NEW YORK – Last year’s Oscar nominations day was tragic. This year’s was bittersweet.
It was exactly one year ago Thursday when Heath Ledger was found dead in a New York apartment, just hours after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had announced its nominees. Outside the Soho building, a makeshift memorial of flowers and candles quickly accumulated.
The academy paid its own tribute to the actor Thursday by nominating him for best supporting actor, honouring his mad, incendiary performance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.”
“Today was the day,” said Josh Brolin, who last year was celebrating the Oscar success of “No Country for Old Men” when the news on Ledger broke. “It was a very sad day. I knew Heath loosely. I think it’s a great performance. It’s a very bittersweet thing.”
“The Dark Knight” earned eight nominations in total, but was shut out of other major award categories. Ledger’s nomination, though, came as expected.
Ledger, who died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs at the age of 28, was nominated along with Brolin (“Milk”), Robert Downey Jr. (“Tropic Thunder”), Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Doubt”) and Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”).
Many expect Ledger to win when the awards are handed out Feb. 22, which would make him only the second actor to posthumously win an Oscar following Peter Finch in 1976’s “Network.”
Other actors have been nominated after their deaths, though: Massimo Troisi (1994’s “The Postman”), Spencer Tracy (1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), Ralph Richardson, (1984’s “Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes”), Jeanne Eagles (1929’s “The Letter”) and James Dean (twice, for 1955’s “East of Eden and 1956’s “Giant”).
At the time of Ledger’s death, comparisons to Dean were rife – and perhaps always will be. Both were young, provocative talents snuffed out just as they were reaching full expression. But since “The Dark Knight” was released, Ledger seemed to make a mythology of his own.
A groundswell of acclaim and sentiment has coalesced around his performance. When the Golden Globes awarded him best supporting actor, the crowd stood in applause – the first standing-O of the night – as “Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan accepted the award for Ledger.
“That really hit us in the heart, you know?” his father, Kim Ledger, later said of the ovation. “I just really wish our boy was here to see that.”
At the podium, Nolan said he and those who worked on “The Dark Knight” accepted the award “with an awful mixture of sadness but incredible pride. After Heath passed, you saw a hole ripped in the future of cinema.”
Ledger’s mother, Sally Bell, has said his Golden Globe would be given to his three-year-old daughter Matilda.
“I just saw ‘The Dark Knight,”‘ said Richard Jenkins, nominated for best actor for his performance in “The Visitor.” “He’s extraordinary in it. I think the response that his win got at the Golden Globes is kind of how everyone feels. He was a brilliant, brilliant actor.”
A spokeswoman for Warner Bros. said Nolan and others from “The Dark Knight” would not have reaction to the nominations. A spokeswoman for actress Michelle Williams, the mother of Ledger’s daughter, said Williams would also not be commenting on Ledger’s nomination.
Ledger’s family was to hold a brief press conference in Perth, Australia on Friday morning.
It’s the second Oscar nomination for Ledger, who was nominated for best actor in 2006 for his performance as a gruff-voiced, gay cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain.” Before the Joker came along, it was his most indelible role. He lost the Oscar to Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”).
Ledger’s Hollywood career essentially started with the romantic comedy “10 Things I Hate About You” and continued with Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot” and the medieval adventure “A Knight’s Tale.” But Ledger began gravitating more toward indie fare, like “Monster’s Ball,” “Lords of Dogtown” and “The Brothers Grimm.”
In 2007, he played one of many Bob Dylans in the unusual biopic “I’m Not There.” Ledger’s musical side will also be posthumously displayed on an upcoming album paying tribute to singer-songwriter Nick Drake. On it, Ledger covers “Black Eyed Dog,” which he recorded in 2007 for an art installation.
Ledger’s posthumous on-screen life isn’t over yet, either. He died while in the midst of production on “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” which re-teamed him with “Brothers Grimm” director Terry Gilliam.
After Ledger’s death, Gilliam had to shut down “Dr. Parnassus” and the film’s future was in doubt since Ledger was a key performer in a film that had much still to shoot.
But Gilliam and writer Charles McKeown rewrote the script (it’s about a journey through the imagination via a magic mirror) so that the part could be played by not one, but a group of actors. Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell all joined to round out the part.
Gilliam has insisted Ledger was clean of illegal drugs at the time of his death, but rather was suffering from insomnia. The director is currently cutting “Dr. Parnassus,” which doesn’t yet have a release date.
Whatever might still be seen of Ledger’s work, though, a sense of loss was pervasive on the anniversary of his death.
“He would have been nominated either way. It has nothing to do with his passing,” said Ron Howard, who was nominated for directing “Frost/Nixon.” It’s a great piece of acting, and I, as a creative person, feel cheated in knowing I’ll never have the opportunity to work with him.”
Associated Press reporters John Carucci in New York and Derrik J. Lang in Los Angeles contributed to this report.