The general consensus in Hollywood is that the late Heath Ledger is a sure bet for an Oscar nomination for his turn as the maniacal Joker in The Dark Knight. It is also widely believed that his posthumous presence at the Academy Awards show will provide a much-needed ratings boost to a broadcast whose audience has been shrinking exponentially.
Were Heath Ledger to win the Oscar for supporting actor, he would become only the second actor in the history of the awards show to win an award posthumously. The first was presented to Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Oscar for best actor for his performance as the wildy intense television anchorman Howard Beale in Network.
A significant number of actors have been nominated posthumously for the award, including James Dean, Ralph Richardson, and Spencer Tracy. In 1994 – and this was the last time an actor was nominated for a posthumous Oscar – Massimo Troisi was nominated for Il Postino.
History has demonstrated that there is a causal relationship between the ratings of the Oscar broadcast and the presence of high-profile nominees. Which is to say, when a popular actor is up for an academy award, the show garners excellent ratings. And the show is in desperate need of a ratings boost. Last year, ratings were the lowest in the show’s history (The show drew a paltry 32 million viewers last year. In contrast, the 1998 broadcast – which was the year Titanic was nominated – drew over 55 million viewers.)
This year the academy has taken bold new steps to boost ratings. In addition to showing clips of non-nominated movies, the academy will, for the first time, allow commercials to shown of soon-to-be-released movies, hoping to create, as Los Angeles Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz puts it, “a Super Bowl-type climate in which splashy ads generate almost as much buzz as the show.”
The notion of a Ledger nomination raises important questions. Is it unethical for Warner Bros. (the studio that made The Dark Knight) to pursue an aggressive marketing campaign designed specifically to gain support for Ledger’s nomination?
One person who believes this to be the case is Terry Gilliam, who directed Ledger in what was to be his last film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnasus. Speaking about Warner Bros. in an interview with London’s Telegraph, he said, “They’ll do anything to publicize their film,” That’s just what they do and you can’t get upset because it’s bullshit. They’re like a great white shark which devours whatever it can.”
Source: Rachel Abramowitz, Studio is carefully balancing Ledger, Los Angeles Times, December 6, 2008