Heath Ledger is 26 years old. Younger than me and some of you reading. Older than other awards watchers. But in terms of Oscar? That, my friends, is a newborn. He's barely out of the womb.
I was already aware that were Heath to pull off the miraculous feat of winning this March (provided he receives his expected nomination on January 31st) he would become the youngest competitive Oscar winner in the lead category for men. The current record holder is Adrien Brody for The Pianist. Mr. Brody won the Oscar just a few weeks before turning 30. Richard Dreyfuss of The Goodbye Girl was the previous record holder who had turned 30 a few months prior to his nomination. What I wasn't aware of was how far back you would have to go to even find a nominee as young or younger than Heath Ledger. Oh, sure I knew about the anomaly: Jackie Cooper had a Best Actor nomination for Skippy in 1931 when he was all of nine. But apart from that fluke, how young is too young for Oscar?
Turns out that 26 year-olds just don't compete for Best Actor prizes. 27 years old? They'll let that slide. Tom Cruise (Born on the 4th of July) and Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) were both 27 when they received their first Oscar nominations. To find someone of comparable age or younger you have to travel back in time to 1977. John Travolta was 23 when nominated for Saturday Night Fever and 24 by the time of the ceremony in '78. Prior to that we travel back to 1963 when Tom Jones himself Albert Finney was in the running at, you guessed it, 27 years of age. Guess who else? Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951) the same screen legend that Heath's performance in Brokeback Mountain has drawn comparisons to, also 27.
So, did I ever find someone younger than Heath [besides John Travolta's disco dancer in 1977 -thanks to an anonymous reader who pointed that one out]? Yes. But you have to go back 50 years to do so. All the way back to that legendary rebel without a cause in 1955.
James Dean was 24 years old when East of Eden was released in 1955. He died tragically that same year before the release of his other iconic screen performances in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. He was nominated twice posthumously for the Best Actor trophy first for East of Eden and then, again, the following year for Giant. Prior to Dean there are but three other exceptionally youthful nominated leads. Aside from the already mentioned Jackie Cooper, there's Mickey Rooney (Babes in Arms & The Human Comedy) twice nominated. Once at 19 and a second time at 23. Finally there is the famous case of Orson Welles who was Heath Ledger's age right now when he received four nominations, including Best Actor, for the legendaryCitizen Kane.
Brando, Finney, Welles, Cruise, Rooney --A mighty good company of men for Heath Ledger, our "Ennis Del Mar", to be in no matter how it all turns out on Oscar night in March of 2006. Don't you think?