Exactly one year to the day since his death from an accidental drug overdose, Heath Ledger was remembered Thursday with an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for his performance as the deranged Joker in “The Dark Knight.”
Ledger, who died at age 28, became the seventh actor to earn a posthumous nomination in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. If he wins the statuette at the 81st annual Academy Awards on Feb. 22, he will enter even more select company, for only one performer, Peter Finch, nominated for 1976′s “Network,” has ever won an Oscar after his death.
The other actors who left the scene before their work scored nominations include Jeanne Eagels (best actress, “The Letter,” 1929) to Spencer Tracy (actor, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” 1967), Ralph Richardson, (supporting actor, “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan,” 1984) and Massimo Troisi (“Il Postino,” 1994, best actor). Ledger’s career most closely resembles that of James Dean, another charismatic young actor whose unexpected death shocked his fans.
Dean, in fact, became a posthumous nominee not once, but twice. Following his death in a car crash on Sept. 30, 1955, he was nominated in the best actor category in two subsequent years — first for 1955′s “East of Eden” and then for 1956′s “Giant.”
Three years ago, Ledger was nominated as best actor for his work as a lovelorn cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain,” but it was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work in “Capote” that took home the prize.
Appearing in a big-budget superhero movie isn’t typically considered a sure road to Oscar glory. Even a pro like Jack Nicholson failed to win the Academy’s favor when he donned the Joker’s garish grin for 1989′s “Batman” — though he was nominated by BAFTA and the Golden Globe Awards.
But this year, Ledger looks like the prohibitive favorite: He’s already won a Golden Globe and also been hailed by critics groups like the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.