January 22nd of this year marked the five year anniversary of the death of Heath Ledger. It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long. It feels like it was just yesterday the news was breaking on Ledger’s body being found in the SoHo apartment of Mary-Kate Olsen, dead of an apparent overdose. Autopsies would later discover that it was an accidental overdose from the misuse of multiple prescription drugs. It’s the way many Hollywood stars have gone out, but it was definitely not the way many fans had expected him to die. Heath was one of the actors that were expected to live many years a grow into a respected actor and Hollywood legend, much like Clint Eastwood or Tommy Lee Jones. Instead, he’s become one of the Tinseltown tragedies, much like River Pheonix. Gone too soon, just as his star was on the rise.
I’m sure most people’s first experience with Heath Ledger was from his performance in 10 Things I Hate About You, where he played the high school rebel trying to “tame the high school shrew” so another guy could date her sister. From there, he wowed us in The Patriot, Monster’s Ball, and the modern-day/medieval mashup A Knight’s Tale. After that, he starred in a few less than successful but still quite wonderful films; The Four Feathers, The Order, Ned Kelly, and Casanova.
Next, he co-starred in The Brothers Grimm with Matt Damon. The film, directed by Terry Gilliam, is one of my absolute favorites. It’s the not-so-true story of Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, a couple of con artists posing as witch hunters who find themselves in deep trouble when they must hunt down and kill a real witch for a French general or be killed themselves. It’s a quirky and eccentric film combining elements and characters from all the Grimm Fairy Tales into a story that only Terry Gilliam can tell. If you haven’t seen it, you should.
Following that, he made Lords of Dogtown, where he played Skip Engblom, one of the creators of legendary skateboarding team, the Z-Boys.
His next film, Brokeback Mountain, brought a bit of controversy for his portrayal of Ennis Del Mar, a cowboy turned gay cowboy. The film drew much critical and box office success and earned Heath Ledger, as well as his co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, some much due acclaim (and I’m sure some good natured ribbing).
He followed up the success of Brokeback with a couple indie films, Candy and I’m Not There. In I’m Not There, he portrayed a persona of Bob Dylan during a period in his life. He shared the screen with five other actors to tell six different stories in Dylan’s life.
And then there was The Dark Knight. One of the greatest comic movies ever made, if not the greatest, and it was in part because of Ledger’s performance as The Joker. No other actor has captured the character quite like Ledger did. He lost himself in the character to the point where you didn’t even recognize him. You didn’t see Ledger, you saw The Joker. This was the greatest performance of what would be a very short career that should have been a jumping-off point for a long and fruitful career. And it was Ledger’s loss of himself in the character that may have lead to his untimely demise, but that’s neither here nor there.
This role would usher Ledger into the pantheon of legendary actors and make it very difficult for any other actor to ever portray The Joker ever again. It also made it very difficult for Christopher Nolan to continue The Joker story line in his Dark Knight Trilogy which saddened many die-hard Batman fans, including myself.
His final performance was in another Terry Gilliam film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, where he portrayed a conman on the run for embezzling money through a charity. He hides out with a small troupe of traveling performers whose leader just happens to be immortal. The film, also one of my favorites, was more surreal and trippy than The Brothers Grimm and just as successful; I mean it’s more of a cult classic than a box office success. But even without the commercial success, it and The Dark Knight were excellent performances for Ledger to end his career. His performance as The Joker did win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor posthumously.
He was a star that burned out too soon. An incredible actor, father, and all-around wonderful personality that was taken from the world all too soon, leaving a void that will never be filled by another actor. In a sea of talentless hacks, it seems to be the talented ones that seem to be the first that sink when they should be soaring high above the waves, like a proud seagull or something. I’m not all that good with sentimental analogies.
Heath Ledger…You will always be missed.