By the time you get to the end of this article you will realize that it is far too short. Heath Ledger’s death at twenty eight years old last January came as a shock to the world and a harsh reminder of the fragile nature of life. Most actors are just starting to hit their stride around this age and for him it was no different. The thing that makes his death even more of a nightmare is that we had finally seen two glimpses of his seminal abilities before the supernova bright flame of his talent was snuffed out entirely.
He was born on April fourth of 1979 in Western Australia. In high school he gravitated toward acting, taking part in many school plays to begin honing his skills. At age seventeen he left school with some acting buddies in the hopes of making it big in Sydney, Australia’s version of LA. Things were harsh at first.
He got his first big role in the 1997 film Blackrock, a movie that was critically lambasted to the point where the praise for his performance was entirely drowned out. He then tried out for the show Sweat, about young Olympic hopefuls, and was offered one of two roles: that of a swimmer or a gay cyclist. He wisely chose the latter because he felt that to distinguish himself from his peers he would have to choose unique and difficult roles. Little did he know it at the time but this role would prepare him for one of the two greatest roles in his career.
He took a few brief, small roles the next two years (such as in the TV show “Roar”) but his first cinematic break came in the form of the movie Two Hands in 1999. He had been trying to get into American movies with no success but the Australian director Gregor Jordan believed in him and cast him in the lead role. Two Face was a critically successful Australian crime thriller and it got him immediate attention.
He broke onto the American scene later that same year in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. This teen role led many to typecast him as a “pretty boy heartthrob with no depth”.
He would make choices intended to fight that stereotype at every turn thereafter. He took on a role as Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot the next year then played a harsh role in Monster’s Ball the year after. He did do a few commercial films like A Knight’s Tale and The Order but he was universally praised as the best thing about these ventures.
It was in Brokeback Mountain in 2005 that he truly arrived on the scene as a young actor with loads of promise. In this movie he played a subtle, closeted gay cowboy who took part in a tragic relationship. It was a riveting tale in the eyes of most critics and his performance was given numerous accolades, including an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Many felt he should have won.
Then in 2007 he filmed The Dark Knight, taking on his most famous role in The Joker. Director Christopher Nolan knew he had his man after only one audition. The casting was widely criticized online but Heath would soon turn the criticism into praise with his jaw dropping performance.
He studied the role for months alone in a hotel room. He would go so far as to write journal entries from the Joker’s mindset. On set he would improvise quite a bit and in the process made the character completely his own.
When some of the footage was released shortly before his death a thunderstorm of anticipation for the movie started brewing. People started talking about him. Everyone thought this would be the movie that catapulted him to the top of his generation of thespians… then one tragic night in his apartment in the Manhattan neighborhood of SoHo he was found dead. The date: January 22nd of this very year. It was determined he had mixed some prescription pills resulting in an accidental overdose.
The tragedy echoed through the world less than half a year later when The Dark Knight opened, snapping almost all box office records in the process. His performance as the chillingly psychopathic Joker left a searing impression on audiences and seemed to many like a sort of Id come to life. He is a shoe in for a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and thus far in the year has to be the favorite to win it outright, the first time that has happened posthumously since Peter Finch received it for Network in 1979.
Heath Ledger will always be remembered as someone whose career was cut far too short by tragedy. The few glimpses of his greatness we have will be turned over until the end of time and the resounding question will always be… what else would he have given us?
May he rest in peace.