As Variety recently noted, 2008 is now more then half over and, save for a few below the marquee categories, the Oscar race is wide open. Of the films released so far this year, only Richard Jenkins' stand out performance in the indie drama The Visitor has garnered any acting buzz, and certainly no Best Picture contenders have bowed yet.
Longtime awards-watchers know that this is hardly anything new, as studios have always (at least since this all became a big expensive game) back-loaded their annual schedules with their Oscar bait pictures, hoping that the Academy's perceived short attention span will pay off in gold on Hollywood's night of nights. Naturally, things will start heating up once the fall film festivals begin screening their wares, followed by the annual prestige picture traffic jam known as December.
However, the big question of the year will soon be answered (in part at least) with the debut next week of The Dark Knight. And that question is: could the late Heath Ledger be nominated for an Academy Award for playing the Joker?
Prior to his accidental death in January, Ledger's performance was already gaining attention (for example, back in November, Kristopher Tapley at Variety's Red Carpet District called early online marketing for the film the start of the longest "For Your Consideration" campaign in Academy history); tragically or not, his death has served to increase that attention. By all accounts, Ledger's performance as the Clown Prince of Crime is both fearless and fearsome; could it overcome genre bias and get a nomination? After all, this is a comic book movie.
Well, one only needs to look back at the 1990 Oscars to see that it would not be without precedent. That year, Al Pacino was nominated not for playing Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, but for his hammy, over-the-top turn as another gangster, Big Boy Caprice, in Dick Tracy, based on the classic comic strip. He was even favored to win by some (Joe Pesci eventually won, for playing yet another gangster, in GoodFellas).
Furthermore, if Ledger is nominated posthumously (the last actor to be so recognized was Il Postino's Massimo Troisi in 1995), could he win? (Peter Finch remains the only actor to win after his death, for Network in 1976.) Obviously, only time will tell and, admittedly, most everyone has yet to see the actual movie in question (advance word, to say the least, is good). Of course, it is his performance that should be judged solely for the honor, but we all know emotions will play into Academy voters' decisions (as they always do, regardless of what is said otherwise). Surely the fact that this will be the last chance to recognize Ledger's talent will play into member's decisions once it comes time for them to mark their final ballots.
Another factor may play into this scenario as well ... call it the "Brokeback factor". As Daniel Day-Lewis so eloquently expressed it in his Screen Actors Guild Award acceptance speech earlier this year, many were moved by Ledger's heartbreaking performance as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain, and still are; his death has elevated it to iconic status, much like (another actor gone before his time) James Dean's Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause.
Academy history is riddled with instances of actors winning "make up" Oscars for previously snubbed performances, from Bette Davis (Dangerous instead of Of Human Bondage) and James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) to Cher (Moonstruck instead of Mask) and Russell Crowe (Gladiator for The Insider). So it is not that big a stretch to think that, in this instance, it could happen again.
Alas, the question remains: could an Oscar for Dark Knight, given in part for Brokeback memories, be Hollywood's final tribute to Heath Ledger?
Next week in part 2: Looking at the big picture, how the infamous Academy snub of Brokeback Mountain could help another eagerly awaited film's chances of scoring Best Picture glory.
UPDATE: Part 2 is now available.