Friday, January 25, 2008

Heath Ledger 1979 - 2007


My younger sister, like many girls her age, had a crush on Heath Ledger in the late 90’s and early 2000s. As such, she would often play his movies on our living room TV, and I would make a bowl of microwave popcorn and sit down on the couch with her. Unlike Ryan Phillipe or Shane West or Ricky Martin, there was something I liked about this guy. He had a quality that elevated otherwise-disposable fluff like 10 Things I Hate About You, A Knight’s Tale, and The Four Feathers. He seemed like a guy I’d like to sit down and have a cheeseburger with. He was magnetic, charming, rugged and real.

As no doubt was the case for many filmgoers, the film that made me sit up and really take notice of Ledger’s talents – and realize that he was not merely an uncharacteristically earthy Tiger Beat stud, but one of the most truly brilliant actors working today – was Brokeback Mountain. Ledger was the heart and soul of that film, ceasing to be an actor playing a part and completely becoming Jack Twist – a doomed, sad grizzly bear of a man who keeps his cards close to his chest. Though mostly held up as being an allegedly important “gay” movie, - and had any other actor played the part, it would likely only have been just that – but thanks to Ledger, Brokeback is a universal story, a tragedy about lovers who are forced to hide their feelings due to social prejudices.

I was equally impressed with his recent work in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, in which he portrays a James Dean-esque Bob Dylan during his marital collapse just prior to the creation of Blood on the Tracks, and completely tickled pink by his new, terrifying-looking incarnation of the Joker in the trailer for the upcoming The Dark Knight. Upon first hearing of his death, my first feeling was disbelief, followed by sadness and a sense of universal unfairness. Heath Ledger was only seven years older than I am now. He will never get the chance to see his daughter grow up, nor will the world ever see him leave behind a decades-spanning legacy, during which he only continued to grow as an actor – as I’m sure he would have were he still with us. All we are left with is a handful of great performances, and the question of what could have been.

Usually when I write on this blog about the passing of someone in the motion picture business, I make a habit of saying “so and so will be fondly remembered” rather than “sorely missed,” because most of the time, I’ll be talking about someone like Ingmar Bergman who had a terrific run, lived to a ridiculously ripe old age, and left behind a cinematic legacy of staggering quality. Heath Ledger, on the other hand, will be sorely missed, as well as fondly remembered. He will be fondly remembered for the handful of roles he left behind, but we will miss seeing him on our movie screens, and we will miss his unique brand of emotional honesty he brought to each of his characters. We will miss knowing that if we went to see a movie he was in, we were in for something good, or at least interesting. Heath Ledger was 28, which is too fucking early to lose anyone, especially one of the finest actors in the world. He will be sorely missed.