Friday, June 27

Heath Ledger

Like with a handful of Hollywood deaths (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Natalie Wood), I could tell you where I was when I heard that Heath Ledger died.  Some of you may find this silly because, after all, I didn't know Heath Ledger or any of the others.  And to just get some borders around this one, I haven't a clue as to where I was when I heard my father died and I certainly knew him.  But one thing all of the actors I mourned had in common is that they died way too soon... two from automobile accidents, two under highly suspicious circumstances.  Another is that they were people I was mad about and whose new films I was not ready to give up.

Some of you, of course, know exactly what I am talking about and may be on the same page with me on some of the people I mention.  Some of you could mention special people of your own.  The thing that was the oddest about my reaction to Heath's death is that it had only been a few years, really, that I had realized he was such a special actor to me.  I sure in the hell wasn't ready to give up something I had just latched onto.  When my tailspin was over and I got that there would be no more Heath Ledger movies, I felt empty and kind of sick to my stomach.  I am the one who told my partner that Heath had died and the coincidence was we had just been discussing him at dinner the night before.

In my piece on Brokeback Mountain, I referred to him as an acting god and I stand by that.  I have seen all but a couple of his earliest Aussie films and while I have always liked him, I didn't really sit up and pay attention until Monster's Ball.  From then on, I said he was the best actor of his generation.  My plan was to watch him get better and better and better.  He aspired one day to be a director and I suspect he'd have been one of the best.

He was born in 1979 (seven years younger than my son which kind of blows my mind) in Perth in western Australia, a city he would always love and return to whenever he could.  He was very close to his immediate family, especially, perhaps, his sister Kate.  His parents divorced when he was 11 and there are those who say the event gave way to an inner sadness in him that never really left.  I remember how that remark effected me when I read it years ago because I had already seen a sadness in him.  It is, in fact, a trait that has taken me to bonding with actors in whom I detect it, starting with Monroe.

He was close to his large extended family and they all appeared to root for him to be an actor when it was clear that he was dedicated to it.  There's little doubt that when a large family supports you and your choices, there are few places you couldn't go.  Drama was compulsory when he attended Guildford Grammar and so were a number of other things.  It wasn't just any old school.  It was a military academy where strict rules were adhered to.  Many Ledgers had attended before him and he was certainly expected to excel.  It must have served him well for his later lead role in The Four Feathers

It's not that he didn't have a prankster side and met up with a number of mates who shared this trait.  He started smoking quite early and was smoking pot, a life-long habit, at age 15.  He  loved activities as diverse as go-kart racing and chess and excelled in cricket and hockey.

One day on the telly Heath saw Gene Kelly in the 1948 film The Pirate and knew from then on that he wanted to be an actor.  He learned the ropes as much as he could at Guildford and would first perform there at age 10 as Peter Pan.  As a young teen he would appear in four Aussie television series and in the films Blackrock, Paws and Two Hands.  Most all of them were good enough to get him noticed by American filmmakers.  (I still have not seen those films but they're on my very short bucket list.)

I didn't see his first American film, 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), for a couple of years after it was released and I didn't care for it... with one exception.  Yes, the young Mr. Ledger.  And as much as anything it was due to his singing, dancing and mugging to Can't Take My Eyes Off You.  No doubt he was thinking of Gene Kelly. 

I first saw him in his next film, The Patriot (2000), and I did so because I love stories on the American Revolutionary War and I thought Mel Gibson made very entertaining movies.  On comes  Heath Ledger, handsome, blond, intense, and I thought now wait a minute.   As Gibson's eldest child he gets caught up in the war and is murdered by sadistic British officer (played by Jason Isaacs, who also captured my attention).

He was very nervous about working with Gibson, a personal favorite of Ledger's, and a national hero in Australia.  But Ledger has gone on record as saying how much the older actor put him at ease and they had a wonderful time making The Patriot.

I still remember how I felt as an audience member watching Ledger on the big screen.  I felt he invited me into his world and I, in turn, inhabited it and we went on a private journey together.  And in all of his films since I had the same feeling about our actor-moviegoer relationship.  Even if I didn't like all of his films, I always had that same feeling with him.  I regard that intimacy as a sign of a very fine actor.  He had a presence that drew one to him. 

In quite a number of his roles he was giving to analyzing a great deal.  You could see it on his face.  (Check out that scene with Jack Twist's parents in Brokeback Mountain to see Ledger at his very best.)  He had a sensitivity and a vulnerability and so often that bit of melancholia.  But he was equally observant, both in character and opposite his various costars.  I suspect when they were in a scene with Heath Ledger, they were into that scene.  He appeared to have a zest for all that he did-- hard to think of any Aussie without conjuring up the word zest-- until the day came that he didn't have it for his career.

He was quite good in A Knight's Tale (2001) and it was a popular film but I don't think this was quite what he had in mind when he said he wanted to do good work.  It took him to the Czech Republic which fulfilled his strong desire for travel.  But ye olde tale of jousting (with its modern-day references) caught me yawning at the silly shenanigans.

Those squared-jawed good looks had caught on with the public but the idea of screaming girls beating on his limo door was repellant to the young man who knew early on that the trappings of fame were not for him.  Some of that is no doubt why he eschewed those good looks for unkempt hair and clothes that gave him a disheveled look.  Nonetheless he had acquired a swagger and became quite the ladies' man.  He had relationships with a number of his older leading ladies, Lisa Zane, Heather Graham and Naomi Watts, to name three.  For a spell he lived in Los Angeles (a city that elicited a love-hate thing from the actor, but more hate) with his gay uncle.  Always being one to pay good attention to the behavior of others, he would tuck away what he could about Uncle Neil as a basis for a future role.

