LOS ANGELES Jack Nicholson's Joker was a blast. Heath Ledger's Joker is as dark and anarchic a figure as Randle McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the role that brought Nicholson his first Academy Award.
Ledger's performance in the Batman tale "The Dark Knight" is so remarkable that next Jan. 22, the one-year anniversary of his death, he could become just the seventh actor in Oscar history to earn a posthumous nomination.
"I do think that Heath has created an iconic villain that will stand for the ages, and of course, I would love to see him get an award," said Christian Bale, who reprises his "Batman Begins" role as the tormented crime fighter. "But you know, to me, you can witness his talent, celebrate his talent within this movie. Anything else is gravy."
Superhero flicks usually are not the stuff Oscar dreams are made of. Yet Ledger delivered so far beyond anyone's expectations that he could end up as the second performer to win Hollywood's top honor after his death.
"He may be the first actor since Peter Finch. He may even win the damn thing," said Gary Oldman, who co-stars as noble cop Jim Gordon in "The Dark Knight," which hits theaters July 18.
Finch is the only person to win posthumously, earning the best-actor prize for 1976's "Network" two months after he died.
News of Ledger's death at age 28 from an accidental drug overdose broke just hours after the Oscar nominations were announced last January, darkening what normally is one of Hollywood's happiest days. The nominations next year fall on the same date because they were moved back two days from their traditional Tuesday announcement to avoid conflicting with the presidential inauguration.
With nothing remotely like the maniacal Joker among his credits beforehand, Ledger had been a surprising choice to fans, some feeling he was too young, others sensing he would not live up to the campy but earnest performance Nicholson gave in 1989's "Batman." (The role earned Nicholson a Golden Globe nomination, though he did not make the Oscar cut.)
As filming progressed last year, word began leaking from the set about the feverishly psychotic persona Ledger was creating.
With a marketing campaign heavily focused on the Joker, the movie trailers that followed presented a Joker with sloppy, ominous clown makeup that looked as though it had been applied in a windstorm. The brief footage revealed a character whose cackling humor cannot conceal the malevolent soul beneath.
"Whatever Heath channeled into, he's found something quite extraordinary," Oldman said. "It's arguably one of the greatest screen villains I think I've ever seen."
Fans were hooked, but some were skeptical when Oscar buzz for the performance started circulating after Ledger's death. Comic-book tales and other big action flicks rarely are taken seriously by awards voters, who are willing to honor them for technical achievements but generally not for acting.
Skepticism dissolved once Warner Bros. began screenings for "The Dark Knight."
"Heath Ledger didn't so much give a performance as he disappeared completely into the role," filmmaker and lifelong comics fan Kevin Smith said on his MySpace blog after seeing "The Dark Knight." "I know I'm not the first to suggest this, but he'll likely get at least an Oscar nod (if not the win) for best supporting actor."
Ledger's performance is surpassing even the sky-high expectations hardcore fans have going in.
"He was better than I thought he was going to be," said Bill Ramey, founder of the fan Web site Batman-on-Film.com, who caught an advance press screening. "I think he legitimately would deserve an Oscar nomination, not just out of sympathy to his passing, but because he was just fantastic in the movie. ... It's right up there with Hannibal Lecter," which earned Anthony Hopkins an Oscar for "The Silence of the Lambs."
Along with Finch, past posthumous Oscar contenders include James Dean, who was nominated for best actor twice after his death, with 1955's "East of Eden" and 1956's "Giant."
The other actors nominated after their deaths were Spencer Tracy (1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"); Ralph Richardson (1984's "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes"); Massimo Troisi (1995's "The Postman"); and Jeanne Eagels (1929's "The Letter").
The aura surrounding Ledger since his death is a sign that, like Dean, he could endure as a mythic figure of talent silenced before his time. Ledger had a best-actor nomination for 2005's "Brokeback Mountain" and was considered a gifted performer just coming into his own.
That will not necessarily improve his Oscar chances. Dean had two shots after his death and lost both.
"The fact that only one actor has ever won an Oscar from the grave tells us that in general at the Oscars, the feeling is when you're dead, you're dead," said Tom O'Neil, a columnist for TheEnvelope.com, an awards Web site. "Maybe the point is that the Oscars are all about hugs. Nobody wants to hug a dead guy."
Oscar voters tend to hand out the trophies for heroic or sympathetic roles, so Ledger's supremely evil characterization could prove a drawback along with the action-genre stigma.
Yet there are notable instances when actors playing villains made such an impression that academy members could not resist voting for them.
Besides Hopkins as cannibalistic killer Lecter, bad guys who won include Fredric March in the title role of 1932's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"; F. Murray Abraham as Mozart's mortal enemy in 1984's "Amadeus"; Kathy Bates as a novelist's demented fan in 1990's "Misery"; Denzel Washington as a corrupt cop in 2001's "Training Day"; and Charlize Theron as a serial killer in 2003's "Monster."
The last two years have brought Oscar wins by Forest Whitaker as brutal dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," Tilda Swinton as a murderously ruthless attorney in "Michael Clayton," Daniel Day-Lewis as a savage oilman in "There Will Be Blood" and Javier Bardem as a psychopathic killer in "No Country for Old Men."
"When a performance as a villain is that memorable, it can be held up as being that much more special," said Chuck Walton, managing editor of online movie-ticket site Fandango.com. "Oscar voters have a lot of respect for actors willing to really let themselves go and inhabit darker roles."
Warner Bros. and the filmmakers are profuse in their praise of Ledger but have been diplomatic about the Oscar talk. Awards publicity generally pads a movie's box-office and DVD receipts, and the studio has cautiously avoided any appearance of profiting from the added attention Ledger's death has brought to the film.
"The Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan sidestepped the Oscar question, saying that he was simply happy that early viewers were responding to the performance the way Ledger would have liked.