Holy Conundrum Batman! How Does Blockbuster Handle Star's Death?

The late Heath Ledger's turn in "Batman" has critics buzzing and execs puzzled.

February 12, 2009, 7:24 AM

July 2, 2008— -- When actor James Dean died in a car wreck in 1955, studio executives wrung their hands and moaned "there goes the movie," believing audiences would be scared away from seeing the two films he'd completed shooting just before his death.

In today's darkly cynical, celebrity-obsessed culture, Wes Gehring, a film professor at Ball State University in Indiana and author of a book on Dean, believes it's highly doubtful that anyone at Warner Bros. would ever have said such a thing about "The Dark Knight," after Heath Ledger, who portrays a disturbingly deranged Joker, died in January from an accidental prescription drug overdose.

"We are a much more cynically humorous world," Gehring told ABCNews.com. "A tragedy happens and it's on the Internet in two minutes followed by all kinds of jokes. These are macabre, perverse times, where anything goes."

That's only going to help, not hurt, "The Dark Knight," the next installment in the Batman franchise, when it opens in theaters July 18, Gehring said.

"There's the titillation factor of seeing a performer who is no longer with us," he said. "That would drive the added perk to this particular movie. Ledger plays a darkly comic character who almost supersedes Batman. How ironically fitting that, from word-of-mouth, he's given a great performance and he died. Nobody is going to think twice about seeing it."

From the marketing of the film, it would appear that the studio is not terribly concerned that audiences might be turned off by seeing a dead actor. According to Chris Thilk, who writes a blog about film marketing on his Web site moviemarketingmadness.com, Warner has, for the most part, carried on with the campaign it started, with Ledger's character, the Joker, at the center.

"You definitely have to give props to Warner for saying 'in for a penny, in for a pound,'" Thilk said. "This was the movie they were given and the situation they were in and they said, 'Let's just go for it.'"

Warner Bros. declined to comment on the marketing of the movie.

Steve Zeitchik, a senior writer at The Hollywood Reporter, said he does not believe the studio did anything differently to market this film than it would have done if Ledger were still alive.

"This is as straightforward a marketing campaign as you can get, with added sensitivity," Zeitchik told ABCNews.com.

Early on, when the 28-year-old actor was still alive, the marketing campaign hinged on Ledger's ghoulish clown image with his smudged raccoon eyes and blood-red lipsticked grin. Starting last September, visitors to the Web site whysoserious.com, named after one of the Joker's famous lines, could follow the Joker's trail by sending an e-mail or text message.

After Ledger died, Warner put up a memorial photo of Leger on its official Web site for the movie. The Joker campaign took a break, and the studio released a statement saying it had already planned to shift the focus to Batman and the other characters from the film, which Thilk said was done to head off any perception that it was avoiding showing images of Ledger.

Nonetheless, the Joker was still everywhere on the Internet, Thilk said, and the public's reaction was not at all negative. By April, the Joker had returned to an active role in the online campaign.

In the trailers and television commercials, Ledger also appears prominently.

"There was no way, the studio was going to get around putting Ledger in the main TV spots," Thilk said. "I imagine they said, 'Let's not avoid the elephant in the room; he's a strong part of the movie, an amazing actor; it's going to be weirder if we take him out of the campaign than just leave him in.'"

Zeitchik said the studio was also aided in its promotion by the fact that Ledger had already completed filming "The Dark Knight" before he died.

"This is a case where the movie was done," he said. "It's the easiest of all situations. It's a complete role, by all accounts, that he's very good in. It doesn't seem as tricky a situation as it could have been."

In any case, early reviews of the film are excellent and industry watchers are predicting a blockbuster.

"It will open strong and continue to build," box office expert Paul Dergarabedian told ABCNews.com after viewing a screening. "This is not going to be a flash in the pan. All the acting is great, the script is excellent, the action set pieces are visually stunning and complex. The movie resists any categorization."

But it is Ledger's performance that is generating the most buzz and has some saying he deserves an Oscar nod for best supporting actor.

"I was blown away not only by the movie but his performance," Dergarabedian said. "This is a true psychopath, a remorseless, incredibly evil character. But when he's on screen, you cannot take your eyes off him. And when he's off screen, you can't wait till he reappears on screen."

"It's going to be the stuff of movie legend," he added. "There was this idea before that maybe he was a long shot to get a nomination. Now, if he were not to get a nomination, that would be a surprise."

Creating an Oscar campaign for Ledger, however, could be tricky, according to Thilk.

"If I were Warner Bros, I would keep my head so low you couldn't see it over my desk," he said. "You're only going to look like an opportunist. There's no way you're going to mount a best supporting actor campaign that has any vim or vigor and not look like you're picking the bones. The best thing to do is submit his name and leave it alone. Let the performance speak for itself."

Only six actors have ever been posthumously nominated: Jeanne Eagels for "The Letter" (1928-1929); James Dean for "East of Eden" (1955) and "Giant" (1956), both of which became hits despite the studio's concern; Spencer Tracy for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967); Peter Finch for "Network" (1976); Ralph Richardson for "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan" (1984); and Massimo Troisi for "Il Postino" (1955). Only Finch received an Oscar.

Gehring, who writes a column called The Reel World for USA Today magazine, said in the past, Academy voters might have nominated deceased actors in order to recognize them, but they were unlikely to give the award to someone who couldn't be there to receive it.

He said Katharine Hepburn always said that she won the best actress Oscar for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" because Academy voters really wanted to honor Tracy, her longtime lover.

Today, there's a greater likelihood that Ledger could not only receive a nomination but win, Gehring said.

"His death might even help, because the pendulum has swung so far the other way," he said.

Ultimately, it will be his performance, not his death, that leaves an impression on Academy voters, Dergarabedian said.

"Really, the movie honors him," he said. "It celebrates what a great actor he was. It would be one thing if it was a horrible performance and a bad movie. But if you're a Batman fan, you have to see it and, if you're a Heath Ledger fan, even more so."

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