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100 Things We Loved About Heath

When I first learned of Heath Ledger’s death last week, it came as such a shock that it was as if the breath had been knocked out of me. How to make sense of the tragic loss of a young actor whose career was on such a meteoric rise? Do we blame the vicissitudes of his personal life, about which in truth we know nothing except the little he chose to tell us, together with any inferences we could draw from paparazzi shots and stories of dubious provenance in the tabloids? That he was an Australian who had made it to the top of the heap in Tinseltown whilst simultaneously not being sure he really wanted to be there makes his untimely death and the alleged cause of it all the more poignant.

Not only did Heath have star-quality charisma, he was a genuinely fine actor, who first came to mainstream attention in 1999 with 10 Things I Hate About You, co-starring Julia Stiles. Though it is often rather condescendingly described as a piece of teen fluff and media reports imply that Heath was slightly embarrassed by it, 10 Things is in fact a very witty modern reworking of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.  It was here that Heath first got to demonstrate his innate talents as romantic lead and comic actor for a wider audience, and he did an excellent job of it. Incidentally, 10 Things boasts a killer soundtrack, including appearances by Letters to Cleo and funky lead singer Kay Hanley, and the movie remains one of my favourites to this day.

In his next role of note, Heath was cast alongside Mel Gibson in The Patriot (2000), an American epic that earned praise from the blokes, but frankly failed to hold my interest, although Heath again lights up the screen merely by his presence. From this point onwards, by all accounts he could have cheerfully coasted through a lucrative career mapped out for him by the Hollywood machine. But that was not his way, and instead he began to carve out his own, no less financially rewarding career, turning down numerous cheesy and/or blockbuster roles in favour of increasingly challenging and controversial parts that stretched him as an artist.  Inevitably along the way, he landed in the occasional dud – although as we have seen, one person’s dud can be another’s highly rated favourite.  

However, the reason we will always remember Heath Ledger, and what ultimately transformed him into a serious A-lister, was in his going against conventional studio wisdom to accept the lead role in the unforgettable Brokeback Mountain (2005), based on Annie Proulx’s gut-wrenchingly stark masterpiece from her Close Range collection of Wyoming stories.

Brokeback Mountain was always destined for greatness, directed by the incomparable Ang Lee, with Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry’s magnificent screenplay of Proulx’s story as the basis. Together with stars Heath and Jake Gyllenhaal, Ang Lee wrought an exquisite alchemy from the story of ranch hands Ennis and Jack, hopelessly enmeshed in a doomed love affair, the victims of their deprived backgrounds, geography and redneck homophobia.

Heath immortalised the character of Ennis, bringing him to life in a way that not even Ennis’ creator envisaged was possible. After eight years of false starts and other trials and tribulations in first getting Brokeback Mountain published, and then to the screen, Annie Proulx has written movingly of the way the film affected her, stating that she was blown away by it.  The characters again became so alive in her mind that while out driving one day in the landscape inhabited by Jack and Ennis, she had a surreal moment in which she imagined they were actually about to materialise in front of her.

 In Heath’s own words, “The level of complexity with the character of Ennis were irresistible. I knew that in order to portray Ennis del Mar I would have to mature as an actor, mature as a person.” In the same interview he added that “the anxieties were [in] living up the beauty of the story. It was a perfect story with a perfect director attached to it and I didn’t want to be the one to screw it up” – an unbelievably self-depreciating statement in light of his performance, which is so visceral, so deep, that there really are no words to do it justice.

Annie Proulx has also written Blood on the Red Carpet, a brilliant rant about the 2006 Oscar ceremonies, as along with just about everyone else except the Academy, she recognised Brokeback Mountain as the standout for Best Picture (it was nominated in eight separate categories).  However, as she observed, the Hollywood movie industry is a conservative behemoth that plays it safe and seems to prefer mimicry to artistry, so Brokeback Mountain didn’t get Best Picture, and Heath missed out on his Oscar. The Brokeback team had to settle for just three (Best Director, Best Musical Score and Best Adapted Screenplay), which as Proulx tartly pointed out, placed it on a par with King Kong. It did however, win the Golden Lion at Venice, and Jake Gyllenhaal walked away with an award at the BAFTAs.

In the aftermath of the awards,  some journalists mused that the Academy might eventually see the error of its ways and award Heath a compensatory Oscar down the track, for which there has apparently been more than one precedent. Tragically, he hasn’t lived long enough to see that, so unless he earns a posthumous going for his portrayal of the Joker, he is destined to go down in movie history as one of the finest actors never to win an Oscar.

And so we are left only with celluloid memories of an enormously charismatic, intelligent, talented young star who could really act, something that more than a few big names in Hollywood are incapable of.  He was an actor with a strong presence, an incredibly expressive face and a gorgeously rich voice when he chose to employ them, and now he will never appear in Hamlet at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre as he once planned, nor in any other production.

Heath Ledger was both an archetypal Australian and an ambitious expat who followed the dream, heading to Hollywood to chase both success and love, although not necessarily in that order. He had a thing for beautiful blonde actresses, a chequered love life and shockingly bad taste in clothes, but we loved him anyway. Despite all his success and the accompanying razzamatazz, he seemed to remain genuinely attached to his home country, even when hounded from it by hostile and unrelenting media attention. He was a young actor with uncompromising views on his craft, who knew exactly what he believed in and what he wanted, and wasn’t afraid to express an unpopular opinion when he felt it was needed. May you rest in peace, Heath Ledger, we’re devastated that you have left us.

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January 29, 2008 - Posted by | Movies |

3 Comments »

  1. My sadness is deepened at the loss of such undoubted talent. He simply got better and better with each role. Vale Heath.

    Comment by Kate Foy | January 29, 2008 | Reply

  2. A fine tribute to a talented actor and unique human being. Thank you

    Comment by alex turner | January 30, 2008 | Reply

  3. Thank you for sharing this with us. bob

    Comment by Bob King | February 1, 2008 | Reply


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