In the last 18 hours, we have heard the name James Dean far too often. We, this generation, the generation targeted so often during this career, don’t remember James Dean. So don’t tell us that Heath Ledger is the latter day James Dean. To us, Ledger is similar to no one else — this is far too atypical for us. Ledger is merely that actor we respected for his devotion to his craft, that actor we realize now we took for granted too much as a supreme talent. Celebrity deaths are the oddest of sorts — far too often yet always unexpected — but this is different, this is one of us, a man a decade removed from high school with a budding career and a young daughter. This is haunting in ways that twentysomething pop culture fans haven’t felt in a long time, if at all.
A peak through Ledger’s career reveals an admirable rejection of Hollywood, of fame, and of the idea of typecast. Ledger’s career easily could have gone the route of a dozen romantic comedy actors thanks to his good looks, but once given autonomy in choosing roles, Ledger so obviously valued roles over money. It would be hard to find two parts more different than Ennis Del Mar and the Joker — all they have in common is an accurate portrayal.
In the last 25 years, just seven actors have earned Best Actor nominations under the age of 30: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Adrien Brody, Ryan Gosling, and of course, Ledger. And trust, if we continued the list further, the quality of acting would only improve. Ledger’s destiny was to be one of the generation’s best actors for the continued future. For that, we feel cheated. There are dozens of directors, actors and actresses that we wish we could have seen work with Ledger, roles we wish he would have played.
But to reflect on that further would only serve to undermine a body of work that already speaks for itself. We saw Larry King ask his panel of guests last night whether Ledger will be remembered as a great actor, or as someone that could have been a great actor. We don’t think it’s close. In that vein, below the fold we have a celebration of our collective run-ins with Ledger’s work: eight movies in total, with thoughts on The Dark Knight to close.
10 Things I Hate About You (By Bryan)
Just his second movie in the United States, 10 Things was the movie to thrust Heath from anonymity into teen heartthrob. The movie was an adaptation on Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” set with a high school backdrop. Ledger played Patrick Verona — a feared rebel paid by the school’s richest, most popular kid to “tame” Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles), the rebellious sister of the best-looking girl in school. Together, Ledger and Stiles were nominated at the Teen Choice Awards for “Sexiest Love Scene”, and Ledger earned an MTV Movie Award nomination for Best Musical Performance.
For what it’s worth, my girlfriend said on the phone yesterday it was her favorite of his roles. There are a lot of females in our generation that would say the same.
The Patriot (By Brett)
Here Ledger plays Gabriel Martin, the onscreen son to Mel Gibson. The movie has all the gloss and sparkle of a blockbuster set during the Revolutionary War. The father and son relationship is played out well by both and Ledger and Gibson. In the movie, Ledger has his long flowing locks of blonde hair, something for the girls to giggle about in between the film’s gory battles. And even though Ledger dies before the film is over, his performance is one that convinced us and mislead us. It convinced us that Ledger was going to become a star. And it mislead us into thinking that he would be a one for a long time to come.
A Knight’s Tale (By Bryan)
Somewhere between his role on the television show “Roar” and The Patriot, Ledger earned a break by landing his first starring role. Just as 10 Things was a loose adaptation of Shakespeare, this film was labeled by Roger Ebert as a “very, very, very free adaptation of one of [Chaucer’s] Canterbury Tales.” However, even with three verys, Ebert liked the movie, giving it three stars and saying “the movie has an innocence and charm that grow on you.” Surely the existence of these are Ledger’s doing, as well as striking up a chemistry with Sannyn Sossamon, who he would work with again (along with writer/director Brian Helgeland) in The Order. In the end, this was a cutesy movie that continued to hit the demographic that Hollywood was thrusting upon Ledger, but made into more because of Ledger’s talent. Anyone that can turn Sir William Thatcher into “eminently believable”, as CNN’s Paul Clinton called him, is a true star.
Lords of Dogtown (By Brett)
What this movie lacks in writing and directing it makes up with young, raw talent. I watched this movie last night with a friend, and he made the comment that Lords of Dogtown was like a Disney movie gone horribly wrong. I like this take on it. The movie stars Emile Hirsch as a young, rebellious skateboarder named Jay. Heath plays a drunk surf board shop owner that decides to put a skateboard team together. Based on a true story, the movie depicts how the water shortage of the summer of 1976 would change skateboarding forever. Emptied pools and new gripping skate wheels allowed for tricks the likes of which had never been seen before. It is a poorly told tale of four friends; of their descent into stardom and the problems that arise. Ledger often gets lost in the background of this film. He wears fake teeth and slurs his words. All in all, he does a good job with what he was given. And in one simple scene in the movie’s final 20 mintues, it was easy to see why Ledger was destined to become a star. In a quick 15 second scene, Ledger is on screen alone sanding down a surfboard in the shop. Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” comes on the radio. Ledger sings and bobs his head along with the music while sanding the board, and although the scene is short, it made me like a character I was set out to dislike, and created a memory from a movie I was surely going to forget.
