Heath Ledger, a Loss

Dennis Harvey January 23, 2008

Not only has celebrity reportage sunk to new lows in recent years, celebrity behavior is sinking right along with it. We’ve got a whole roster of personalities who must be on the tabloids’ payrolls, they screw up so regularly, publicly and spectacularly. Heath Ledger wasn’t on that list, and his death at 28 years’ age yesterday seemed shocking and sad for all sorts of reasons. Shocking because so unexpected — though for what it’s worth, a journalist I talked to at Sundance Tuesday night said every one of the numerous times he’d interviewed Ledger, the actor seemed especially exhausted. So, OK, maybe there were warnings signs he kept (mostly) private.

It was sad not just because any young death is sad, but because we’d only just begun to know Heath Ledger as a real artist — one whose range hadn’t remotely been mapped out yet. For a long time, he seemed just this season’s cute hunk, the Matthew McConaughey of 1999 or whatever. (Which is not to disparage McConaghey, who managed to outlast his early overhype as well.) Then, almost overnight, he became one of the best screen actors of his generation.

The Perth native packed off to Sydney at age 17 (Christ, one slim decade ago!&?), played undistinguished roles in minor films and TV series until winning the lead in a big local hit, the very Aussie black comedy-actioner “Two Hands.” That led to playing the dreamboat in a U.S. teen flick, “10 Things I Hate About You,” and another juvenile part as Mel Gibson’s son in “The Patriot.” His pinup apex was in 2001’s rockin’ medieval lark “A Knight’s Tale.”

But at this juncture he apparently decided to stop being led by agents and producers, instead choosing only projects challenging and rewarding in artistic terms. There were, admittedly, a few exceptions — “The Four Feathers,” supernatural silliness “The Order,” a too-frivolous “Casanova.” Yet in a very short time Ledger seemed suddenly, startlingly, far more than a pretty face.

He was strikingly adult and tormented as Billy Bob Thornton’s son, who kills himself just minutes into “Monster’s Ball;” wonderfully assured in an otherwise mediocre biopic of Down Under folk hero “Ned Kelly;” hilarious, decrepit and stoned as an old surf bum (another small part) in the underseen “Lords of Dogtown.”

Then there was “Brokeback Mountain,” a great movie by any standard, but one impossible to imagine without Ledger’s precise take on cautious, closeted, emotionally shut-down Ennis. Jake Gyllenhaal as his secret gay lover was good — but Ledger was extraordinary. His final scene in the trailer, when all repressed grief comes roiling out, is as wrenching as any in recent memory.

That achievement is all the more remarkable because by all reports director Ang Lee wasn’t very communicative with his actors, preferring to keep them discomfited. (Some bonding must have gone on nonetheless, since Ledger subsequently — if briefly — married on-screen wife Michelle Williams and named Gyllenhaal their baby’s godfather.) Philip Seymour Hoffman won most of 2005’s Actor awards for his ingenious impersonation of “Capote.” But Ledger’s tragic character in “Brokeback” ran so much deeper, and his interpretation was almost painfully fine.

Stretching himself yet further, he played a junkie in “Candy;” one of the many Dylans — his a self-absorbed movie actor — in “I’m Not There;” and half of “The Brothers Grimm.” (The latter wasn’t much, but you can’t blame a guy for hoping that this time Terry Gilliam just might deliver another “Brazil.”)

He plays The Joker in this summer’s Batman flick “The Dark Knight.” Word is rampant that his turn is as far from Jack Nicholson’s (or Cesare Romero’s) as possible: A terrifying psycho rather than a quipping camp villain. Let’s pray the studio doesn’t cut down his part for fear morbidity might cramp the box-office. If he’s going to have a posthumous vehicle, it might as well be, y’know, dark.

Ledger was already filming another Gilliam film, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” when he was found dead in Manhattan. At the time of this writing it was undetermined if he’d committed suicide, accidentally overdosed on prescription pills, or something else.

It will be depressing to see the inevitable cult of martyrdom and glam fatalism that’s formed around male stars from James Dean to River Phoenix build a fresh shrine around Heath Ledger. But not half so depressing as the simple fact that we had so much yet to anticipate from him. If Brad Pitt could start being a real actor (evidence: “The Assassination of Jesse James”) once the perfect looks began to fade, who’d guess what gravity, surprises and skill the already accomplished Ledger would yet have discovered in himself?

Now we’ll never know. Grieve not just for a life’s loss, but for what cinema’s next 40 years or so will be missing.