The irony was macabre enough to be almost delicious. Heath Ledger was dead, his life cut tragically short by a lethal overdose of prescription medication — yet even as the world resounded with earnest tributes and faxed-in eulogies, there it was, scrawled erratically in lurid red lipstick across his ghoulish visage: “WHY SO SERIOUS?”
The image was, of course, part of the marketing campaign for Batman sequel The Dark Knight, starring Ledger as Gotham’s deranged Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker. Mere weeks before Ledger’s shock demise, audiences had watched breathlessly as the actor — violently transformed beneath a layer of grotesque face paint — unleashed a demonic, wheezing cackle as he taunted the Caped Crusader. “It’s all… part… of the plan,” his Joker had hissed, and it was chilling.
Ledger’s passing was a huge loss to the movie world, not least because, after several years of dodging a career that had been foisted upon him, here was a performer who had finally discovered that “plan” — namely, to do whatever the Hell he wanted. Be it his unforgettable transformation in Brokeback Mountain, his narcissistic poseur-Dylan in I’m Not There, or those fleeting, frightening images of The Joker, this looked to be merely the beginning of something quite incredible.
Ledger lived to challenge his ability. “I dare to be bad and push myself to fail,” he told reporters in Venice last year while promoting I’m Not There. “It’s only by failing you learn to succeed.”
If Ledger’s enduring image will be that of the gifted, reluctant young star who mistrusted the media, then ambition was arguably the one constant in his brief, bright-burning career.
Born in Perth on April 4, 1979, Heathcliff Ledger (so named for the tragic hero in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights) had his first taste of acting in primary school, where he appeared in a production of Peter Pan. Acting would be more than childhood pantomime for the young Australian, however, and upon leaving school at age 16, he left Perth and made the journey to Sydney, determined to get into the film game. Popular legend has it that the teenage dreamer arrived with just 69 cents in his pocket, and after a series of auditions, Ledger found himself back in Perth — and acting — where he appeared on the 1996 TV series Sweat. Small film parts ensued, some suspect (kiddy vehicle Paws) and some credible (realist drama Blackrock), as did a brief role on the obligatory rite-of-passage for Australian stars, Home and Away. Ledger’s next assignment would be a flop Fox TV series Roar — which didn’t, and got the axe — but the suits in Hollywood, taken with his natural charisma, took notice. The teenager from Perth was being groomed for the big time.
Then, almost as if overnight, Ledger broke out. In Gregor Jordan’s 1999 crime caper Two Hands, Ledger’s fresh-faced appeal helped propel the movie to that rarest of things — a genuine Australian hit. At the same time, the fledgling star melted adolescent hearts as an Aussie exchange student in American teen flick 10 Things I Hate About You, a smart reworking of Shakespeare’s Taming Of The Shrew.
The latter brought the inevitable offers of teen-hunk fodder, projects that Ledger swiftly ducked to appear in 2000’s civil war drama The Patriot, alongside a man he considered a mentor, Mel Gibson. There were rumours he was a contender for Spider-Man, which Ledger deflected by (amusingly, in retrospect) protesting his dislike of comic-book heroes.
But there would be one more attempt to turn Ledger into a bankable blockbuster pin-up. Medieval jousting dubiously set to stadium rock anthems, 2001’s A Knight’s Tale was a calculated effort to market Ledger as an action heartthrob, right down to the bogus quote on the poster heralding him as “this year’s hottest new star”.
The film was only a modest earner, yet while industry observers questioned Ledger’s ability to raise a summer tent-pole, he was in a sense beginning to follow his own path. A small role in Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball drew positive notices (and a posthumous tribute from none other than Daniel Day-Lewis), and then Ledger seemed to disappear off the radar, more famous for his public relationships — first with actress Heather Graham, then Naomi Watts — than for the films he starred in.
Expectations of the youthful hunk plagued him. 2002’s The Four Feathers was a serious historical epic mis-marketed on Ledger’s teen appeal. In 2003, Ledger’s thick beard for his portrayal of iconic Australian bushranger Ned Kelly concerned the studio to the extent that he would eventually appear for the international release posters clean-shaven, almost edged out of frame by then-hotter supporting actor Orlando Bloom.
Kelly was far from a failure, at least in Australia, yet these films were indicative of the impasse that Ledger had found himself. Still in his early 20s, he was young and handsome enough to headline broader fare, but his instincts went against this; 2003’s muddled supernatural thriller The Order was virtually the end of the line.
It would be almost two years before Ledger was seen on screen again in the skater film Lords Of Dogtown, during which time the professional and personal rumours circled — he was considered, then not, for Bond; groomed as a successor to Mel Gibson for Mad Max 4; and was replaced by Colin Farrell for Oliver Stone’s Alexander. To the outside observer, Ledger’s career seemed to be tumbling off the rails at a rapid rate.
