I’ve been thinking a lot about Heath Ledger the last few weeks. I started out thinking of him for one reason, and then another one popped up, and I found myself saddened, once again, by his untimely death 13 years ago. I was a fan of Ledger’s from the first time I saw him, in the underrated 1999 high school-set adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things I Hate About You. He was funny and effortlessly charming and stole every scene he was in. Two years later, he became a movie star with A Knight’s Tale, another underrated flick that is just an absurd amount of fun to watch. He followed it up with a series of movies that were sort of forgettable — titles like The Four Feathers, Ned Kelly, The Order and The Brothers Grimm — and then showed us something entirely new with a bravura display of restraint in the wonderful 2005 drama Brokeback Mountain.
This wasn’t the first reason why I thought of him, though. No, that was because, when the Oscar nominations came out, and the five men in this category were listed, I instantly thought of The Dark Knight. Now, my personal feelings about the movie are not really germane to this conversation, but my feelings about his performance in the movie are. What he did in the film, playing the Joker, was transcendent. He elevated what I believe to be an intensely mediocre movie with a once-in-a-generation performance, a magnetic portrayal that could have fallen into parody, but instead seemed to personify the very essence of both terror and anarchy. Simply put, Heath Ledger played what has become one of cinema’s seminal and most devastating villains.
And then, suddenly, six months before the highly anticipated movie was to be released, he died. It was an accidental overdose, a mixing of medications that led to tragedy.
The road to the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was a preordained one. There was never a question that Ledger would win the trophy, and when his name was announced, his parents and sister went up on stage to accept the award in his honor.
Now, the question was asked at the time, and still is to this day, Would Ledger have won if he hadn’t died? Here are the four other men who were also nominated in the category: Josh Brolin for Milk, Michael Shannon for Revolutionary Road, Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Doubt, and Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder. It’s an impressive list, for sure, but I have to say, even if Heath had lived, I don’t think there’s any way he wouldn’t have won. I know that’s a lot of double negatives, but it suits the purpose here. Heath Ledger was a terrific actor who gave an otherworldly performance in one of the biggest and most beloved movies of all time (and, rightly or wrongly, is considered by many to be the best superhero movie ever made), and he deserved that Oscar. The fact that it was a posthumous honor only cemented the certainty of it, but didn’t actually make it happen.
You probably think you know where I’m going with this, and to some extent, you’d probably be right, but I also want to talk about the second reason why I thought of Heath Ledger. That one came up only a couple of weeks ago, and the thing that I thought of was his performance in Brokeback Mountain. I mentioned above that he showed us something we hadn’t seen from him before. That’s not even the half of it. As Ennis Del Mar, Ledger played a man who was a prisoner in his own skin, a man so quiet and withdrawn, so conflicted and closeted, he seemed to live within himself. Ledger gave Ennis a certain stillness that, counterintuitively, also seemed to make him shimmer with the chaos that was roiling inside of him. It was an astounding thing to behold, and yet, it was completely overshadowed by Hoffman’s much bigger, gaudier, flashier performance as Truman Capote in Capote.
There was never any doubt in my mind that Hoffman was going to win, because his was the kind of performance that the Academy rewards, at the expense of the more thoughtful and devastating work personified that particular year by Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar. It’s not uncommon, and indeed even happened a year ago, when Joaquin Phoenix beat out the far more deserving Antonio Banderas. What Phoenix did was impressive, sure, but it was big and flashy and I think a lot of other actors could have done it. What Banderas did was controlled and quiet and self-aware in a way that few other people could have pulled off, and while Phoenix has done that kind of work before, it certainly wasn’t in Joker.
Now, you may be wondering if I’m going to get to the point of why, exactly, these two films and these two performances came to mind, and what, exactly, they have to do with the category. Well, you’re in luck. It’s time for me to tell you, but before I do that, here are the nominees.
Anthony Hopkins, The Father, Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Gary Oldman, Mank, Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal and Steven Yeun, Minari.
First and foremost, let’s get it out of the way that, as fine an actor as Gary Oldman is and as good as he is in Mank, he just won this award three years ago for his phenomenal performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. I love Oldman as an actor and think he earned his place here, but this is one of those years when the nomination is the reward.
