath Ledger's ultimate joke on the Oscars?

February 19, 2009 | 10:56 pm

If Heath Ledger wins for his role as the Joker in "The Dark Knight," he will be just the latest example of a serious Oscar phenomenon — a lead performance taking a supporting-acting award. Last year Javier Bardem won the supporting-actor trophy at the Oscars for what many regarded as the starring role in "No Country for Old Men." Like Bardem, Ledger was the bad guy who was so good in the role. While technically speaking, "The Dark Knight" is a film about Batman, Heath Ledger has the big, flashy role — he's the chief force bearing down on all of the terrifying action — and it's his performance that had everyone talking Oscar.

It's one of the oldest tricks in the Oscars' playbook for leading performers: Swallow your pride, slip down into the supporting category and you may outdo your rivals just based on screen time alone. Kate Winslet was motivated mainly by marital obligation to cast herself as a supporting player in "The Reader" at first. Her husband Sam Mendes directed her in "Revolutionary Road," and the Oscars' rules dictate only one nod per category per performer. After viewing both roles, Oscars' voters dismissed one ("Revolutionary Road") and elevated the other to lead ("Reader"). However, there was no reason for Philip Seymour Hoffman to be positioned in the supporting race for "Doubt." Indeed, Brian F. O'Byrne, who originated the role in the 2005 Broadway play, competed at the Tony Awards in the lead race (he lost to Bill Irwin for the revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?").

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While Tilda Swinton ended up winning at the Oscars last year in the supporting category for a truly featured role in "Michael Clayton," front-runner Cate Blanchett had taken the lead actress prize at the Venice film fest for "I'm Not There." After Blanchett's other pony in the Oscars derby — "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" — was met with a collective yawn, there was talk that Blanchett would compete in lead for the Bob Dylan biopic. When she decided to stick with supporting as a nod to the ensemble nature of the Todd Haynes-helmed pic, could this savvy Aussie have known she would make it into the final five of both categories?

Of the last 10 supporting-actress winners at the Oscars, seven could just as easily have competed in lead. 2006 winner Jennifer Hudson ("Dreamgirls") was re-creating a role that won its originator, Jennifer Holliday, the 1982 best actress Tony. In 2005's "The Constant Gardener," Rachel Weisz was the female focus, as Jennifer Connelly was in "A Beautiful Mind" in 2001 and Marcia Gay Harden in 2000's "Pollock." And just as Catherine Zeta-Jones ("Chicago") did for her in 2002, Renee Zellweger ("Cold Mountain") stepped out of Nicole Kidman's way in 2003, as Angelina Jolie ("Girl Interrupted") had done for Winona Ryder in 1999. And the other three? Though she played Oscar's all-time lead actress winner Katharine Hepburn in 2004's "The Aviator," Blanchett would have been hard pressed to make the case that it was a lead role. Swinton wisely never considered doing so last year, and Judi Dench referenced how short a time she was on-screen as Elizabeth I when she won for "Shakespeare in Love" in 1998.

Of the last 10 supporting actor winners, Bardem was not the only potential leading man. In 2005, George Clooney could not decide which race to run in for his role as the central figure in "Syriana." At first, his Oscar strategists decided the issue for him and put him in supporting. When Clooney got wind of it, he disagreed and publicly declared himself in lead. An outcry followed. After listening carefully to all of the arguments uttered by experts, he wisely switched back to supporting and won over the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal ("Brokeback Mountain") and Paul Giamatti ("Cinderella Man"), who had each won several of the precursor awards. Had Clooney stayed in lead, it is unlikely he would have prevailed over Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote"). Though, as well-versed as he is in these awards, Clooney may well have been tempted by the examples of Anthony Hopkins and his pal Kidman. They had only minimal screen time in, respectively, "The Silence of the Lambs" and "The Hours," but they refused to lower themselves to supporting status and prevailed in lead anyway.

In 2001 the relatively unknown Jim Broadbent won in supporting for "Iris," while his on-screen wife Judi Dench competed in lead (she lost to Halle Berry for "Monster's Ball"). Wisely Broadbent had followed the example of other relative film unknowns who campaign in the second tier, even when they actually have as much if not more screen time than their celebrity costars who get nominated in a lead category. That strategy certainly paid off for Timothy Hutton in 1980 (his "Ordinary People" costar Mary Tyler Moore lost best actress to Sissy Spacek in "Coal Miner's Daughter") and Haing S. Ngor in 1984 (his "The Killing Fields" costar Sam Waterston lost best actor to F. Murray Abraham in "Amadeus").

Benicio Del Toro actually won the lead actor prize at SAG in 2000 for "Traffic" before being demoted to supporting by the acting branch, which classifies the nominated performances. Could Del Toro have overcome Russell Crowe, who won for "Gladiator"? After all, as mentioned above, there are those performances that are promoted and then prevail. Just two years ago Forest Whitaker won in lead even though his costar, James McAvoy, had more screen time in "The Last King of Scotland." And in 2001, Denzel Washington competed and won in lead for "Training Day" even though he had less face time than good sport Ethan Hawke, who was convinced to drop down to supporting, where he lost to Broadbent — who should also have been up in lead!

Like Winslet in "The Reader," Keisha Castle-Hughes was promoted for "Whale Rider" in 2003 but lost the lead actress race to Charlize Theron ("Monster"). Susan Sarandon suffered the same fate in 1981 when she was upped for "Atlantic City" and felled by Katharine Hepburn, who won her record fourth Oscar for "On Golden Pond." And then there was Anne Baxter, who probably would've won supporting actress for "All About Eve" in 1950 but acted too much like her screen role as an ingenue hell-bent on upstaging a veteran showbiz diva. Citing the fact that her character's name is in the title of the film, she insisted on campaigning for best actress opposite Bette Davis. Both got nominated and lost when the costars canceled each other out, giving the win to Judy Holliday ("Born Yesterday").

RELATED POSTS:

Heath Ledger's family plans to take his Oscar, which belongs to Matilda!

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

Heath Ledger wins top Aussie film award for 'The Dark Knight'

Does Heath Ledger have an Oscar I.O.U. for 'The Dark Knight'?

Posthumous Oscar nom for Heath Ledger's 'stunning' Joker?

Photo: Warner Bros.

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