I’ll never forget the moment I found out Heath Ledger had died. I was walking out of a night class, cutting across campus, when my dad sent me a text: “Heath Ledger found dead in apartment. No bullshit. All over the news.”
Once I got home and read every single news story I could find about Ledger’s death, I stepped away from the computer and allowed myself to be devastated. And after a few moments, I was hit with profound confusion. Why, I wondered, did I feel as though I’d just lost someone close to me? How could I have feelings of such loss over someone I never knew? And then another epiphany: I felt the way I did because I did know Ledger. Not in the real sense, but I knew him as a brooding, complicated figure that could forever imprint movie characters into minds.
I’m not disillusioned. I’m perfectly aware that loving an actor is in no way the same as loving a dear friend, but when you’ve invested your life into the art of film as irreversibly as I have, then a loss like Ledger’s seems as real as life.
Ledger would be 33 today, and if he was still alive, I’m sure his selectiveness in choosing roles would’ve merited a slew of other remarkable performances. But since he’s gone, we’re left with what we’re left with, which is a rather immaculate body of work for one of the best, most in-tune actors of his or any generation.
Five Essential Roles
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
I’m no fan of romantic comedies, and finding a decent one that’s centered around teenagers is damn near impossible, but it is simply unfair to not draw attention to Ledger’s early performance as tough-guy Patrick in 10 Things I Hate About You. Sure, this movie is a perfectly decent compilation of teenage romantic pop garbage, but there was something about that guy with the long, curly hair that struck viewers. He was tall and dark and funny and real. He was, in a sense, far better than the material allowed him to be. And that song. He sang that song with such charm and wit and verve. He was someone we’d never seen before, and someone we couldn’t wait to see again.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Ennis Del Mar
After generating a few worthy performances in crap films, and a few worthy performances in worthy films, Ledger blew everyone away with his deeply controlled, ungodly conflicted turn as Ennis Del Mar is Ang Lee’s masterpiece, Brokeback Mountain.
From his first moment on screen, trying so hard to not stare at the forward Jack Twist, we know we’re in for something different. Everything Ennis does (or, more accurately, everything Ledger makes Ennis do) is done with the pretense of something else. That is, he is constantly pretending to be someone he’s not, and when we finally see the real Ennis (such as during the hard, passionate embrace he and Jack share after not seeing one another for years), we realize that Ennis is just a broken, lost little boy.
It’s a performance of remarkable, nearly unfounded restraint. Everything is in the emotion, the look, the subtle gesture. Ennis says very little, but he’s always speaking volumes. It’s a performance that will only become more celebrated over time, eventually joining the ranks of Brando in Streecar, De Niro in Raging Bull, Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, and so on. It is, in a phrase, the role of a lifetime.
In Neil Armfield’s little-seen Australian wonder, Candy, Ledger and Abbie Cornish play people who are deeply in love –with one another, certainly, but also with heroin. The film chronicles the life and death of drug addiction – from the ecstatic highs, to the hellish lows.
Spilt rather ingeniously into three distinct segments titled Heaven, Earth and Hell, Candy conveys how a relationship based on the shared addiction to a substance is never meant to go anywhere but down. But the film, largely due to Ledger and Cornish’s flawless performances, isn’t necessarily a downer. Both Dan (Ledger) and Candy (Cornish) are extremely kind and considerate people, fully aware of their troubles and their inability to deal with said troubles.
I’ve always been surprised that Candy never got the full, proper attention it deserved. There’s a lot here that people are missing, which, in hindsight to how Ledger died, makes the whole experience that much more painful.
I’m Not There (2007)
In Todd Haynes’ never-seen-anything-like-it I’m Not There, Ledger encompasses one of the best, most accurate personifications of the Arrogant Actor that I’ve ever seen. Robbie Clark is a young, handsome, talented actor portraying folk sing Jack Rollins (played by Christian Bale) in a new biopic. The problem is, Robbie knows he’s young, handsome and talented, so when his latest film is a flop, he slowly begins to blame everyone else for his failures.
This includes his steadfast wife, Claire (a candid Charlotte Gainsbourg), who begins to recognize the man she married less and less with each passing day. As Robbie becomes more consumed by his own conceit, which eventually causes him to stray from his marriage, Ledger and Gainsbourg embark on a tragic, doomed battle of fleeting love. Capped by Ledger’s performance is a virtuoso scene in which Robbie, at lunch with Claire and another couple, goes into a random, misogynistic rant, the final point of which is women are incapable of being true artists.
It’s a spot-on performance of a callous, egotistic man who, when no one is looking, let’s subtle glimmers of kindness shine through.
The Dark Knight (2008)
What’s to say about Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as The Joker that hasn’t already been said? It’s a role of such unhinged villainy, that it will be forever idolized in pop culture. When people ask me how I personally rank this role, I typically respond by saying it is a performance that completely merits the hyperbolic praise it has, and will continue to, receive.
Highlighting just one scene in particular from this performance is a completely futile exercise. The fact is, every single moment Heath Ledger is on screen, we are completely unaware that Heath Ledger is on screen. The man embodied a monster and became the devil incarnate.
I would, however, be remiss if I failed to mention that the introduction of The Joker in this film (the lifting of the mask, the swelling of the music, the creepiness of the voice, the smiling of the face) is one of my favorite character introductions in film history. Impossible to shake.
The Best of the Best
Monster’s Ball (2001)
While Ennis Del Mar may be his technical best, and The Joker his most iconic, the Heath Ledger performance I’ve always been most drawn to is his brief turn as Sonny in Monster’s Ball.
As the gentle, tender son to Billy Bob Thornton’s unforgiving, racist Hank, Ledger did what virtually every teen icon does: he attempted to be taken seriously, but he did it with such revere and self-control, that it became impossible to not take notice of him. Sure, 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale may have put him on the map, but Monster’s Ball proved that the kid from Australia wasn’t fucking around; he was here to act. He was here to be remembered.
Take, for instance, the scene in which Hank, Sonny and a few other prison guards walk a prisoner (played by Sean “Puffy” Combs) to his execution. If you watch Ledger’s face (I’m mean really watch it) then you’ll see that he’s a lost, scared shitless kid on the verge a breaking down. His initial downfall manifests itself with a momentary bout of nausea, but Sonny’s pain is decades deep.
Ledger’s final moment in this film is as moving as, well, his final moment in Brokeback Mountain. It’s shocking in its honesty and desperate in its sentiment. He was here to be remembered, all right, and remembered he is.
Other Notable Roles
|In Lords of Dogtown|
The Patriot (2000)
A Knight’s Tale (2001)
Ned Kelly (2003)
Lords of Dogtown (2005)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Previous installments of In Character include:
William H. Macy