Likewise, I think that in most other years, Riz Ahmed would be the frontrunner for this award, or at least he would be a bigger part of the discussion. Over the last couple of days, I’ve talked about performances that were not in the actor’s first language. For native Bulgarian Maria Bakalova, it was English. Paul Raci had an alternative challenge, giving a performance in two languages at once: English and American Sign Language. Same for Ahmed, who also had to learn ASL for the role (Raci, in case you missed the Supporting Actor entry, grew up the son of deaf parents and so has been speaking ASL his whole life). Ahmed is terrific as a drummer losing his hearing, and the way he struggles with this and seems to fight against his own body in an effort to reclaim some semblance of his life, is powerful, to say the least. The final shot of the movie, played out in silence, stays with the viewer for a long time after the film fades to black, and that is entirely because of Ahmed. It’s splendid work, but, like Oldman, I don’t think he has a prayer of winning.
The one person who might, possibly, conceivably pull an upset is The Father’s Anthony Hopkins, now nominated for the second straight year after his Supporting Actor nod a year ago for The Two Popes. At 83 years old, Hopkins became the oldest ever nominee in this category and it’s well-earned, with some of the best screen work he’s ever done. As a man losing his mind to dementia, Hopkins is charming and cantankerous and cruel and pitiful and helpless and tragic, all at once. The viewer is both with him and against him throughout. We find him frustrating, even as we hope he can find a glimmer of his old self and understand what’s happening to him. It’s really something and serves as a reminder of just how good Hopkins can be when he’s not just working for a paycheck. This is, after all, Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the flesh, another of the great cinematic villains. This is a man to be reckoned with.
You’ll notice that I’ve named three of the nominees and that the third of them is the only one who I think could pull an upset. That still leaves two more nominees, one of whom, obviously, is almost certainly going to win. That, of course, is Chadwick Boseman, who spends almost two hours simmering with anger before he finally explodes, tragically and violently, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Boseman lost a long battle with cancer at the end of August. It was a battle that a lot of people, myself included‚ hadn’t even known he was fighting. The loss of Boseman was a pretty epic one, not just because of his unrivaled talent. He played four icons of the 20th century: Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa, the Black Panther. Yes, one of those roles was a fictional character, but you cannot deny the power of Marvel’s Black superhero coming to the big screen. The film was a monster hit, one of the highest-grossing movies ever, a veritable cultural phenomenon, and with it, Boseman arrived as one of the biggest stars in the world. He carried the 2019 cop movie 21 Bridges (he’s good, the movie isn’t) and shined in Spike Lee’s first foray with Netflix, 2020’s Da 5 Bloods, but it was his impending role in another Netflix film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, that really had people talking.
And then, suddenly, just a few months before the highly anticipated movie was to be released, he died.
When the movie came out the anticipation proved justified. Boseman was spectacular as a doomed horn player and owns every moment of every scene he’s in, even when he’s going toe to toe with Viola Davis’ title character. Boseman’s final performance is a tour de force, no question about it. Nor, for that matter, is there any question of whether or not he’s going to win. He is.
But, and I think you knew this was coming, there is one thing to be asked about this. As brilliant as he is in the film, would he be so sure a thing if he hadn’t died? This takes nothing away from his work in the movie. Seriously, I just talked about how brilliant he was. And yet, it is a valid question. We’ll never know, of course, and I think it’s probable that he would have, but I do believe that the terrible tragedy of his death locked it in stone. Does he deserve it? Absolutely, he does, but I wonder about what kind of race it might have been between him, Hopkins, and Ahmed, had he lived.
All this leads us back to Heath Ledger and his performance in Brokeback Mountain, and why I’ve been thinking about him so much recently. The connection between his win for The Dark Knight and Boseman’s almost certain victory is clear. What might be less so is why I spoke so much about Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar. Well, if you’ve read this far, then you get rewarded with the reason.
It’s because of the quiet strength and grace that Minari’s Steven Yeun brings to his role of Jacob, a Korean immigrant struggling to provide for his family in early 1980’s Arkansas. Due to the vagaries of how one watches movies these days, I finally saw it a couple of weeks ago, and only then did the connection become clear. Just as Heath Ledger was never going to win an Oscar for the stillness and power he brought to Ennis, so is Steven Yeun not going to win for the same type of performance he gives as Jacob. Just as you can almost see the sadness and loneliness emanating from Ennis, so does it appear to be coming off Jacob. There’s never a moment when you don’t yearn to help him, to relieve his pain, to give him a hug and try to reassure him that it’s going to be okay, even though you’re never quite sure that it will be.
It’s really hard to play that kind of thing. The instinct is always to do more, so when you do less there is a danger of not doing enough, of looking wooden or unnatural. It’s a razor-thin line to walk and be able to pull it off. Ledger did it 15 years ago. Yeun does it now. Both are stupendous and worthy of great admiration, and both are honored with a nomination, but not a win.
WHO SHOULD WIN: Steven Yeun
WHO WILL WIN: Chadwick Boseman