No Oscars for dead men

Somewhere there’s got to be an organization that defends the rights of people who have gone on to a better place from us bigoted deadphobics. So here’s something that ought to make them feel self-righteous and to get their dander up: not only should Heath Ledger not win an Oscar for playing the Joker in “The Dark Knight” — he shouldn’t even be nominated.

The late actor is nominated for Golden Globe and SAG awards in the supporting actor category for playing a comic book character. Make that an over-the-top comic book character who is supposed to chew up the scenery. Reference the king of scene-stealing Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s “Batman” from 1989. The character is a whack job that actors have fun with. Apparently the real-life fey Ledger couldn’t separate the two — he took the character to such extremes that he confided in associates that it wrestled with his psyche. And apparently with the psyches of some bamboozled critics.

Movie critics are making too big a deal out of the late actor’s performance. They’ve fallen under the spell of Ledger dying “before his time” and that he “left us too soon. ” Critics are praising Ledger more than they are his performance here. By doing so, Hollywood feels good about itself — as if they have any trouble convincing the public of that everytime the cameras roll.

It’s the James Dean syndrome that never seems to fade to black. “Live fast, die young — leave a good-looking corpse” was the mantra of movie hot rodders from hell who came after Dean’s death to pay in the end for his sins (and to scare vulnerable teens into the fact that speed kills.) Dean, that immortal actor of three major films in the 1950s, received two posthumous best actor nominations, for 1955′s “East of Eden” and 1956′s “Giant.” Every generation since, some youngactor has at one time or another been compared to Dean or, even worse, been called the “new James Dean.” The only time they get close on either count is when they die young.

Ledger’s Golden Globe competition doesn’t stand a chance against the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s award. Add to the stacked deck that Ledger was from Australia, and it’s a given. The competition is Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr. , both from the Ben Stiller comedy “Tropic Thunder.” Cruise has a cameo as a Hollywood executive (talk about over-the-top characters) and Downey is in black face because he portrays an African-American (it’s a send-up portrayal, but the sterotype may alienate voters who aren’t in on the joke.) Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a priest accused of naughty things by nun Meryl Streep in “Doubt.” The title says everything about an upset win for Hoffman over Ledger. And rounding out the lambs to the slaughter is Ralph (call me Raif) Fiennes in a Brit movie called “The Duchess” that no one has or will see.

The only posthumous Oscar awarded in the best actor category came in 1977 when Peter Finch won for playing the — yes, over-the-top — “mad prophet of the airwaves” TV anchorman Howard Beale in “Network.” His competition that year included Sylvester Stallone in the first “Rocky” and Robert DeNiro as the unhinged Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” Of course the main question will always go unanswered: Had Finch lived to attend the awards show would he still have won — or was the Academy more in the sympathetic mood when they cast their ballots? If you know the movie you may agree that the Beale role was actor-proof, a term lossely meaning that the role was so well-written most any seasoned actor could have scored a win with it. In fact, it was said that Henry Fonda was offered the role before Finch, but turned it down because there was a lot of foul language.

Nobody will cry foul if Ledger wins the Oscar for best supporting actor. An ex-gal pal will accept it and the audience will give the late actor a standing ovation — for bringing the dark resources of his psyche to the role — of a comic book character! The Golden Globes and the SAG awards are predictable — and so too are the Oscars, except for an occasional upset — which usually can be found in the supporting actor or supporting actress categories.

There are cases where posthumous awards are deserving — primarily when someone performs an act of bravery or heroism. As for movies, there should be a caveat: the person has to be living to get the award. When the Oscars present their posthumous awards during the broadcast, it’s usually given to someone who had a body of work that made a difference in the way we view or think or write about the movie industry. In effect, they left a lasting impression. Ledger left a lasting impression — of a comic book character!

In the Oscar-winning “Annie Hall” (everyone who won for that film in 1978 was alive) Woody Allen’s character, who has a great disdain for California (where he says the only cultural advantage over New York is “you can turn right on a red light’) scoffs at the fact that Hollywood gives awards out for everything — essentially liking it to self-gratification. Allen’s joke resonates every year at awards season.

This year look for the Joker to have the last laugh — from beyond the grave.

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