Wow…every once in a while, a celebrity death really just throws you for a loop, and today was one of those times. Christine had the day off and we were just getting ready to head out to the picket line together when she came across the news of Heath Ledger’s untimely death online.
Like the rest of the world, we were stunned. And no matter how and/or why he died, everything about Ledger’s death is shocking and downright tragic. Here was an actor’s actor, a guy who could have easily skated by on his looks — OK, sometimes he did. I mean, let’s face it, “Casanova” was no “Shakespeare in Love” — but chose instead to pick challenging, often tortured roles that involved some serious heavy-lifting in the acting department.
Christine and I have been huge fans of Ledger’s since he first burst onto American screens in the teeny-bopper ode to Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”, “10 Things I Hate About You”. The movie kind of sucked and I still cannot wrap my arms around Julia Stiles (in anything!) but even here, he had something special and totally elevated the material.
The next thing we saw him in was Mel Gibson’s ‘The Patriot” and here again, Ledger’s character stole every scene he was in and became pretty much the heart and soul of the picture. When he dies, the movie dies with it. Seriously, you might as well stop watching because it’s all downhill from there.
But the first time we really were shattered by Ledger as an actor was in his haunting portrayal of the doomed, suicidal son of Billy Bob Thornton in the so-gut-wrenching-I-defy-you-to-watch-it-more-than-once, “Monster’s Ball” (2001). Here Ledger showed the startling range and depth that his earlier roles only hinted at. Everyone talked about Halle Berry — and rightly so, as she was awesome — but Ledger was like, James Dean good in that movie.
And then, there was his Oscar-nominated turn in his most famous film to date, “Brokeback Mountain”. I had some problems with the movie overall, but I defy you not to weep like a little girl when he clutches Jake Gyllenhaal’s denim shirt to his chest and cries…wow…that is some acting for the ages, amigos. Powerful shit!
But the thing I really dug about Ledger is that he always seemed to be having fun with whatever it was he was involved in. Even that “Brother’s Grimm” crapfest looked interesting (we haven’t seen it) and even if it wasn’t, I’m sure he and co-star Matt Damon had a kick-ass time making it. There was no ego or star bullshit with him, he was like a character actor with a leading man’s face.
And speaking of, two of my favorite performances of his were in smaller supporting roles. In the first, as the shaggy elder statesmen of the skate punks in the wildly uneven “Lords of Dogtown”, Ledger rocked as a stoner trying, and ultimately failing, to keep his struggling skate shop in business. I swear to God, he was either stoned in every scene in that movie or he’s a better actor than I thought. This performance alone should qualify him for the stoner hall of fame. Classic, realistic and f-ing awesome!
My second favorite of his performances was in last fall’s trippy masterpiece “I’m Not There”. His “interpretation” of Bob Dylan seemed the most balanced of the six actors playing him. Ledger wasn’t all good and he wasn’t all bad either, instead his version of Dylan was a messy, screwed up mélange of misogyny, sweetness and prickly genius.
And though you sometimes hated him for the way he treated Charlotte Gainsbourg (who played his beautiful, long-suffering wife) Ledger’s Dylan was perhaps the most human and real of the bunch.
So, while I’m sure the marketing for his final completed film — Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Batman sequel, “The Dark Knight”, with Ledger playing a grungy, maniacal Joker — will be understandable subdued in light of his passing, I can’t wait to see what magic Ledger works with such an awesome, iconic part in a big summer movie.
And though we may not see the likes of Heath Ledger again, I gotta say, I’m glad we got to see him at all. Like James Dean and River Phoenix before him, Ledger left an idelible mark onscreen and he will be greatly missed…
Thanks to my new Flickr friend, Howie_Berlin for the use of the photo at the top of this post. To see more of his Heath pics, check out his photostream at: http://flickr.com