Australian movie based on the novel of the same name by screenwriter Luke Davies. Heath takes on another controversial role as junkie Dan, with co-stars Abbie Cornish as Candy, and the fabulous Geoffrey Rush as Casper. In his tribute to Heath, Director Neil Armfield reports that he and Heath got off to a rather wobbly start, coming as they were from completely different directions and with very different ideas about how to play a scene. Heath also told Armfield and Davies that it was a great script, but it had way too many words. The director eventually conceded that the actor was right, and the early takes in which Heath did it his way were the ones that got used. Fabulous film, but the subject matter makes it difficult to watch.
I’m Not There (2007)
Weird Bob Dylan biopic also featuring another brilliant Australian actor, Cate Blanchett, who is currently in line for an Oscar for this. Heath is exceptionally cool as a character who plays a character who plays Bob. Or something like that.
Batman: The Dark Knight – due for release July 2008
However it turns out, this remains the last film that Heath ever wrapped, and will be watched for that reason alone. The director noted that Heath’s character, The Joker, rides a skateboard, and lo and behold, all the young crew suddenly started turning up on set with their skateboards, although if they’d been asked why, they probably wouldn’t have had a clue. That’s star-quality charisma for you.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (in production)
We may or may not ever get to see this, as Heath was in the middle of filming when he died. There have been rumours that the movie will be shut down, that they will use computer animation, that another actor will complete Heath’s role. My first instinct on hearing all this was that the idea of a CGI Heath Ledger walking around onscreen was just too, too much. But then again, Heath was such an out there, edgy, innovative actor, maybe he might even have enjoyed the idea.
Lords of Dogtown (June 2005)
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, a fast-paced, edgy, testosterone-fuelled journey through the mid 1970s surf and skateboarding culture of Venice Beach, California, aka Dogtown. Based on actual personalities and events surrounding the legendary Z-Boys skateboarding team, who revolutionised the sport.
Heath gives a virtuoso performance as the Z-Boys’ mentor, the charismatic but permanently wasted Skip, in all his psychedelic glory. When the movie was released, the real Skip Engblom stated that his wife thought Heath played him perfectly. He then quipped that this was great for him, because his wife now thought she was sleeping with Heath Ledger! Instead of horseriding in this one, Heath skateboards and surfs. Loaded with accurate 1970s surfer-skateboarding culture detail, together with a brilliant 1970s soundtrack. Includes Tyson the famous skateboarding bulldog, who gets a featurette to himself on the DVD.
Fabulous stuff – one of my top three Heath Ledger movies.
The Brothers Grimm (August 2005)
This is on my (ever shorter) list of Heath movies still to see. It got very mixed reviews, but it’s also got Matt Damon, and on the basis of the actors alone, must be worth a look. Heath greatly admired director and former Python Terry Gilliam, and enjoyed working with him so much that he went back for a second round in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, filming at the time he died.
Brokeback Mountain (December 2005)
Heath plays Wyoming ranch hand Ennis del Mar in a career-defining performance. A masterpiece of a movie that generated huge amounts of buzz and earned Heath his one and only Oscar nomination. All the necessary ingredients to be included on any list of Great Movies – outstanding writers, screenplay, director, actors and performances, sweeping landscapes, gorgeous cinematography, haunting music, local detail, taboo subject matter, desperately sad love story. You can watch Heath in this once or you can watch him a hundred times and you will still see something new. Magnificent.
Casanova (December 2005)
A comic romp filmed entirely in the sumptuous city of Venice and surrounds, in which Casanova finally gets his romantic comeuppance (no pun intended). Heath in the lead role does charismatic, unscrupulous, hyperactive and comic hero with an equal degree of skill, successfully extricating himself from all manner of scrapes just in the nick of time. He even gets to ride another horse or two. A host of fine actors also do their bit, including co-stars Sienna Miller as Francesca Bruni and Jeremy Irons as Pucci, the feared Papal inquisitor.
Two Hands (1999)
Heath’s first proper movie after various bits and pieces, mainly on Australian television. Extremely black Australian comedy-drama, set in Sydney’s notorious King’s Cross district. Heath does a fine job playing bouncer and petty criminal Jimmy, who gets in way above his head with the big boys and has to take desperate measures to save his own skin. Co-star Bryan Brown is brilliant as downmarket Sydney crime boss Pando.
Heath Ledger interview on Two Hands
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Heath’s first big international role, in a cool and very funny modern reworking of The Taming of the Shrew. Heath stars at bad boy Patrick Verona, who runs his corny seduction lines on Katarina Stratford (Julia Stiles) in the expectation of instant success, but she brushes him off in no uncertain terms until he can prove himself worthy. Heath’s performance of Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, racing up and down the stands of the sports stadium with a huge grin on his face, waving his legs in the air like a goofy giant stick insect as he successfully evades the security guards, is one of the funniest things I have seen in cinema. Just as good as it was in 1999.
The Patriot (2000)
American Revolution saga where Heath got his next big break, cast as Mel Gibson’s son. Did very well at the box office and generally rated highly, but not even Heath looking gorgeous in period costume could prevent me from losing interest in the plot and falling sound asleep. The first of several movies in which Heath appears on horseback.
A Knight’s Tale (2001)
Heath plays William Thatcher aka Sir Ulrich von Lichenstein in an entertaining medieval action movie-cum-love story with a bit of rock music thrown in. Heath smoulders in leading man mode, falls in love with the beautiful maiden, shows us his dance moves, and gets to jump on another horse. His support actors also give brilliant comic performances. A lot of fun, and definitely improves on subsequent viewings.
Monster’s Ball (2001)
A confronting prison movie starring Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, with Heath’s short but intense role as guard Sonny Grotowski earning rave reviews from other actors. Cited by Daniel Day Lewis when accepting his recent Screen Actor’s Guild award, which he dedicated to Heath’s memory.
The Four Feathers (2002)
More horseback action, with Heath playing British army officer turned pacifist Harry Faversham, the newest of several movie versions of the 1902 novel by A.E.W. Mason. Got very mixed reviews, and still on my list of Heath movies to see.
Ned Kelly (2003)
One of many dramatisations of the life of the Irish-Australian outlaw, with Heath on horseback yet again. Heath prepared meticulously, reading and re-reading Ned Kelly’s famous Jerilderee Letter and getting his Irish accent right in order to better play Ned. Canned by a lot of critics and not a commercial success, but certainly better than the farcical 1970 Kelly movie starring Mick Jagger, which was dogged by huge amounts of public controversy as well as mishaps on set.
The Order (2003); alternate title The Sin Eater
Heath plays Alex Bernier, a Catholic priest who has lost his faith, again directed by Brian Helgeland, of A Knight’s Tale. Not a success.
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.