Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger 1979-2008

Where to even begin. I’m shocked. Like many of you, upon hearing the news I was sure I misheard or misread or it was just an urban legend that was getting out of hand. But no it is unfortunately true. I certainly didn’t know Heath Ledger but I had seen a good chunk of his work and a huge admirer of the man as a performer. He was well on his way to becoming one of the finest actors of his generation and for him to be taken like this, two years into fatherhood no less, is an absolute tragedy.

Ledger first came to my attention, as he did to a large chunk of his young American audience was as the brooding bad boy with a heart-of-gold, Patrick Verona, in the way wittier then it has any right to be 10 Things I Hate About You. In this Taming of the Shrew set in high school, Ledger played the Pertruchio analogue who was hired to woo the bitchy Julia Stiles. For the first chunk of the film I assumed Ledger was just a pretty boy hired for his looks. Oh ho, ho, never judge a book by their cover kids. Then this scene happened:

And that was the moment I fell in man-love with Heath Ledger. Oh man you can’t even begin to know how bad I wanted to bust this move on my high school crush. The scene is brilliant, he sings well enough to come off sincerely, but sings badly enough to make it genuinely cute and funny. It’s the first time the character smiles in the film too and when Heath Ledger smiles, well, damn.

I missed Ledger’s short lived Fox series Roar, but I’ve heard it was a solid enough sword and sorcery effort. But come on, it was a genre show on Fox and Ledger was bound for bigger and better things anyway (as was co-star Vera Farmiga).

Though he’s not in the movie for very long, Ledger made an impression as the idealistic Gabriel Martin, whose death inspires daddy Mel Gibson to fight the British in the lackluster The Patriot. What came next though was a horse of a different color.
A Knight’s Tale was and remains an incredibly fun movie. As William Thatcher, a humble stable boy who bucks the medieval caste system to become a knight with the help of probably the most fun group of sidekicks ever assembled (Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk and the brilliant Paul Bettany). Ledger is charming, stalwart and very easy to root for in this incredibly solid leading man role. While the film was not a huge success in theaters it has found a much beloved place in many DVD collections and cable airings.

There are many who dug Monster’s Ball and I am admittedly not one of them. Though lord knows there’s a lot of thorough and powerful emoting going on in the film and Ledger gives as good as he gets.

The Four Feathers, Ned Kelly and The Order put Ledger in a bad place career –wise for a while but I can certainly understand his signing onto any of the films. In the wake of Gladiator, Lord of the Rings and other epics one would figure that doing a big military story would do the trick. It didn’t. As for The Order it brings back a lot of the same creative team as A Knights’s Tale so it makes sense that Ledger would jump at the chance to have that kind of fun again.

Then came 2005. Ledger wisely ascribed Terry Gilliam as the reason for his career resurgence and he’s not wrong. Gilliam casting Ledger as Jacob Grimm in The Brothers Grimm showed audience he could do a lot more then play the handsome, dashing ample lead. Jacob is a bit of an odd-ball and geek, playing a fine counterpoint to the more roguish Will played by Matt Damon. The movie may not have been among Gilliam’s best but you’d be hard pressed to fault Ledger or Damon for that. Ledger gave a spectacular Val Kilmer impression in Lords of Dogtown. The fictional retelling of Dogtown and Z–Boys was a lot of fun and Ledger is a huge contributor to that. Of course what Ledger will ultimately be known for is his multi-award nominated work as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain.

In his most layered performance to date Ledger gave the film it’s dark, mournful heart. Ennis is as laconic as they come and Ledger calls upon all his physicality to suggest volumes about Ennis’ inner-most desires and fears. Ledger has one wonderful intense moment after another. The moment where he defends hid family fiercely and then is framed separately from his family backed by fireworks is certainly one of the most gorgeous shots in Ang Lee’s filmography. Let’s not forget the film’s final moment where clutching his lover Jack Twist’s denim jacket barely spits out “Jack, I swear…” You’d have to be made of stone not to shed a tear at that scene. It was also on this film that Ledger met future lover Michelle Williams. On an additional note, I’m really pleased to see that after a year and a half of being a punchline, the film has really held up well, which is great considering it sadly now stands as one of the brightest spots on Ledger’s resume.
Ledger’s leading follow-up, the light and breezy Casanova, is sweet but forgettable. Besides, we already knew Ledger could swash-buckle well at this point.

This year’s I’m Not There brought back the Brokeback quality Ledger, playing Dylan, the artist whose family life is in turmoil. Acting against the luminous Charlotte Gainsbourg, Ledger portrayed the most human and vulnerable of the Dylan’s on display. Since there was so much going on in the film I look forward to revisiting it and giving Ledger’s section a closer look as it hits that fine line between drama and melodrama.

Ledger has one film completely in the can, his post-work is all finished and now all we can do is wait. The film of course, is the hotly anticipated Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight. Ledger plays the Joker and the advance word is incredibly strong. It appears from the limited footage we’ve seen that Ledger was skewing closer to the comics then Nicholson’s portrayal and I’m really excited to see Ledger play a genuinely worthy opponent to the caped crusader and play it damn scary.
It’s also a grim joke that Ledger was filming another Gilliam film, the fascinating sounding The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Gilliam has had catastrophes halt his films before but nothing like this. While the completion of a film is nothing in the face of a human life, given the choice between no new Gilliam film and an alive Heath Ledger I wouldn’t think twice, it’s still a bummer.

More bleak is to think of the career Ledger was on his way to having. A leading man not afraid to make unconventional, daring choices. Never you mind the fact the man was a father. A tragic, tragic loss.

My prayers and wishes go out to Mr. Ledger’s family and friends.

1 comment:

Harley said...

For a great appreciation of Heath Ledger, see today's Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/22/AR2008012202890.html?hpid=topnews