The last time an actor won an Academy Award after his death it took no less than a manic, tour-de-force performance that included exhorting Americans to throw open their windows and scream, “I’m as mad as hell and I am not going to take this anymore.”
That was the line Peter Finch made famous in 1976’s “Network,” when he played television newscaster Howard Beale who, courting a nervous breakdown and contemplating suicide over his disastrous ratings, turns into a wild-eyed, raving prophet of doom before his TV audience’s very eyes.
“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a Depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere seems to know what to do,” Finch screams maniacally in a darkly comic scene still popular on the Internet 33 years later.
The role won him the only Oscar awarded posthumously to an actor in the 81-year history of the Academy Awards. Just to be nominated posthumously for an acting Oscar is rare, with Heath Ledger only the sixth performer so honored Thursday.
Dozens of people have been nominated in less prominent categories, including screenwriting, costuming and music. Two who won posthumously were Sidney Howard for screenplay for 1939’s “Gone With the Wind” and Walt Disney for short subject (cartoon) for “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” in 1968.
“The fact that only one actor has ever won an Oscar from the grave tells us that in general at the Oscars, the feeling is when you’re dead, you’re dead,” Tom O’Neil, a columnist for TheEnvelope.com, told The Associated Press last year after Oscar buzz began to build for Ledger’s riveting performance as Batman’s malevolent nemesis The Joker in “The Dark Knight.”
Film legend James Dean was nominated for best actor twice after his death, for “East of Eden” in 1955 and “Giant” the following year. But Ernest Borgnine won for “Marty” in 1955 and Yul Brynner took the Oscar in 1956 for “The King and I.”
More recently, Massimo Troisi was nominated for lead actor for 1995’s “The Postman” but lost to Nicolas Cage who starred in “Leaving Las Vegas.” Ralph Richardson was nominated for supporting actor for 1984’s “Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” but Haing S. Ngor won for “The Killing Fields.”
A sentimental favorite for a posthumous award in 1967 appeared to be Spencer Tracy, who had died shortly after capping a brilliant career with his performance in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”
Tracy, who was the calm voice of reason among black and white parents concerned over their children’s planned interracial marriage, lost to Rod Steiger, who starred in the interracial drama “In the Heat of the Night.”
Like Dean, who died at age 23 in a car crash, Ledger, 28, was an up-and-coming star cut down in his prime. Tracy on the other hand had won Oscars twice before and had been nominated nine times in all.
Finch was 64 when he died of a heart attack two months before the awards ceremony. His widow accepted his Oscar.
Ledger has been nominated once before, for best actor for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain.” He lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman who won for “Capote.”