Awards analysis is provided by Sean from @MathTeacherMovies.
Prompted by tragedy, the situation around a posthumous Oscar nomination or win is always one of great complication and deep discussion. Many nominations have been awarded posthumously and with Chadwick Boseman being the front runner for Best Actor in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom another posthumous win seems to be a conversation that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Many people often make the argument, “this actor is only winning the Oscar because they died.” While it can be interpreted as disrespectful, it’s an understandable argument and might just be correct to a fault, but in the history of posthumous acting wins and nominations this wasn’t always the case.
The only two actors to ever win performance Oscars after passing away are Peter Finch for Network and Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight. It’s difficult to determine if they would have won if they were alive but, both performances were not only iconic at the time but also stood out and garnered attention from awards shows before their death. They were also previously nominated actors with great respect in the industry who have not received an award.
Two actors between Finch and Ledger were posthumously nominated for performance Oscars, Ralph Richardson was nominated for Grey Stroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes and Massimo Troisi for Il Postino. Richardson was a classically trained British actor and Troisi was also nominated for writing Il Postino. Neither were standouts so just the nomination alone was enough to honor them.
Jeanne Eagels was the first posthumous Oscar nomination in 1929. She lost, but it was only the second Oscars ever, and there was little to no precedent before or after the ceremony.
James Dean is the most unique case of the posthumous Oscar nomination. After tragically dying in a car accident, he was nominated for Best Actor in East of Eden and then the next year was nominated again for his performance in Giant. He lost to Ernest Borgnine for Marty and Yul Brynner for the King and I. Both were legends in their own time, but it’s still surprising considering James Dean’s superstardom.
Spencer Tracy was nominated for his final role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Tracey was literally dying while making the movie and still managed to give the role the gravitas it needed. However, Tracy had already won two Oscars and was established as a Hollywood icon. The academy knew he didn’t need a third Oscar to lock in what was written in cement.Not to mention he was nominated with Paul Newman for Cool Hand Luke, Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night, Warren Beatty for Bonnie and Clyde, and Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate which is an absolute murderers row of performances.
The common saying people use in this situation is that we should only award the performance and nothing else surrounding it, whether it be culture, politics, or popularity. This is true and this year Chadwick Boseman gave an oscar worthy performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. You might think someone else should win Best Actor and there are many talented candidates and in a vacuum maybe one of them would win! But the truth is this award, along with so many others, are more important than just the performance.
Finch won based on a stellar performance and a need to honor his storied legacy. Ledger won because of a stellar performance and because the public needed a way to bring closure to a life cut tragically short. Chadwick Boseman gave a stellar performance, has already amassed an important legacy thanks to his great work on Black Panther, and lived a life cut tragically short. Boseman actually feels like the most deserving posthumous candidate in a long time!
Boseman was taken far too early while showing a great amount of talent in the short career he had and he became a role model and inspiration to black youth everywhere. While I understand that it should go to the performance and not the actor, some things are just bigger than the performance and while Boseman does give a great performance, he deserves this honor for so much more.