Little did the world realise that Ledger had taken his sideways career momentum and turned it to his advantage. “I had to destroy my career because I didn’t like the movies I was making,” he later said of the period. “I couldn’t have spent the rest of my life following the paths that were being presented to me, so I had to start creating some for myself.”
There were two key films that would reinvigorate his career: Terry Gilliam’s skewed fairytale The Brothers Grimm, and Ang Lee’s controversial “gay cowboy” drama, Brokeback Mountain.
Though Grimm was afforded a mixed reception, it’s Gilliam who Ledger credits for his rebirth. “Terry was the first director who saw me for what I can do,” he reflected. “He challenged me and I was ready to earn my career and start over, essentially.” Their mutual respect led to what would be his last, albeit unfinished performance — the in-limbo The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus.
And then there was Brokeback. It was the role that spelled certain doom for Ledger’s teen-friendly image — finally — and about as brave performance as an actor of his generation could deliver. Personally it was a windfall for him, too: during filming he fell for his co-star Michelle Williams, with whom he would have a daughter, Matilda Rose, born in October 2005.
It’s the role he’ll almost always be praised for. As the emotionally repressed cowhand Ennis Del Mar, wrestling with a love he just can’t quit for another man, Ledger tore a hole right through the heart of the film, excavating the very interior of the character.
“It is such a powerful performance,” said Empire’s review at the time, “Ledger drawing himself physically inwards, shrinking in the exposure to emotional fact.” Critics elsewhere were similarly impressed. “It is a screen performance as good as the best of Marlon Brando,” offered The New York Times.
Brokeback earned Ledger an Oscar nomination for Best Actor; it also returned him to the public glare. His relationship with the media, particularly in Australia, had always been a difficult one, with Ledger’s turbulent, on-off romance with Watts the frequent target of paparazzi intrusion. Complaining that snap vultures had reduced his life to “a slap across the face,” Ledger was alleged to have thrown eggs at paparazzi, while one photographer accused him of assault on the set of Australian film Candy.
At the Brokeback premiere in Sydney in January 2006, the local paparazzi retaliated — soaking Ledger with water pistols as he and Michelle Williams walked the red carpet. The incident scarred Ledger, who, according to his father, Kim, cried all night and then phoned him saying, “‘Dad, that’s it — sell the house.’” Sure enough Ledger’s beloved Bronte, Sydney, property was sold and he and Williams permanently relocated to New York’s Brooklyn, a hipster-friendly neighbourhood unlikely to be as fazed by slumming Hollywood stars looking for a low profile. Whatever the reasons for Ledger and Williams’s eventual split in September of last year, they remained close, and were often seen doting on their daughter.
Perhaps Ledger channelled his personal situation into his performances, because he was about to enter a remarkable phase of his career. Almost as a teaser, he inhabited his Bob Dylan in I’m Not There with the vanity of an arrogant, would-be philosopher actor consumed by his on screen stardom — while, as many noted, facing a crumbling domestic relationship. What Ledger did next, though, was the biggest surprise of all.
Originally linked to Baz Luhrmann’s romantic epic Australia, he instead took a left-field decision to accept the role of The Joker in Nolan’s Batman Begins sequel, The Dark Knight. Many were puzzled—but Nolan knew he had his man. Ledger was ready; the challenge was what he craved most.
“Oh, I definitely feared it,” Ledger told Empire when we spoke to him on the movie’s set. “Although anything that makes me afraid I guess excites me at the same time. I certainly had to put on a brave face and believe that I have something up my sleeve. Something different.”
What he did have up that purple sleeve was something that few had any right to expect, yet when the first glimpses of the playfully sinister viral marketing gave way to the full-blown trailer, the mania with which Ledger had infused his villain was simply stunning.
“He’s really created something that I think is going to be terrifying,” Nolan remarked.
Reportedly immersing himself in graphic novel The Killing Joke, Ledger holed up in a hotel room for a month alone to prepare for the psychotic prankster, claiming his performance would draw on self-destructive punk icon Sid Vicious and anarchic Droog Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Had the performance taken its toll physically? In late 2007 he told a New York Times reporter that his body was exhausted and he relied on sleeping and anti-anxiety pills to deal with the insomnia that plagued him.
When Ledger was found dead in his New York apartment on January 22, it came as a cruel blow — not just for his family, Williams, and the daughter he had left behind, but because here was an actor who was genuinely emerging into his prime.
What becomes of Ledger’s final filmed performance in Gilliam’s incomplete Imaginarium is anyone’s guess at this stage — the film’s just-launched website reads simply “Coming soon” — but should The Joker turn out to be his epitaph, then the world can at least treasure a gifted actor’s bowing out in exhilarating form. The results are there on screen: Ledger approached his work on his own intense terms — even if that intensity may have cost him his life.
“I’ve never been completely satisfied by anything I’ve done and I don’t think I want to be the type of person, or in a place where I feel completely satisfied and full,” he continued to reporters in Venice for I’m Not There last year. “I always believe I can do more.”
Here’s hoping he puts a smile back on our faces when The Dark Knight arrives.