So today is Easter–Orthodox Easter, or, one might say, Correct Easter–and it inspired me to do an entry about posthumous Academy Award winners.
The Academy began nominating the dead from the very first awards, and the first person to receive a posthumous nomination was writer Gerald Duffy for The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927), for Best Title Writing. Duffy was the only person in this swiftly-discontinued category to be nominated for one movie; the winner, Joseph W. Farnham…
You all know who he is, don’t play that hipster game.
…won for “No specific film,” further proving that the early awards really had no idea what they were doing. The other nominee, George Marion, Jr., was similarly nominated simply due to having the job of title writing. So, one could say that ol’ Duffy’s loss was also the upset in Oscars history. He died as he lived: dictating a script over the phone.
“My darling, I love you, please don’t oh god, my heart. Got it. Anything else, sir? Sir?”
Jeanne Eagels became the first performer to score a nomination the following year, in the category of Best Actress for The Letter, only to lose to Mary Pickford. Incidentally, when The Letter was remade by William Wyler in 1940, Bette Davis received a Best Actress nomination for the same role as Eagels, Leslie Crosbie, making it the first time two performers received Oscar nominations for playing the same character.
The first person to win a posthumous Oscar would be Sidney Howard, for the screenplay of Gone with the Wind (1939). This, despite the fact that several other writers worked on the script and the writing process, based on the final result, seems like it was limited to holding the book open and copying literally everything within. Howard remains the only posthumous writing winner.
Daffy Duck put it best when he said, “It’s getting so you have to kill yourself to sell a story around here.”
The “deadest” ceremony in Academy history so far has been the 32nd, which featured two posthumous winners: Sam Zimbalest, producer of Best Picture Ben-Hur, and William A. Horning, winner of Best Art Direction for the same. This was Horning’s second consecutive posthumous award, having won the same award the year before for Gigi, making him the only person to win two posthumous Oscars.
The longest time a posthumous nominee spent dead before winning is eighteen years, due to the strange saga of Charles Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight. Upon its initial release, it was critically panned and even boycotted, until finally being screened in Los Angeles for the first time in 1972. Since this was, technically, its L.A. premiere, it was eligible for the 45th Academy Awards, where it won Best Original Score (Dramatic). This was Charlie Chaplin’s only competitive Oscar, easily the Academy’s most contrived “Sorry we screwed up” awards.
“Feels just like I always imagined it…”
Anyway, his two collaborators were also given the award, but both were long dead…Raymond Rasch, who died in 1964, and poor Larry Russell, dead since 1954. Due to the unusual circumstances, it is the only instance of two posthumous winners for the same film in the same category.
And who has received the most Academy attention while dead? That would be Howard Ashman, songwriter, who holds the record for most posthumous nominations with four (of seven total in his career), all for Best Original Song. Three of them were for Beauty and the Beast (1991)–“Belle”, “Be Our Guest”, and “Beauty and the Beast” (the winner). He then received another nomination the following year for Aladdin, for the song “A Friend Like Me”. Another song from the same film, “A Whole New World”, won the Oscar.
He’d won an Oscar while alive for “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid, so don’t feel too bad for him. Or, do…I mean, he still died at 40.
Finally, some acting milestones:
- Massimo Troisi is the only person to score posthumous nominations for acting and writing, for Il Postino (Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay) at the 68th Academy Awards. Alas, both were unsuccessful.
- Only two performers have won posthumously: Peter Finch for Best Actor (Network ) and Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor (The Dark Knight ).
- James Dean remains the only performer with two posthumous nominations, both for Best Actor, for East of Eden (1955) and Giant (1956).
- Best Lead Actor is the acting category with the most posthumous nominees, with five. In addition to those above, Spencer Tracy was nominated for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
- Besides Heath Ledger, the only other posthumous Best Supporting Actor nominee was Ralph Richardson for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984).
- The aforementioned Jeanne Eagels is the only posthumous Best Actress nominee, and there has never been a posthumous nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
I suppose I should close with honorable mentions for Dalton Trumbo, Carl Foreman, and Michael Wilson, all of whom won writing Oscars through fronts while blacklisted in the 1950s. Their proper credits, and places in Oscar history, were restored posthumously (and a little too late, if you ask me) by the Academy in the 80s and 90s. Meanwhile, Trumbo’s front for Roman Holiday (1953), Ian McLellan Hunter, may be the only person to lose an Oscar posthumously, since the Academy now, justifiably, gives Trumbo sole credit for its win for Best Story.
Pictured: the moment after Hunter said to Audrey Hepburn, “Look, I won an Oscar, too!”