In February, David Bowie's album Blackstar, which was released two days before his January 2016 death, won all five Grammys for which it was nominated. Prior to that, the rocker had only ever won one Grammy, in 1985 for best short form music video for Jazzin' for Blue Jean, from 12 nominations. Blackstar's wins, which included best alternative music album, best rock performance and best rock song, were Bowie's first for his music itself.
Artistic merit aside, it'd be naïve not to consider Bowie's death playing some part in those victories. Would voters still have checked off his name if he were still alive? How close was he to breaking into the album of the year field? Would he have won that too? We'll never know.
The Emmys is in a similar boat this year. The nominating ballot includes two late icons: Carrie Fisher and Jonathan Demme. Fisher is submitted in comedy guest actress for her appearance in the Catastrophe season finale, while Demme is entered for variety special directing for Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids and limited series/TV movie directing for an episode of Shots Fired, which coincidentally aired the day he died. (Before you ask, Bill Paxton was not submitted for Training Day — in fact, none of the actors were; the show was submitted for drama series.)
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If you go by Bowie's Grammys sweep, logic dictates that both will get in and win. But don't make your predictions just yet. While there have been plenty of posthumous nominees in Emmy history, posthumous wins are few and far in between.
The most recent posthumous winner was Henry Bromell, who won for writing Homeland's "Q&A" and had died six months before the Emmys of a heart attack. In terms of actors, Raul Julia is the most recent, having won for his turn in the TV movie The Burning Season in 1995, nearly a year after he died from a stroke. Actors, unsurprisingly, make up the bulk of the posthumous nods and wins. Besides Julia, only six other late actors won for their performances (Audrey Hepburn also won a posthumous Emmy, but it was for her botanical special Gardens of the World with Audrey Hepburn and not for acting).
The most recent posthumous nominee was Kathryn Joosten, who was shortlisted in comedy supporting actress for Desperate Housewives in 2012, almost seven weeks after her death from lung cancer — the same disease that claimed her character Mrs. McCluskey in the series finale. At the time, many thought it would go to Joosten — she had won twice before in the guest category, was a TV Academy governor, and the cruel poignancy of her and Mrs. McCluskey's fates would be too much to ignore, right? Not so, because Modern Family's Julie Bowen won her second straight Emmy, instead.
It was a reminder that the Emmys are more unsentimental than you might think, or in this case, give them credit for. Awards are subjective — people vote for a multitude of rational and irrational reasons — but it seems like voters are more acutely aware when it comes to posthumous honorees. There is a fine line to walk between rewarding someone based on quality of work and for sentimental purposes. You certainly don't want to vote, or want it to look like you're voting, for someone just because they had died (and frankly, that's also insulting to the late contenders and their families). Plus, it's hard enough to win an Emmy as is. With great (voting) power comes great responsibility.
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The "pity vote," if you will, applies more to the nominating round, since you list more than one pick, but when it comes to winners, it feels like voters go for who they feel is most deserving. If that happens to be the person who died, so be it. Those who've won are typically people who were already the favorite (Julia had swept the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award too, and "Q&A" was a universally renowned episode). In three instances — Marion Lorne (Bewitched, 1968), Ingrid Bergman (A Woman Called Golda, 1982) and Colleen Dewhurst (Murphy Brown, 1991) — winner voting closed before the nominee died (Dewhurst died three days before the ceremony). But historically, the nomination acknowledgment seems to be enough.
That certainly explains quite a few of the posthumous nominees over the years who've come up short, which includes Jim Davis (Dallas) Danny Thomas (Empty Nest), Richard Burton (Ellis Island), Nancy Marchand (The Sopranos), Ossie Davis (The L Word) and Nicholas Colasanto (Cheers). In 1978, Will Geer received three posthumous nominations — for The Waltons, The Love Boat and Eight Is Enough — and won none of them.
The two most obvious examples of sentimentality carrying weight through Phase 1 of nominations were when Phil Hartman and John Ritter received nods for NewsRadio and 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter in 1998 and 2004 respectively, after their tragic, untimely deaths. Unlike many previous posthumous nominees, their shows were barely blips on the Emmy radar before their deaths (NewsRadio had one costumes nod the year before) and neither received any nominations of any kind after those years. Those supporting and lead acting nods were the only major ones either show ever earned; both lost, to Frasier stars David Hyde Pierce and Kelsey Grammer. (Also, coincidentally, both shows won an Emmy — costumes for NewsRadio and cinematography for 8 Simple Rules — in the same year during which their late star was nominated.) Would Hartman and Ritter have been nominated if they were alive? Again, we'll never know, but based on their shows' poor Emmy track records, probably not.
Of the two this year, Fisher is more likely to receive a nomination than Demme. The Silence of the Lambs director has never been Emmy-nominated; the directing variety special race is usually dominated by awards shows, the Olympics and perennial nominee The Kennedy Center Honors; and Shots Fired made the mistake of over-submitting seven episodes for directing, making it harder for the Oscar winner to stand out.
Fisher is a previous two-time nominee, including in 2008 in the same guest category for 30 Rock (honestly, she should've won for helping birth the iconic "never go with a hippie to a second location"); she lost to Joosten. Her Catastrophe performance, as Rob's (Rob Delaney) no-nonsense mother Mia, is perfectly caustic and warm, especially during a moving and very meta conversation with her son, who has fallen off the wagon. Catastrophe broke through last year, earning a well-deserved writing nomination, so it's already on the Emmy map, putting Fisher in good standing to make the cut. (Catastrophe was also the final project Fisher filmed before her death — she was flying back from London, where the show shoots, when she had her fatal heart attack.)
Winning though? Fisher would be helped by the new membership-wide, non-preferential ballot voting system that puts a premium on popularity. But so would her biggest competition, Melissa McCarthy for Saturday Night Live. SNL hosts have won the guest category three time since 2009, when SNL was first eligible to compete there. For Fisher, it might once again just be an honor to be nominated.
Emmy nominations are announced Thursday, July 13. The 69th Primetime Emmy Awards airs Sunday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on CBS.