Monster’s Ball (By Jon)
If Heath Ledger’s Hollywood career has two acts, then Monster’s Ball is the turning point. The movie is most famous for winning Halle Berry a Best Actress Oscar — the first win in that category for a woman of color. But it was just as important to Ledger’s career trajectory as it was to Berry’s.
Just 22 when the film came out, Ledger made an ambitious move with Monster’s Ball. Themes of racism, sexism and death run through the movie, and Ledger’s character (Sonny Grotowski) eventually commits suicide. His portrayal was nothing if not unexpected, particularly from an actor known for parts as the leading man concerned with getting the girl. In Monster’s Ball, he plays the son of a racist prison guard — enduring fight scenes, emotional breakdowns and contentious one-on-ones with Billy Bob Thortnon. Ledger earns his wings with the performance; it’s flawed with overzealousness, but critics were quick to take note of his surprising transformation and future potential. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called him “de-glammed,” an overt reference to Heath’s rom-com past. Lucky for us, he never looked back.
Brokeback Mountain (By Brett)
Ah yes, the role that defines his career. Inevitably, some will praise him for it and some will hope that right now, he is burning for it. For me, I see this role as a transformation. This is what changed Ledger in my eyes. When he decided to take the role as Ennis Del Mar, he decided to push himself as actor, to step out of the mold that had been cast for him, to challenge himself to make a finer craft. I will forever respect Ledger for taking this role. How easy for him would it have been to make romantic comedy after romantic comedy? There would be plenty of money in that too. By doing this film, Ledger showed us a bit of his character. He showed us that acting was not just a job. He showed us that he didn’t want to just make movies, he wanted to make something more, something timeless; he wanted to make art. And Heath, this performance was as breathtaking and refreshing as Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
Casanova (By Jon)
Casanova was Heath Ledger’s first starring role after Brokeback Mountain — it literally arrived in theatres just two weeks later. And for the most part, it was a return to romantic comedy. But as Giacomo Casanova, Ledger showed impressive range for the lead part in a fairly straightforward film. In Brokeback he commanded the screen as a man of few words, and now he commanded the screen as a man of too many; the L.A. Times called him “engaging and convincing in both roles.” Casanova solidified Heath’s rom-com abilities not as a past phase but as one of many aspects in a versatile acting arsenal.
I’m Not There (By Jon)
After filming with Heath Ledger on I’m Not There, writer/director Todd Haynes referred to him as “one of the most sensitive and brilliant actors of his age.” Ledger was one of six actors to portray Bob Dylan in the film — Richard Gere, Christian Bale and soon-to-be Oscar winner Cate Blanchett were among the others. Ledger played Robbie Clark, a rough approximation of Dylan after his successful foray into major movie roles. Heath’s portrayal — one part Hollywood star, one part amiable artist — seemed quite similar to his real-life double status as a big film icon with an even bigger artistic side. (His onscreen work as Dylan the divorcée also rang true to his personal split with Michelle Williams.) But Ledger brought a real sense of compassion to the role. He was one of the few actors not required to sing in I’m Not There, but his depiction of a love-scarred Dylan was poetry in motion.
The Dark Knight (By Bryan)
From an independent movie, Ledger moved on to what will be considered his one blockbuster, and sadly, his last hurrah. However, it’s not as if Ledger sold out by accepting the part of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. It’s a role that has had Mark Hamill’s voice and Jack Nicholson’s wit, but I have a feeling in 7 months, the Joker character will permanently belong to Ledger. His look and his voice already seem the perfect continuation of the darkness Nolan brought to Batman Begins.
Ledger’s importance to the film should not be underrated in the slightest. While Bale dominated Nolan’s entryway into the Batman series, Ledger seems to be more important to the second film. Ledger’s Joker is on every movie poster I see, and for fun, I watched the trailer a few times and counted the words each character receives in the trailer:
Heath Ledger — 48 words.
Michael Caine — 22 words.
Christian Bale — 18 words.
Gary Oldman — 17 words.
Morgan Freeman — 7 words.
Random Police Officer — 4 words.
Maggie Gyllenhaal — 0 words.
Aaron Eckhart — 0 words.
Despite the presence of some absolutely huge names in film, Ledger was Nolan’s clear choice to represent the film. As a huge fan of Batman Begins, Bale, Nolan and most of all Ledger, I was excited about the possibility of this role since the day I heard it. But now, with Heath gone, I’m actually most happy he has the part for the one reason he never cared: the money. Surely, this was the part that earned him the biggest payday, so I’m glad the movie was made for Matilda Ledger, Heath’s beautiful daughter.
While we were stripped of a generational actor yesterday, it’s important to remember that Matilda was stripped of much more. RIP, Heath.