Despite giving one of his generation's most acclaimed performances in 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," the late Heath Ledger never won an Oscar. Could his maniacal reinvention of one of comicdom's greatest supervillains finally land him the recognition he never received while he was alive?
"I think it's an incredible performance," said veteran actor Gary Oldman, his co-star in "The Dark Knight" who himself has drawn critical adoration for such films as "Sid and Nancy" and "Immortal Beloved." "I think it sets a new benchmark."
The hotly anticipated "Batman Begins" sequel has been screened recently in Los Angeles and New York, and the buzz has become deafening with news outlets like this one, this one and this one, hyping Ledger's work as the Joker as worthy of a Best Supporting Actor trophy. In the past, Oscar has nominated such deceased actors as Spencer Tracy, "Il Postino" star Massimo Troisi and James Dean.
"I have no idea," insisted "Knight" director Christopher Nolan when asked about Ledger's shot at an Oscar. "I think it's a great performance, and I'm very excited to get it out there and to have everybody able to respond to it."
"Knight" hits theaters July 18. Some five months later, the time will come for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to cast their votes. Ledger's co-stars already know how they'll be marking their ballots.
"He hit it in the entire performance," marveled Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose brother, Jake, was Ledger's "Brokeback" co-star. "It's so difficult to do that in a huge movie like this and much easier to do in the tiny movies. That's why those are always the people who win Academy Awards."
With that statement, Gyllenhaal raised the issue that might ultimately work against the Joker this winter: Hollywood's lack of respect for popcorn movies. In the eyes of some, "Knight" will never be more than a superhero movie about a guy in a cape battling a dude dressed as a clown; ultimately, its mainstream appeal might not signal intelligent, Oscar-worthy fare.
"This kind of movie is not the kind of movie that you would usually anticipate garners awards for actors," Bale agreed. "But Chris has made such a smart movie that there is that possibility, even if it never happens, that people are at least considering that."
"In a huge action movie it is so hard to be free enough [to create an awards-worthy performance]," Gyllenhaal explained. "Heath was [amazing]; it's so unusual, and it happens really rarely even for the best actors, that you just hit this stride in a role and you're totally free. And when that happens, you can do no wrong. It's incredible to be around, and that's what it was like with him."
Also working against the recently deceased actor is the fact that only one star has ever received a posthumous acting Oscar. It was Peter Finch, who won for his iconic performance as Howard Beale, "the mad prophet of the airwaves," in 1976's "Network."
Soon enough, Ledger's legion of fans will be able to see the film themselves and understand why the critics, taking Joker's new catchphrase — "Why so serious?" — to heart, have become so serious. In the meantime, however, it seems as though the Oscar race has begun.
"Absolutely," Bale said of an Oscar for Ledger. "Heath has done a phenomenal enough job that I would not be surprised."
"I think it's one of the most psychologically scariest screen villains ever; I think it out-villains Hannibal Lecter," Oldman agreed. "It would surprise me if he didn't get a posthumous Oscar for it."
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