The Oscar race has a few thrilling races, and a few that are pretty much over. One of those was pretty much over on July 18, 2008. Technically, it took a little longer for Heath Ledger to become a mortal lock for Best Supporting Actor, but once The Dark Knight turned into a megahit, it was official. Now, everyone is ready to give Ledger his posthumous Oscar, with several pundits thinking that the other four nominees don’t really need to show up.
Josh Brolin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Downey. Jr and Michael Shannon will still be there, to back their movies and bask in the glow of their nominations. But each of them probably do not expect to beat Ledger at all. However, if the circumstances were different and Ledger wasn’t the heavy favorite, who would have a claim to Best Supporting Actor? If Ledger wasn’t nominated, or if he never played the Joker – or even if he was still alive – which other nominee might have been the Best Supporting Actor of 2008?
Assuming Brolin, Hoffman, Downey and Shannon were still nominees in this scenario, the race would obviously be tighter. Each of these actors could stake a claim, and several of them have the star power to take it home.
Michael Shannon would probably be the heavy underdog, though slightly less so in a category without Ledger. Shannon was the sole major nominee of Revolutionary Road, with only a few scenes and far less star power than Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. But Shannon’s live wire work stands side by side with Ledger’s for playing crazy, but never quite insane, characters. Still, the Academy was severely turned off by Revolutionary Road for some reason, and if they weren’t going to honor DiCaprio or Winslet, they wouldn’t do it for Shannon.
Robert Downey Jr’s nomination for Tropic Thunder is both a rare and obvious honor. Downey actually got nominated for playing in a comedy, which is a rarity nowadays. Playing in blackface was such a big stunt that even the humorless Academy couldn’t ignore Downey. The nomination is also a collective nod for all of Downey’s work during his latest comeback.The Oscars love a comeback story – which is partly why Mickey Rourke has become an Oscar favorite – so Downey would have had a better shot at his own comeback story without Ledger. If a comedy performance can still win at the Oscars, it would be in a supporting category. But even with no Ledger, Downey would have been a sleeper at best.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is rapidly becoming one of the Oscar’s newest favorite actors. Doubt gave Hoffman his third nomination in four years, and second in a row. With that track record, and Hoffman’s toe-to-toe showdowns with Meryl Streep in Doubt, Hoffman could have been a winner with those factors alone. With Ledger around, Hoffman would have to be the first or second runner-up. Yet without him, Hoffman could probably win another Oscar. However, the majority of buzz for Doubt went to Streep and Viola Davis, with Hoffman earning less enthusiastic raves than usual. Unlike his past nominations for Capote and Charlie Wilson’s War, critics and fans aren’t as head over heels for this Hoffman nomination.
That leaves Josh Brolin, who was even more overdue for a nomination than Downey. Having starred in half of the acclaimed movies of the last two years, and a few not so acclaimed ones, Brolin finally broke through for Milk. Alongside Best Actor favorite Sean Penn, Brolin could have made a case for Milk having two potential acting wins, if not for Ledger. Like Ledger, Brolin got nominated for playing a villain, albeit a more human and conflicted villain in Dan White. As one of the big “it” new big stars in Hollywood, Brolin would more than likely be considered the favorite in any other year. If Penn and Milk do lose in their categories, a Brolin win could have made up for it.
The reality is, however, that Brolin, Downey, Hoffman and Shannon will likely be background players to Ledger’s legacy this year. But after the hoopla for Ledger dies down, the other four nominees will be better appreciated, rather than be afterthoughts. Brolin’s continued rise, Hoffman’s predictable brilliance, Downey’s daring and Shannon’s breakthrough would be big enough storylines for an entire Oscar category in any other year. In that world, it would likely either be Brolin capping his two-year conquest of Hollywood with an Oscar, or Hoffman cementing himself as an all-time elite with Oscar number two.