By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 20, 2021 at 02:30 PM EDT
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As Hollywood's biggest night approaches, it's time to reflect on one of the more somber aspects of the Academy Awards: the posthumous Oscar.

The first ever was awarded in 1939, and since then, the Academy has occasionally seen fit to honor a nominee who has left us too soon. Some of the more famous have only secured a nomination — see: James Dean — but others have added Oscar gold to their legacy after they've gone.

In 2021, a new winner could be added to this list if the late Chadwick Boseman wins Best Actor for his work in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (and based on awards season thus far, he is the frontrunner in his category).

Here's a look at every single Academy Award winner who was honored posthumously.

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Sidney Howard, Gone With the Wind

Screenwriter Sidney Howard became the first posthumous Oscar winner at the 1940 ceremony for his work on historical epic Gone With the Wind. The script had a long and tortured adaptation process from Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel, with producer David O. Selznick frequently interfering, but Howard was the only one ultimately given credit. He died at the age of 48 in a horrific accident with a tractor, several months before Gone With the Wind even premiered in late 1939.

Posthumous Oscars
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Victor Young, Around the World in 80 Days

The next posthumous Oscar winner didn’t come for nearly two decades. It went to composer Victor Young for his work on the score for 1956’s Around the World in 80 Days, which also won Best Picture. Though Young was only 57 when he died, he was nominated 22 times previous to his posthumous win, marking him the record holder for most nominations prior to an Oscar victory.

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Credit: Everett Collection

William A. Horning, Gigi

Horning was a legendary early art director, earning one of his first Oscar nominations for his work with Cedric Gibbons on The Wizard of Oz. But he was first honored for his work posthumously (and long after Gibbons had retired) on lavish MGM musical Gigi (1958), which follows a young courtesan-in-training as she falls for a dashing playboy. Gigi held the record for sweeping its nominations, winning across all nine categories it had an Oscar nod in, until The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King topped it in 2003.

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Credit: Everett Collection

William A. Horning, Ben-Hur

Though he never won while he was alive, Horning bears the distinct honor of being the only person to ever win posthumous Oscars consecutively. He followed up his Gigi win with a victory for another Oscar record-holder, Biblical epic Ben-Hur (1959). Horning was nominated twice in 1960, also receiving a nod for his work on Alfred Hitchcock classic North by Northwest.

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Credit: Everett Collection

Sam Zimbalist, Ben-Hur

In addition to art director William A. Horning, producer Sam Zimbalist was another posthumous Oscar winner for Ben-Hur. Zimbalist, who began his career as an editor, was a producer known for his work on epics such as King Solomon’s Mines (1950) and Quo Vadis (1951), both of which were nominated for Best Picture. But his only Best Picture victory came for Ben-Hur, and he had tragically died of a heart attack while on set in in Rome during the movie’s production. To this day, he remains the only posthumous winner for Best Picture.

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Eric Orbom, Spartacus

The mid-century was dominated by Biblical and sword-and-sandal epics. But one of the last truly great ones was 1960’s Spartacus. It’s known now as a film key in breaking the chokehold of the Hollywood Blacklist, with Kirk Douglas publicly announcing Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter. Ultimately, it won four Oscars, including a posthumous win for art director Eric Orbom.

Posthumous Oscars
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Walt Disney, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day

As founder of one of Hollywood’s most influential studios, Walt Disney fittingly holds the record for most Oscar nominations (59) and wins (26, but only 22 are competitive rather than honorary). So, it stands to reason he would’ve eked out one last posthumous win. Though he died in 1966, due to the long production time of animated pieces, he won for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) with Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. It was the final animated short he produced, and it remains one of the most beloved of the Disney Winnie the Pooh properties.

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Raymond Rasch and Larry Russell, Limelight

Limelight is a bit of an oddity in that it was originally released in 1952, but it was not screened in Los Angeles until 1972, due a boycott stemming from star Charlie Chaplin’s alleged communist sympathies. It won Chaplin his only competitive Oscar, and it also secured his collaborators on the score, Raymond Rasch and Larry Russell, posthumous wins for Best Music (Scoring).

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Peter Finch, Network

Though many expected James Dean to become the first posthumous winner in an acting category (he was nominated for both Giant and East of Eden in 1956), it took nearly two more decades — and the honor went to Australian Peter Finch. In 1977, Finch won for his unhinged portrayal of TV news anchor Howard Beale in the darkly satirical (and sadly prescient) Network. Finch was in the middle of a promotional tour for the film when he died from a heart attack at the age of 60.

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Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Geoffrey Unsworth, Tess

This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles earned celebrated cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth his second Oscar (his first came for Cabaret). Working on classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Superman, Unsworth earned a reputation for success across a broad range of genres. He died of a heart attack while filming Tess (and consequently shared this posthumous win with Ghislain Cloquet). Unsworth had the only posthumous win in the entire 1980s, coming in at the start of the decade.

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Howard Ashman, Beauty and the Beast

Lyricist and playwright Howard Ashman is often credited for helping to spark the Disney animation Renaissance of the early 1990s. Working with composer Alan Menken, the two wrote unforgettable songs for films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but Ashman also took a direct role in the storytelling. Ashman died from complications from HIV/AIDS shortly after completing work on Beauty and the Beast (the film is dedicated to him). His partner Bill Lauch accepted the Oscar alongside Alan Menken for the film’s title song. Ashman had won for Best Song previously alongside Menken for The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea.” He holds the record for most posthumous Oscar nominations, earning three Best Song nominations for Beauty and the Beast and a final nomination the next year for Aladdin.

Posthumous Oscars
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Thomas C. Goodwin, Educating Peter

Producer Thomas C. Goodwin won a posthumous Oscar for this short subject documentary. Educating Peter follows Peter Gwazdauskas, a special needs student with Down syndrome, as he is included in a standard third grade classroom in Blacksburg, Virginia. The documentary went on to have a sequel Graduating Peter that followed Gwazdauskas through middle school and high school, but Godwin was not involved.

Posthumous Oscars
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Conrad Hall, Road to Perdition

Legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall shot some of the most iconic films ever made, including In Cold Blood, Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He won two Oscars for Best Cinematography while he was living, one for Butch Cassidy and the other for American Beauty. His final film, 2002’s Road to Perdition, is both dedicated to him and earned him his final Oscar posthumously. His son, who is also a cinematographer, accepted the award on his behalf.

THE DARK KNIGHT, Heath Ledger as The Joker, 2008. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection
Credit: Everett Collection

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger became only the second actor ever to win an Oscar posthumously in 2009 (coincidentally, both he and the other winner, Peter Finch, hailed from Australia). His no-holds-barred take on iconic Batman villain the Joker was a fan favorite from the moment the film was released. But the performance was also a testament to Ledger’s talent and ability to lose himself in a role, making him the first actor to receive Academy Awards recognition for a comic-book movie. Ledger’s family accepted the Oscar on his behalf.

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Gil Friesen, 20 Feet From Stardom

Gil Friesen left an immeasurable impact on the music industry as longtime chairman of A&M Records, and he used those connections and curiosity to produce documentary 20 Feet From Stardom about the lives of back-up singers. Friesen passed away by the time the film was released and won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2014.

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