Winning an Oscar can be the greatest moment in a film professional’s life… or after it, as the case may be. In the history of the Academy Awards, a few dozen nominees haven’t lived to hear their names read onstage at the ceremony, and a handful of them have actually won their Oscars posthumously.
Tonight, the 83rd Academy Awards will be broadcast. Today, we feature a few of those winners and nominees who never got the chance to attend their own Oscars ceremonies.
Jeanne Eagels (6/26/1890 – 10/3/1929) made history by being the first person posthumously nominated for an acting Oscar, in the 2nd Academy Awards. Born in Kansas City, Eagels quit school just after her first communion to go to work in a department store, and by age 15 she was on her own, touring the Midwest with a traveling theater show. She moved on to New York City, where she was a Ziegfeld Girl and acted on Broadway. In her short movie career, she completed just nine films. She was nominated for Best Actress for her 1929 film, The Letter, a crime drama that was released in both silent and talkie versions. Eagels played a married woman who is having an affair – and then kills her lover. Based on a W. Somerset Maugham play, the movie was remade in 1940 with Bette Davis in Eagels’ role. Davis, too, was nominated for an Oscar for the role, but neither woman won. Davis lost to Ginger Rogers, and Eagels lost to ‘America’s Sweetheart’ Mary Pickford (who had notably been snubbed a year earlier in the 1st Academy Awards, first in a long line of often-baffling Oscar snubs).
Peter Finch (9/28/1916 – 1/14/1977) was another history-maker: almost 50 years after Eagels’ nomination, he became the first person to actually win a posthumous acting Oscar. Finch was a British-born Australian actor with a 40-year movie career behind him at the time of his death – and he had received a previous Oscar nomination, for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. But it wasn’t until 1976, the year before his death, that he’d put in his Best-Actor-winning performance in Network. Finch played crazed anchorman Howard Beale, whose impassioned rant “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” became a national catchphrase. The movie also won a Best Writing Oscar for Paddy Chayefsky, as well as awards for Faye Dunaway as Best Actress and Beatrice Straight as Best Supporting Actress. As of 2011, it’s the last movie to have taken three of the four acting Oscars – although The King’s Speech has a chance to duplicate the feat this year, with fellow Australian Geoffrey Rush nominated along with Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter. Network is in the AFI’s Top 100 Films, and it’s in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. And the movie’s achievements go on, with one more notable one from Finch himself: he was the first Australian actor to win an Oscar.
Of course, the Academy Awards aren’t just about actors, and posthumous awards have been given in several categories. Walt Disney (12/5/1901 – 12/15/1966) was a notable winner as a producer, taking the 1968 award for Best Animated Short. Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day was the only Winnie the Pooh movie to win an Oscar, which was awarded to Disney more than two years after his death. The lag time isn’t too surprising when you consider the huge amount of work that has to go into an animated film, even a 25-minute one. Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day was shown as a featurette before The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, a Disney film that’s perhaps less well remembered than the Pooh vehicles (if it’s remembered at all). Blustery Day was, unlike some Pooh films, based on actual Winnie-the-Pooh stories by A.A. Milne, and it was later repackaged as part of the full-length The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. While Walt Disney would probably have enjoyed living to receive this Oscar, he didn’t miss his only chance to walk the Academy’s stage: he holds the records for both the most Oscar nominations, with 59, and the most Oscar wins, with 22.
A few notables have been nominated for multiple Oscars after their deaths, but only James Dean (2/8/1931 – 9/30/1955) received two posthumous Best Actor nominations – and they came in different years, for different movies. The iconic rebel received the first posthumous Best Actor nomination, for 1955’s East of Eden, released just six months before Dean’s death. By the time the awards ceremony took place in March 1956, Dean had been dead for months – and his fame had continued to skyrocket. But he lost the Oscar to Ernest Borgnine for his role in Best Picture Marty (incidentally, Marty was another Best Screenplay win for Network’s Paddy Chayefsky). The following year, Dean’s final film, Giant – completed after his death and released in late 1956 – brought him another posthumous Best Actor nomination. But once again, the statuette went to someone else. This time it was Yul Brynner, who won for his lead role in the smash musical The King and I. Dean’s too-short career brought him no Oscars – indeed, no awards of any kind – though he received BAFTA nominations for East of Eden and his Oscar-snubbed but most enduring movie, Rebel Without a Cause.
Heath Ledger (4/4/1979 – 1/22/2008) is the only posthumous winner of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and he joins Peter Finch in a very exclusive – and very Australian – club. Ledger and Finch are the only two actors to actually win an Oscar posthumously. Ledger won his Oscar for his unhinged turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight. It was his only Oscar win, but not his only nomination – three years earlier he had received the Best Actor nomination for his role in Brokeback Mountain, losing to Philip Seymour Hoffman and his Capote performance. As outstanding as Ledger was in Brokeback Mountain, many agree that the Joker really was his crowning achievement and that the Oscar was truly deserved, not just an emotional reaction to his sudden and shocking death. To prepare for the role of the Joker, Ledger spent a month alone in a hotel room perfecting the psychotic clown’s mannerisms, voice and personality… even writing a diary as the Joker to develop a sense of the character’s thoughts and tone. And it paid off, resulting in a nuanced and deadly-serious take on the over-the-top comic book villain.
Other prominent posthumous Oscar nominees include George Gershwin, nominated for Best Song in 1937’s Shall We Dance; Spencer Tracy, nominated for Best Actor in 1967 for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; and Audrey Hepburn, who was given the honorary Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award just two months after her 1993 death. This year, there are no posthumous nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards. It’s a relatively rare phenomenon, and it should be – these brilliant artists we honor should get to keep showing us what they can do for years to come.