Heath Ledger

Emma Dibdin 31 January 2008

At Sunday’s Screen Actors’ Guild awards, Daniel Day Lewis dedicated his Best Actor prize to the late Heath Ledger. In a emotional but dignified tribute, he recalled some of the actor’s most iconic roles, calling Ledger “unique” and an inspiration.

It’s just one example of the reaction from the industry that followed the discovery of Ledger, 28, dead in his New York apartment last Tuesday. The emotive response seems to stem, more than anything, from the loss of a talent rather than the loss of a celebrity. Looking back through Ledger’s fifteen-year career, it’s easy to understand why.

Although early work at home in Australia earned him localised success, Ledger’s Stateside breakthrough came with ‘10 Things I Hate About You’, a modern day retelling of Taming Of The Shrew. It’s fluff, to be sure, but witty and heartfelt fluff, and Ledger serenading Julia Stiles with a rendition of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’ remains a classic pin-up moment for a legion of teenage girls. After a turn as a young peasant boy determined to become a knight in the eminently rewatchable ‘A Knight’s Tale’, Ledger took a brief but powerful role in ‘Monster’s Ball’ playing a tragically neglected son.

But it wasn’t until 2005 that Ledger struck gold with a truly great script, an intelligent director and a role as emotionally complex as it was challenging.

That film, of course, was Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, the universally acclaimed adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story in which two ranch hands meet, fall in love, and spend the rest of their lives struggling with their responsibilities and the pressures of society in the face of their overwhelming feelings for one another This is, above all, the role Ledger will be remembered for, and rightly so. While Jake Gyllenhaal excels in his more extroverted part, Ledger’s Ennis is all self-contained stillness, a character defined by all the things he doesn’t show. It’s an endlessly subtle and frequently gut-wrenching performance, and earned Ledger not only an Oscar nomination, but a new level of esteem in the industry.

Having celebrated this new freedom with a bleak but fascinating role in the Australian indie ‘Candy’, Ledger next joined Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale in playing an incarnation of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ ‘I’m Not There’, a unique take on the modern biopic.

The casting of Ledger as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel met with some suspicion from die-hard fans of Jack Nicholson’s legendary 1989 performance. But the first trailer offered glimpses of Ledger, almost unrecognisable beneath layers of face paint, so disturbing and utterly original that many doubts were assuaged. The film was in post-production by Ledger’s death and is still scheduled for a July release, but the creepy allure of the Joker will now have a morbid new significance for audiences.

At the time of his death Ledger was filming for Terry Gilliam (a.k.a. the unluckiest director in Hollywood history). While the circumstances of his death remain mysterious, there can be no doubt that he will be sorely missed by the industry and audiences alike.

Emma Dibdin