The Posthumous Nomination

September 01, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

This summer, there has been considerable talk about an Oscar nomination, or even a victory, for Heath Ledger. Such discussion, while premature (the main "Oscar bait" films have not yet been released), is understandable. Ledger's interpretation of The Joker was, in a word, intense. Oscars have been handed out for less. (In some cases, much less.) And, while some will argue that Ledger's performance was hammy, the same could be said about Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs or Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.

Before I make my main point, let's agree that a Best Oscar nomination is only peripherally related to the aptitude of a performance. A lot goes into a nomination above and beyond the quality of acting: sentiment, popularity, publicity, likeability, past history… Winning an Oscar is as much about political gamesmanship as it is about talent. Consider Peter O'Toole, for example - an actor of legendary status who never won a Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor award (despite eight nominations in the former category) in large part because he exists as a Hollywood "outsider." George C. Scott had it right when he commented, "The whole thing is a goddamned meat parade." (He refused both his nomination for The Hustler and his statue for Patton.)

So, if it's not about acting, what is the Oscar about? It's about acclaim. It's about bathing in the plaudits of one's contemporaries. It's about enjoying the moment and sharing it with those near and dear. It's about getting a chance to nab more prestigious and/or lucrative opportunities in the future. For many actors, being nominated is something to aspire to, and winning an Oscar is the high point of a career. Nominees who share George C. Scott's sentiments are few and far between, especially as they walk the red carpet on the last Sunday in February.

It's for this reason that I believe the posthumous nomination should be banned. Or, to put it differently, dead actors should be declared ineligible. A dead man or woman cannot appreciate the celebration that centers upon a nomination. It's a nice footnote to a career, but there's something hollow about it. (Relatives of the actors get to feel good about the acclaim for their departed loved one, but is that justification?) More importantly, a posthumous nomination takes away a slot from someone who is still living. My belief has always been to celebrate the talent of individuals when they're alive and can enjoy it, rather than after they're gone. When someone is alive, the celebration is about him. He can appreciate it; he can participate. When he's dead, it's about everyone except him.

The situation would be different if it really, truly was all about the performance. In that case, the best five should be nominated regardless of whether they're alive, dead, or somewhere in between. But that's fantasy, not reality. If Heath Ledger is nominated, it will be impossible to determine how much the nomination is a result of his work in The Dark Knight and how much of it results from a desire to honor him because he died young and tragically. Would Peter Finch have won his Oscar had he survived? Impossible to say, but opinions are divided. There's no doubting that, especially in Ledger's case, the "sympathy vote" will be in play.

A significant portion of those reading this column are going to disagree with me, and I expect the requisite influx of hate mail. Let me emphasize that this is not intended as a slight against Heath Ledger, nor is it an indication that I don't find his performance to be "Oscar worthy." It's merely an indication that, because of what an Academy Award signifies for an actor, the honor should be reserved for the living. The dead should be removed from contention. That way, there's no controversy if a dead man is "snubbed" nor are there concerns that his death contributed to his nomination. (Yes, cynics like me think that way.) I don't seriously think the Academy will even consider such a rules change, but that's the way I feel.

Note: This will be the final "regular" ReelThoughts until late in the month. Beginning Thursday (September 4), coverage of the 2008 Toronto Film Festival will begin in this space. It will continue daily (or nearly daily - I might miss a day somewhere along the way) until Sunday, September 14.