For months now, everyone (me included) has insisted that the late Heath Ledger of The Dark Knight is a lock for winning the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor on Feb. 22nd. I still think it will happen, despite the fact that the Academy has awarded only one single posthumous Oscar in its 82-year history. And that was to Peter Finch for his mad-as-hell TV anchorman in 1976's Network. What I'm saying is the Academy doesn't rush into these after-death honors. James Dean was just 24 years old when he died in a car crash in 1955 and became the first actor in Oscar history to win a posthumous acting nomination, for his performance in East of Eden. Dean received a second posthumous nomination the following year for Giant. He lost both times. Don't get me wrong. Ledger, who was 28 when he died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, definitely deserves the prize. His tour de force as the Joker belongs in a time capsule. I wouldn't envy the actor who beat him and had to get up there on Oscar night and accept the prize with Ledger's family in attendance. As an experiment, who would you pick as Best Supporting Actor if Ledger's name wasn't on the ballot? Here are the nominees:
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN in DOUBT
As Father Flynn, the parish priest suspected by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) of behaving inappropriately with an altar boy, Hoffman nails every nuance in a complex role. Back in 2005, it was Hoffman who won the Oscar for Best Actor in Capote when Ledger was considered the favorite for his heartbreaking portrayal of the gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain. Could that upset happen again?
ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. in TROPIC THUNDER
As Kirk Lazarus, an Aussie actor who has already collected five Oscars for losing himself in his roles, Downey ups his own ante on risk-taking. To prepare for the film role of African-American Sgt. Lincoln Osiris Kirk alters his voice and dyes his skin black. Kirk won't stop talking black even when the camera stops rolling. "I don't break character till the DVD commentary," says the out-of-control actor. Downey is so off-the-charts hilarious that you want to stand up and cheer.
MICHAEL SHANNON in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
While his two costars, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, failed to score acting nominations for this drama about a 1950s marriage rotting in the suburbs, Shannon managed the feat. As John Givings, the institutionalized son of a gossipy realtor (Kathy Bates), the volcanic Shannon plays the role like a heat-seeking missile that targets hypocrisy, spitting truth at the young marrieds. He's electric.
JOSH BROLIN in MILK
As Dan White, the troubled San Francisco supervisor who shot and killed Harvey Milk, Brolin is simply astounding at revealing the inner torment of a man at odds with his own emotions. At a party, a drunk Dan approaches Harvey in a piercing display of yearning and isolation. It's a piercing scene, intensified later by an image of Dan naked in front of a window, utterly alone. Devastating.
MY CHOICE? Josh Brolin. His stature as an actor grows with each film, and this is his best, most deeply felt performance to date.
YOUR CHOICE? Let's hear it.