June 16, 2021

Chadwick Boseman and the posthumous Oscar dilemma

Chadwick Boseman Premios Gotham
Chadwick Boseman passed away on August 28, 2020

As expected, Chadwick Boseman received a 2021 Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. The late performer’s performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has been part of the conversation in the entertainment world for months. However, the posthumous quality of recognition causes curiosity. Boseman adds a rare list that we summarize for you below.

Indeed, the nearly ten-minute monologue of the late Chadwick Boseman on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, caused a sensation. It was not only one of the high points of a complex film, but also a demonstration of the actor’s considerable talent. As if that weren’t enough, it gave the cinema one of its most powerful moments in an atypical year.

Even before its release, Boseman’s participation in the film was considered essential to understanding its scope and significance. But, with his surprise death, the actor became part of an uncomfortable debate. The immediate consequence was a stir and a discussion about the actor’s merits to earn an Oscar nomination. That, despite his physical absence and the fact that the Academy Award is recognition of an actor’s work, not his physical absence. Could the two be confused?

It is a complicated conflict, much more so in times with a wide debate about political correctness. But in reality, Boseman was from the get-go a strong contender in future awards season. At the time of his death, he was part of the essential names of an atypical year. Not only for his performance in the George C. Wolfe film, but also for his participation in Da 5 Bloods de Spike Lee.

After the tragedy was known, there were rumors about the fact of a possible posthumous Oscar nomination. Whether it was for one movie or another, it was clear that the name of Boseman would be part of the selection box, which in the end happened.

A singular group

A posthumous nomination is not uncommon, but the Academy grants the honor with great caution. In particular, to avoid the possibility that the award will become a tribute – undoubtedly deserved – to the actor or artist in question. But the institution has always tried to honor the work of active artists, with the intention of showing the best of a particular year. A posthumous recognition is a specific message, which departs from the objectives of the Academy.

But in Boseman’s case, it was an unavoidable consequence. The actor had already attracted attention with his incarnation of an ambitious trumpeter who must confront racism. The sequence with a close-up of his face, in which his character narrates his life moved the public to tears and dazzled the critics. The fragment also configured the subtext of cultural and social criticism of the entire work. So, most likely, Boseman would also have received the nomination had he been alive.

But by obtaining it after his death, he joins the few 79 figures who have received posthumous Oscar nominations. In the case of the actors, only 7 have managed to reach the list of nominees after passing away. It is an event that the Academy handles with great delicacy and care. Either by not sending the message that the candidate will be awarded only for his death or because it is not a tribute award. Whatever the reason, the Oscar prize takes special care of awarding figures in absentia.

The complicated story of an Oscar that will never get into the right hands

The first actress to receive a posthumous nomination was Jeanne Eagels, for her performance in the film. The Letter 1929. The gritty role depicted Eagels (known for a scandalous life off-screen) as a cold, calculating killer. The combination of factors made her a popular figure almost instantly. The role astonished many of the voters and his name was included before finishing production. It was the highlight of the artist’s life.

But Eagels failed to enjoy the success of his work. The actress died months before the film hit theaters. However, the Oscar decided to include her among the nominees, despite criticism against the possibility. They talked about his addiction to heroin and alcohol, as well as his messy life. But the Academy insisted on giving relevance to his work, although in the end he lost the statuette to Mary Pickford for Coquette by Sam Taylor

Despite that, Eagles have a rare honor. She remains the only woman to be nominated after her death for her performance in a movie. However, what happened around him – and especially, the debate about the relevance of the award – was a lesson for the nascent Academy. After all, the question was how to differentiate a tribute to a fruitful career cut short prematurely, from a recognition of a particular job.

In fact, the debate never ended. Several members insisted that in fact, a posthumous award could be a confusing message about the purpose of the Oscar. Especially when the award involves stimulating the Industry and its future repercussions. In the end, Eagles was the center of a discussion that bore his name for decades.

Oscar to celebrate life or death?

Perhaps for that reason, it would take 26 years for another actor to be recognized after his death. On this occasion it was James Dean, protagonist and determining face in the drama East of Eden scored by Elia Kazan. As curious as it may sound (and despite its current repercussion), Dean only starred in four films. And in fact, only two made it to the big screen in their lifetime. The actor lost the Oscar to Ernest Borgnine for Marty (1955) by Delbert Mann.

Spencer Tracy, another iconic actor, was also posthumously nominated for the drama. Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967) by Stanley Kramer. Tracy died of a heart attack just a week and a half after completing production on the film. And he lost the award to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night.

It would be in 1977 when an actor managed to win the award posthumously. Peter Finch, nominated for his performance in Network Sidney Lumet, died of a heart attack after the film’s release. Finch’s widow, Eletha, accepted the Oscar in his place and gave a fitting speech on the value of life. It was rumored to be a less than subtle suggestion from the Academy.

In 1984, British actor Ralph Richardson received a posthumous nomination as a supporting actor for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan by Hugh Hudson. Richardson died at age 80 of a stroke. The actor lost the Oscar to Haing S. Ngor, who that year played an extraordinary character in The Killing Fields.

The big exceptions to the award

A very curious case is that of the actor and screenwriter Massimo Troisi. The Italian actor starred in and wrote The postman 1995. By the time the film became an international success, the artist had been dead for more than a year. During the 1996 awards, he became the first posthumous multi-nominee in the Academy’s history. In the actor category he lost the statuette in front of the immense Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.

Finally, in 2008 Heath Ledger earned a posthumous nomination for his electrifying performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan. Died at 28 and months after the end of production, Ledger’s performance became legendary. The actor won the award and his family – parents and sister – accepted the recognition during the ceremony.

Will Boseman get the Oscar? Most likely, his death is not a factor that the Academy takes into special consideration during the awards ceremony. However, and perhaps for the wrong reasons, Boseman is already part of the Academy’s history.

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