Other than Dean, whose death in a 1955 car accident was preceded by two nominations back-to-back, six actors have landed the distinction -- but only one, Peter Finch, actually won (for Network in 1976). However, Ledger is now perceived an actor who possessed a potential he never quite realized, while Dean was already an icon by the time of his death (and he still didn't win the prize). If Ledger gets nominated for his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, the award will also acknowledge the great career that never was. Dean surely would have followed Giant with other wonderful performances, but his brief filmography also allowed the actor to reach a level of prestige that Ledger would have needed a few more movies to attain. So does this comparison really hold up?
The media certainly seems to think so. "Like Dean, he could endure as a mythic figure of talent silenced before his time," writes the AP. "People are aflutter over seeing the final performance of a new James Dean," reports The Huffington Post. " One quality that Ledger and Dean did share is rapid growth," notes the Baltimore Sun.
These are all provocative ways of examining America's longstanding relationship with celebrity lives (and deaths), but that doesn't mean Ledger's own posthumous myth benefits from being stuffed into Dean's established legend. If Ledger does get nominated -- and if he wins -- it should happen because the performance stands on its own terms.
What do you think? Does the Dean comparison help or harm Ledger's Oscar chances?
Top: A painting of Heath Ledger and James Dean by Tom Bierdz.