Wednesday, April 4, 2012

In Character Special Edition: Heath Ledger

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.

Candy (2006)
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)
Robbie Clark
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)
The Joker
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)
Casanova (2005)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Danny Trejo
William H. Macy
Campbell Scott
Kevin Pollak
Erland Josephson
Richard Jenkins
William Fichtner
Guy Pearce
Shea Whigham
Viola Davis
Gary Oldman
David Morse
Michael Shannon
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn
Listen to my podcast on Heath Ledger:


  1. Ugh, it's a shame that such a great actor left this earth too soon. Will always love his work in Brokeback Mountain.

  2. @MovieNut14 You said it, sister. I wish I knew how to quit him (but not really).

  3. My favorite performance from him is Robbie Clark in I'm Not There.

    Did you know he was set to play Brad Pitt's character in The Tree of Life? There were rumors he was going to play the part and was attached but I think dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. Shame though, he would've been amazing in that film though Pitt did a great job.

  4. @thevoid99 Yeah I do remember him being attached to Tree of Life, and man, that would've been something else. Definitely agree that Pitt did an excellent job there.

    Ledger's Robbie Clark really is something else, huh?

  5. @Alex WithrowI think it was Ledger's voice-over narration that got Malick's attention for him to be in that film.

    The character is truly unlikeable but Ledger really did a great job in playing that part.

  6. Such a shame. He was a very interesting actor and only becoming more and more interesting with his choices. At least he went out on an unbeatable high. It would have been hard to top the likes of Brokeback and Dark Knight methinks.

  7. @Pete Unbeatable high is damn right, the man wasn't even on his highest high when he went out, that came 7 months after his death with the release of The Dark Knight. Just so crazy and sad.

    Thanks for reading!

  8. What a beautiful tribute to a late, great actor.

  9. Such an incredible talent. It's still so hard to believe that he's gone.

    Completely agree that without him, 10 Things I Hate About You would never have been so memorable. Definitely need to re-watch as many of his films as I can lay my hands on.

    Out of curiosity, have you seen Two Hands? Way, way, way early film of his, a local production. I think (and don't quote me on this) that was the one that got Hollywood's attention. Worth checking out!

  10. Great article. I love Ledger's work, I agree even though his appearance in "Mosnter's ball" was so brief it was amazing. As much as his Joker is a great performance I always felt he should have won for "Brokeback Mountain' it's honestly one of the most amazing performancesI've seen.

  11. @Ruth I haven't seen that, but I noticed it was crazy earlier in his career. I'll definitely check it out, although it is directed by Gregor Jordan which means Ned Kelly (yay) and The Informers (barf).

  12. @Sati. When you look back at Ledger's work in Brokeback Mountain and compare it to Hoffman's in Capote, well, there's really no comparison. I honestly don't think most people were ready for what Ledger did in Brokeback. Rivals Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood as the best performance of the 2000s, in my opinion.

  13. Heath Ledger was a devastating loss in Aus, great write up as usual! His role in The Dark Knight was just so amazing and would have been so hard to play.

    Think his 'why so serious?' quote will be remembered for a long time too.

  14. @Alex Thomas Oh I bet his passing was a huge blow to Australia. And yes, that quote (and his delivery of it) will be remembered for a long long time.

  15. He was a great actor, I always loved the fact that he just immerged himself in every role he played- he gave everything! He seemed like a smart, cool, but rather dark person. Too bad for him and the career he could have had- and also for his daughter, Matilda!

  16. @Diana Too bad indeed, so much talent, so much charm. At least we have his performances to idolize forever.

  17. I honestly cannot tell you where I was, but I do remember crying and feeling the same way you do, and it's for the same reasons. Film is a huge part of my life, but Ledger was a talent I recognized early in his career, and am now imprinted with every performance. Unfortunately, with him gone we will never see where his talent meant to take him. My friend, and colleague who also works for Dish, also recognized the unique talent of Mr. Ledger. We have always had a weekly movie night, and usually we stick with a theme that moves us. I subscribe to Blockbuster @Home, so I think we will honor Heath Ledger by engulfing ourselves in his hard work as an actor. It's easy enough to relax, and enjoy the unbelievable talent of someone as beautiful as Heath Ledger.

    1. What a thoughtful and insightful comment you've left. I'm really happy to hear that Ledger's work has had such a profound impact on you. His talent will live with me forever.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  18. You wrote such an incredible piece on Heath. Thankyou for that. It's really lovely to find heartfelt, passionate words like this written about him even this long after his passing. It's nice for members of his family, like me, to stumble across every once in a while. Thankyou again.

    1. If you truly are a member of Ledger's family, then I am very sorry for your loss, but I hope you take some form of comfort in the fact that his work will truly, honestly, live forever.

      I recently rewatched Brokeback, and what he did there, I mean... what he did there, is revelatory to the acting art form. He is missed, of course, but his work will forever inspire.

  19. What he did in Brokeback I have no words for. Ennis del Mar has for forever become lodged in the back of my brain.

    1. Couldn't agree more. A film character that will live in my heart forever.