Whether you love crime dramas, coming of age movies, or epic blockbusters, if you’re a film buff, odds are good you have at least some interest in the Oscars. These highly coveted awards enshrine our favorite movies and performances in Hollywood history.
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However, what some don’t realize is that you don’t actually have to be alive to win an Oscar. There have been a few instances throughout the history of the awards when winners and nominees have earned recognition for their work after their deaths.
Posthumous Oscars aren’t just occasional special awards Hollywood gives to honor major figures who’ve passed on. There are occasions when Oscar winners and noms receive acclaim in the standard competitive categories.
This guide will cover a few examples. But first, let’s learn more about the Oscars themselves.
What Are the Academy’s Rules About Posthumous Oscars?
The rules dictating who is and is not eligible to win an Oscar in a given year can change over time. The information here is based on the most recent standards. It’s worth keeping in mind that the rules may have been different in the past, and may change again in the future.
Right now most Oscar categories allow for posthumous wins and nominations. The only exceptions are the awards for scientific and technical achievements (including certain “special awards” in these categories) and the Governors Awards, which consist of such examples as the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Other than that, essentially anyone can win a posthumous award in the traditional categories.
However, the fact that no one can posthumously receive such awards as the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award exemplifies how the Oscar rules have changed over time. A glance through the list of posthumous Oscar winners and nominees indicates there have been times in the past when the Academy would give such awards posthumously. For example, Audrey Hepburn received a posthumous Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
Famous Posthumous Oscar Winners and Nominees
Again, numerous Hollywood figures have won Oscars or received Oscar nominations after their deaths. This list couldn’t possibly cover all of them. Instead, these are merely a few particularly noteworthy examples.
Interestingly, because none of these people were alive to accept their awards, important figures in their lives (such as collaborators or family members) often accepted them on their behalf. The speeches they delivered, like some of the world’s most famous eulogies, served to celebrate their lives and work on a nearly global stage.
1. Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal of Batman villain The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight (sorry, it’s true, that movie is more than a decade old!) proved to the remaining skeptics that comic book movies could genuinely offer Oscar-worthy performances. Fans tend to agree that Ledger’s performance would have garnered an Oscar win even if he hadn’t passed away.
Unfortunately, we did lose this talented star far too soon. His parents and sister accepted the award on his behalf, with his sister noting they also wished to dedicate the award to Ledger’s daughter, Matilda.
2. Walt Disney
Walt Disney won more Oscars than any other person. No one has beat his record yet. In 1954, he also set the record for most Oscars (four) won by a single person in a given year.
During the 1969 ceremonies, Disney also won a posthumous Oscar in the Best Animated Short category for Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.
3. Peter Finch
Even if you’re not a devoted fan of Peter Finch, thanks to his iconic “I’m mad as Hell” scene in Network (which should definitely be on your list of movies to watch before you die), odds are good you’re at least somewhat familiar with this acclaimed actor’s work. Sadly, Network would be Finch’s last performance (aside from an appearance in a TV movie that was technically released later in the same year).
While promoting Network in the Beverly Hills Hotel, Finch suffered a heart attack that took his life. This, fortunately, didn’t stop the Academy from recognizing his performance. They awarded Finch the Best Actor Oscar that year. His wife accepted the award on his behalf.
4. Howard Ashman
Howard Ashman’s posthumous Oscar story is unique. Why? Because the same year he won a posthumous Oscar (although he’d previously won another Oscar while alive) he also received posthumous nominations for other works that didn’t end up winning awards.
In fact, they couldn’t. That’s because Howard Ashman won a posthumous Oscar for his lyrical contributions to the song “Beauty and the Beast” from the film of the same name. The issue is, he had some pretty stiff competition: himself. Ashman also received nominations that year for his work on the songs “Belle” and “Be Our Guest.”
The Academy naturally couldn’t give Ashman an award for every song. That said, the fact that he received so many nominations in the same year proves Ashman was a genius whose work consistently impressed both peers and fans before he sadly succumbed to AIDS.
5. James Dean
James Dean will always stand as an example of a talented Hollywood star who left this world at far too young an age. However, in his short career (it’s easy to forget such an iconic actor only appeared in three films), he made a major impression, leaving behind a legacy that film-lovers cherish to this day.
The Academy also recognized his talent to some degree. While Dean never actually won any Oscars, he did receive posthumous Oscar nominations for his roles in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.
Few actors earn any Oscar nominations. Even fewer earn nominations at such a young age. A very select few earn multiple nominations when they’re still very young. Clearly, had Dean lived longer, he would have made an even bigger impact in the industry.
6. Bernard Herrmann
Bernard Herrmann is another major Hollywood figure whose posthumous Oscar recognition only consisted of nominations.
That said, he’s worth including because this composer famously collaborated with Hitchcock and revolutionized the way we approach film music. He received two posthumous nominations for Obsession and Taxi Driver in the same year.
Posthumous Oscars: Recognizing Lost Talent
It’s important to remember that these examples don’t represent all posthumous Oscar winners and nominees. They merely serve as reminders that, when an actor or filmmaker’s work is impressive enough, their peers may acknowledge it even after their death.
- “ACADEMY AWARDS OF MERIT.” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, www.oscars.org/sites/oscars/files/91aa_rules.pdf
- “Award-Winning Walt.” The Walt Disney Family Museum, 15 February 2012, www.waltdisney.org/blog/award-winning-walt
- Gajanan, Mahita. “Here's Who Has Won the Most Oscars Ever.” Time, TIME USA LLC, 25 February 2019, time.com/5148660/who-has-won-the-most-oscars/
- Hiskey, Daven. “Why Are the Academy Awards Statuettes Called Oscars?” Mental Floss, Pro Sportority Ltd., 22 February 2019, www.mentalfloss.com/article/48892/why-are-academy-awards-statuettes-called-oscars
- “James Dean.” Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, www.oscars.org/collection-highlights/james-dean
- Meraji, Shereen Marisol. “Latin Pride Swells For Mystery Model Behind Oscar Statuette.” NPR, NPR, 2 March 2014, www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/02/28/284081430/latin-pride-swells-for-mystery-model-behind-oscar-statuette
- “Posthumous Oscar Winners.” IMDb.com, Inc., https://www.imdb.com/list/ls020651181/
- Robinson, Joanna. “Inside the Tragedy and Triumph of Disney Genius Howard Ashman.” Vanity Fair, Conde Nast, 20 April 2018, www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/04/howard-ashman-documentary-disney-beauty-and-the-beast-little-mermaid-aladdin-alan-menken
- Usborne, Simon. “In the prime of death: The artists who didn't make it to the podium in this life.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media Ltd., 27 November 2013, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/in-the-prime-of-death-the-artists-who-didnt-make-it-to-the-podium-in-this-life-8968083.html