Until now, the late actor Chadwick Boseman had somehow never been nominated for an Academy Award, despite his astonishing performances as Jackie Robinson in 2013’s 42 and as James Brown in 2014’s Get on Up – not to mention his iconic role as the superhero T’Challa in 2018’s Black Panther.
That was finally rectified with Boseman’s nomination for best actor as an ambitious jazz trumpeter in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
It also puts Boseman, who died from colon cancer in August at 43, in one of the rarest and most bittersweet Oscar categories: the posthumous acting nominee.
Deceased nominees are not all that uncommon at the Oscars; there have been 79 in total before this year. But prior to Boseman, only seven actors had ever earned Academy Award nominations after their deaths.
The first posthumous acting nominee, Jeanne Eagels, didn’t technically receive an official nomination – the second Academy Awards only privately considered nominees among a board of judges. But Eagels has traditionally been listed among the women considered that year for best actress, for her performance in the 1929 film The Letter, as a lonely wife who murders her former lover after he rejects her advances. Eagels, who wrestled with addictions to alcohol and heroin, died at 39 a few months after production had wrapped on the film. She ultimately lost the statue to Mary Pickford for Coquette.
Whether she was an official nominee or not, to date, Eagels remains the only woman actor to be in the running for the Oscars after she died.
It was 26 years before another actor earned a posthumous nomination: James Dean, for the Elia Kazan drama East of Eden. Dean famously only starred in three films before his death at 24 in a car crash in 1955, and East of Eden, in which he played a headstrong son desperate for his father’s approval, was the only one of those movies released while he was still alive. Dean lost best actor that year to Ernest Borgnine for Marty (which also won best picture), but the following year, he was nominated again for his performance as a ranch-hand-turned-oil-tycoon in George Stevens’ sweeping Texas epic, Giant. Dean and his co-star and fellow nominee Rock Hudson both lost best actor to Yul Brynner for The King and I.
Another cinema icon, Spencer Tracy, had been nominated for an Oscar eight times, and won twice, prior to his performance in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as a father struggling to accept his daughter’s fiancé is a Black man (played by Sidney Poitier). Tracy, who had been in ill health for years, died of a heart attack at 67 just 17 days after completing filming. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner went on to earn 10 Oscar nominations, including for Tracy for best actor. He lost to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night (another best picture winner), but Tracy’s co-star and longtime companion Katharine Hepburn won for best actress.
In 1977, Peter Finch became the first actor to win a posthumous Oscar, for his performance as a mad-as-hell news anchor in the scabrous television satire Network. Finch died of a heart attack two months after the film’s debut in November 1976. Nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture, Network nearly swept the acting categories that year, with Faye Dunaway winning actress and Beatrice Straight nabbing supporting actress. Finch’s widow, Eletha, accepted his Oscar for best actor.
Eight years later – and 35 years after his first Oscar nomination – legendary British stage actor Ralph Richardson was nominated for supporting actor for 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, in which he played the 6th Earl of Greystoke, the grandfather of the man who would become Tarzan (Christopher Lambert). Before the film could open, Richardson died at 80 from a stroke. At that year’s Oscars, Haing S. Ngor won supporting actor for The Killing Fields.
Massimo Troisi, who starred and co-wrote the gentle 1995 Italian fable Il Postino, became the first actor nominated posthumously for multiple Oscars, for actor and adapted screenplay. Troisi’s heart had been damaged as a child from rheumatic fever, and during filming his health was so precarious that he could only manage to work for roughly an hour per day. The day after wrapping his role – as an ad-hoc postman tasked with delivering the mail to exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) – Troisi died at his sister’s home of a heart attack. He was 41. When it opened in the US one year later, Il Postino was an art-house sensation, earning five Oscar nominations, including for best picture. While the film did win for dramatic score, Troisi lost the acting trophy to Nicolas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas.
The most recent posthumous acting nominee is also only the second to win: Heath Ledger, for his electrifying performance as the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. A few months after he finished filming on Christopher Nolan’s superhero thriller, Ledger died, at 28, of an accidental overdose of prescription medication. When it opened six months later, The Dark Knight became an instant critical and commercial sensation, ultimately earning eight Oscar noms. Thirteen months to the day after his death, Ledger’s sister, mother and father accepted his Oscar for supporting actor.
Regardless of whether or not Boseman joins Ledger and Finch as one of three posthumous winners, his place in Academy Awards history is already secure.