It was my first. My parents have told me about the first time they experienced the tragedy of learning of an artist’s death. They were infants when James Dean died in a car crash; they were young adults for the assassination of John Lennon and adults for the passing of River Phoenix from an overdose outside Johnny Depp’s nightclub in Los Angeles. Heath Ledger was my first.
I remember walking through Tower Records in San Mateo, California when I was in high school and seeing a poster of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Jim Morrison. It was titled “Forever 27″ – the age they all died of accidental or purposeful means. In the minutes after I first read about his death, I added up Heath Ledger’s age in my head and as my mind raced, I thought that he died at this mythical milestone, placing him alongside these artists in some sort of pantheon of performers. Then I checked his birthday and realized that he was actually 28. Ledger did not have anyone to share in his tragic young demise; even in the age of his death he was singled out.
Heath Ledger was the first actor I wanted to emulate. From the time he first taps that microphone before his serenade as Patrick Verona in 10 Things I Hate About You, I wanted to be him. Running across those bleachers singing Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” a gleeful Ledger become a star. I watched him as a hot-headed young colonial rebel in The Patriot, as a charismatic man striving for knighthood in A Knight’s Tale, and as a British soldier searching for redemption in The Four Feathers. For the first time, I saw a young actor developing deeper, brooding, emotional performances; his talent emerged before my eyes.
As Ledger pursued his own development as an actor, his box office power fell, and many critics called him an actor who had potential to be a star, but had lost his way. None of them knew what he had in store. When Diana Ossana, co-writer and producer of Brokeback Mountain, visited Northwestern last fall, she told the story of how, despite studio discomfort about him playing the part, Ledger offered to pay for a plane ticket and meeting with Ang Lee in Taiwan to earn the role of Ennis Del Mar. In 2005, I read Annie Proulx’s story in anticipation, waiting to see Ledger flesh out the character that was begging for a story, an explanation, a deepening. I watched the film the day it came out in my favorite little theater in California with my mother, gazing in awe at the screen as Ledger tore the role apart with anguish, anger, love, and loss.
Too many jokes were made about the film for its content; its story was treated with too much novelty, even garnering an MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss. The film was serious. Ledger was serious: perhaps too much so. He invaded Ennis Del Mar, gave him the breath of life, and fully embodied him on-screen. When he clutches Jack’s empty, dirty jacket in the final scene, I still get chills.
Ledger was never one to take part in the Hollywood life. He got engaged, moved to Brooklyn, had a daughter, and stayed out of the limelight, only emerging to politely acknowledge others when he was recognized for his performances. Even in box office flops you could tell he was trying harder than everyone else. He was never there to get a paycheck; he saw in his characters someone to inhabit, to devour.
Heath Ledger was the embodiment of an idea: the young, talented actor. He didn’t care about glitz, glamour, or glory. He cared about his craft, his art, making something of his talent, and finding another challenging role. He almost cared too much, challenging conventions of a young movie star. When he seemingly disappeared from media attention between A Knight’s Talein 2001 and Brokeback Mountain in 2005, he wasn’t slumming around, waiting for career rebirth in a blockbuster. He was honing his skills in indie films, searching for roles that interested him, no matter how prominent or obscure the project. He was doing what he wanted as an actor instead of what Hollywood demands of bankable talent, and for that I highly admired him. This summer will see the release of Ledger’s presumed final film: The Dark Knight, the big-budget sequel to the blockbuster Batman Begins. It is painful to wonder if Ledger had finally gone the long route to his deserved reverence and popularity, come full circle into the success his heartthrob status as a teenager had initially afforded him. He had shunned its first offer, but was ready for a comeback as a gifted professional.
Hank Stuever of the Washington Post published an obituary of Ledger around midnight on Tuesday. He described Ledger as taking his place alongside James Dean and River Phoenix in the “gauzy and reverential place we reserve for such men.” It’s frightening to consider how briefly these men graced cinema. James Dean died in 1955 at 24, Bruce Lee in 1973 at 32, River Phoenix in 1993 at 23 and now Heathcliff Andrew Ledger, Jan. 22, 2008 at 28.
The end of Stuever’s article tells the story of Ledger after the Academy Awards in 2006, and the last paragraph seems incomplete. There is more to the story; there is more to Stuever’s idea here, but that’s the point. The obituary ends where it shouldn’t, just like Ledger’s life.