After Jude Law dropped out of the gorgeously-filmed The Four Feathers (2002), Heath dropped in to play Harry Faversham in 1884 Sudan who resigns his post as a British officer before a battle and is branded a coward.  He was very attracted to the role and handled it quite well.  Unfortunately this fifth retelling was an undeserved box-office flop because the suits at Paramount and/or Miramax didn't know how to sell it.

Filmed after The Four Feathers but released before it was  Monster's Ball (2001). His small but crucial role would be the best thing he had done up to that time.  He was again the second choice for the role after his Four Feathers co-star Wes Bentley dropped out.  He gave a real humanity to the part of a prison guard who works with his hard-as-nails father, portrayed by Billy Bob Thornton.  The son collapses while escorting a prisoner to the electric chair and his father beats up the son as a result.  At home he asks the father if he loved him and after the father says no, the son shoots himself in the heart.  Again, this is the film where I really sat up and took notice of what a damned good actor he was.  Luckily, director Ang Lee saw the film and thought the same thing.

The critical reception to The Four Feathers and his next four films put Ledger into a deep funk.  I liked the Australian-made Ned Kelly, (2005) which he made with Naomi Watts, the story of Australia's most legendary outlaw (bush ranger), which completely captivated me both because of its unusual western theme and a riveting performance by Ledger.  But it flopped.  The Order (2005) also flopped and in this case it should have.  He was a priest trying to solve the death of the head of his order.  It was a mess of a story.

I'll be careful about badmouthing The Lords of Dogtown (2005) because it does have a loyal following.  I have always found it hard to believe that he took a secondary role in a film about skateboarders in Venice, California, in the 1970s.  He was a Big Kahuna-type who made the boards.  And this from an actor who wanted to be taken seriously. 

The main disappointment surrounding The Brothers Grimm (2005) is that it fell short of what we expect from a director like Terry Gilliam.  A comedy-fantasy romp that had been done before in the early 60s, it seems messy and unfocused with terrible pacing and a storyline that seems like a runaway train.  Actually I am caught in the middle between those who loved it and those who hated it.  For me, it had Heath Ledger, who was always worth a look.

Meanwhile, Naomi Watts had come across a short story she liked.  It was written by Annie Proulx and called Brokeback Mountain.  As Heath was considering doing it, he took some flak about how it would ruin his career but he didn't give a damn.  He didn't think his career could get any worse than it was.  He needed a role that would shake people up.  He had some trepidation but was exhilarated when he committed to doing it.  He knew he'd never been offered a role as good as this one.  He said that he found it to be a beautiful and haunting love story.

It's a wonder if Ang Lee didn't think he made a mistake in hiring Heath because there was little of his personality to match Ennis Del Mar's.  Heath was often very loquacious and Ennis bordered on being mute.  Both Ennis and Heath were nervous people, but Ennis' was all directed inwards whereas Heath was all over the place.  He dug down deep within himself for Ennis and came up with several bits of business... the mumbling, the clenched jaw... and said that Lee gave him the best advice he ever got... do less.

I was transfixed by his performance and after seeing it countless times, I admit to feeling like a bit of an authority.  Daniel Day-Lewis, who knows a little something about acting, called this performance perfect.  Annie Proulx later said that it scared me how much he got inside Ennis.  I have always liked Rolling Stone's Peter Travers' illuminating comments: Ledger's magnificent performance is an acting miracle.  He seems to tear it from his insides.  Ledger just doesn't know how Ennis moves, speaks and listens, he knows how he breathes.  To see him inhale the scent of a shirt hanging in Jack's closet is to take measure of the pain of love lost.

On Brokeback Mountain, he met Michelle Williams who played his wife in the film and became his girlfriend in real life and the mother of his daughter.  They would move to Brooklyn but would later break-up.  She has never gone public with why that happened.

It's always rather cracked me up that Jake Gyllenhaal's next film was the very butch Jarhead while Heath became Casanova... what better way to shake off those gay threads perhaps.  I liked Casanova (2005) but it was certainly no stretch for him.  Candy (2006) was a harrowing experience of two serious drug addicts with Abbie Cornish matching Ledger all the way.  It's always been a hard movie for me to watch.  I'm Not There (2007), where everyone ran around taking on different aspects of Bob Dylan is my least favorite, completed Ledger film.  I never understood any of the actors' attraction to this film.  If you liked it, do let me know why.

With apologies to Ennis Del Mar, I gotta say his portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight is some legendary work.  With more apologies to Hannibal Lechter, he has some pretty heady company with The Joker as the screen's best villain.  This was a performance that exhibited a ferocious energy and was genuinely terrifying.  He certainly dug deep for this role, too.  By the time this film was released, my acting god was dead.  He would win a posthumous Academy Award for best supporting actor... most deserving.  Maggie Gyllenhaal was a costar in The Dark Knight.  I find it noteworthy that he worked with a Gyllenhaal in his two best films.

I had gotten out of a long-forgotten film on January 22, 2008, and had just started up my car in the theater's parking lot when the radio came on blaring that Heath Ledger had died.  I sat there for a long time wrestling with how I felt.  An accidental overdose of prescription drugs they said.  It was later revealed quite a number of them.  He was apparently dog-tired from back-to-back filming of The Dark Knight and his current incomplete film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.  He had been trying to shake a cold and was suffering, as usual, from insomnia.  It is likely that in his state he had taken too many pills.  His death would spark an intensive investigation. 

Sadly, he was only 28 years old. 

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