The actor Heath Ledger will doubtless be best remembered for his incredibly moving, compassionate performance as Ennis Del Mar, a cowboy who finds a perplexing, forbidden and secret love with a fellow ranger, Jack Twist, in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), and his death will revive the generally acknowledged lament that both his performance and the film should have won Oscars.
It was a painstakingly wrought performance, described by Rolling Stone magazine as “an acting miracle. He seems to tear it from his insides. Ledger doesn’t just know how Ennis moves, speaks and listens. He knows how he breathes. To see him inhale the scent of a shirt hanging in Jack’s closet is to take measure of the pain of love lost.”
Ledger, a handsome man, had refused to follow the easy route to fame and fortune in teen movie roles, but welcomed the opportunity to stretch his exceptional talents with parts that would prove challenging and fresh. “I feel like I’m wasting my time if I repeat myself,” he said.
Other performances which demonstrated his range as well as his talent came in The Patriot (2000, in which he played Mel Gibson’s confrontational son), Monster’s Ball (2001), Ned Kelly (2003), The Brothers Grimm (2005) and Casanova (2005). He plays one of the six incarnations of Bob Dylan in the biopic I’m Not There (on current release) and a sinister Joker in the forthcoming Batman adventure The Dark Knight, and had recently visited London to film scenes for Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
The son of Kim Ledger, a mining engineer whose roots were Irish, and his wife Sally, a teacher of French with Scottish ancestry, Heathcliff Andrew Ledger was born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1979, and named after the hero of Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights – his older sister had already been named after the book’s heroine.
His parents divorced when he was a boy and he grew up with his mother, his sister and two half-sisters. “It taught me respect for women, and patience,” he said later. “Growing up with all those women around you, you learn to wait your turn.” Educated at a boys-only private school, Guildford Grammar, he was cast in a local stage production of Peter Pan when he was 10 and played occasional roles on television before dropping out of college in his teens to drive with a friend to Sydney. “I believed I could be an actor, and I left home at an early age to pursue that dream.”
After a year as a self-confessed “beach bum” (he was an avid surfer), he won roles in Australian soap operas, including Sweat (1996), a series about Olympic hopefuls in which he played a gay cyclist, and Home and Away (1998), in which he was a surfer, Scott Irwin. A recurring role as a Celtic warrior in Roar, a US-financed television series set in fifth-century Ireland and filmed in Australia, brought him to the attention of a Hollywood agent, but his first major break came when the Australian director Gregor Jordan gave him the leading role of an affable strip-club bouncer whose life is threatened in Two Hands (1999), a lively thriller that was favourably compared to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Its success led to Ledger being cast in his first American film, Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), an amusing transposition of The Taming of the Shrew to a high-school setting. Ledger later said that after acting in two screen hits – as the son of a farmer turned militia leader (Mel Gibson, who said he possessed “that unknown factor that sort of lights up the screen”) in a tale of America’s battle for independence, The Patriot (2000), and in A Knight’s Tale (2001), a medieval comedy in which he starred as a scruffy low-born who masquerades as a gallant knight in order to enter a jousting contest – he had to battle against typecasting as a teen idol. “I had to become slightly calculating to protect myself from my agents’ plans for my career,” he said. “It was ‘Let’s rake in as much money as we can from the kid because he may not have a career later on.’ They don’t see longevity in their clients, they see a short-term investment.”
Gregor Jordan said that “when Heath first started gaining movie-star status, there was a lot of pressure on him to become the next Brad Pitt or the next whatever. But he wanted to be an actor rather than a movie star.” He took the leading role in Ned Kelly (2003) as a favour to his friend Jordan, and replaced Jude Law (who wanted too much money) in The Four Feathers (2002), but he also took supporting roles in Monster’s Ball (2001, as Billy Bob Thornton’s suicidal son) and The Lords of Dogtown (2005) in order to stretch his range. “In a way, I had been spoon-fed a career,” he stated. “I never took an acting class, so I’ve made all my mistakes on film.”
Proof that he had become one of Hollywood’s finest actors, as well as a star, came in 2005, when he starred in three films which were shown at that year’s Venice Film Festival – Brokeback Mountain, Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm and Lasse Hallstrom’s Casanova. All three were in competition, with Brokeback Mountain winning the major prize. Set in the 1960s, it told of two cowboys who, spending a summer mustering sheep in the Wyoming mountains, have a brief affair which is resumed some years later when both are married with children, after which they meet once a year.
From the time the project was first announced, Brokeback Mountain, an adaptation of a short story by E. Annie Proulx, had been referred to as “the gay cowboy movie”, which annoyed its director and stars. “For me, it was quite simple,” said Ledger. “I read the script and I found it to be a beautiful story and a beautiful representation of love. I have watched many films and read many books about love, and I feel they are all recycling themselves – they are all so stale. I thought this was such a refreshing take.” Proulx said, “Heath Ledger erased the image I had when I wrote it. He was so visceral. How did this actor get inside my head so well? He understood more about the character than I did.”
Physically, Ledger’s performance was remarkable, with his slightly bow-legged walk, slumped shoulders (“If you spend all day on horseback, and you hop off, you walk around like you still have a horse between your legs”) and particularly his facial immobility. “I wanted it to be part of the way Ennis sees the world,” he said. “I wanted the light to be too bright for him and the world to be too loud. But it’s also a real ranch-hand’s face, even the stiff top lip. It’s something that farmers do in Australia to keep the flies out of their mouth.”
Of the love scenes, both tough and tender, Ledger said, “It was certainly a surreal moment the first time I had to kiss Jake. But once that was done, I quickly realised that it didn’t make me want to run out and do it again.” Brokeback Mountain won Ledger many awards, though neither performance nor film won the Oscar, and the 2006 ceremony will be remembered as the one in which Jack Nicholson shattered the convention that presenters should not betray their personal reaction by flinging wide his arms and shrugging in non-comprehension when he opened the envelope and saw that Crash had beaten Brokeback Mountain to win the best film award.
Ledger described his next film, Casanova, as a splendid way to wind down – it was shot in Venice, which he described as “like shooting a film inside a museum”. He and the actress Michelle Williams, with whom he had fallen in love “at first sight” when she played his wife in Brokeback Mountain, had by then moved to New York to live in Brooklyn (“the closest thing America has to Europe”) with their child, Matilda Rose. The couple parted last September, after three years together.
Ledger’s latest release was Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, in which he is one of several actors who portray aspects of Bob Dylan. He described his recently completed role as the Joker in the latest Batman film The Dark Knight as “the most fun I’ve ever had with any character. He’s just out of control – no empathy, he’s a sociopath, a psychotic, mass-murdering clown.” Michael Caine, who co-stars in The Dark Knight, has described Ledger’s performance as “the big surprise. . . he’s fantastic”.
However, in one of his last interviews – with The New York Times last September – Ledger confessed that while making the film he was suffering from acute insomnia. “Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night. I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted but my mind just kept going.” He was found dead in his apartment in New York, of a suspected overdose; police have reported that drugs found nearby included sleeping pills.
Heathcliff Andrew Ledger, actor: born Perth, Western Australia 4 April 1979; (one daughter with Michelle Williams); died New York 22 January 2008.
Source The Independent.
I will sure miss the acting talen that is/was Heath Ledger he was a very very good actor. I will now be thinking of him while I watch batman in June and his performance in Brokeback Mountain will long be remembered (although many girls will prefer his roles in Knights Tale and other chick flicks. My prayers are with you Heath