Whenever a celebrity dies, it is particularly impacting due to the influence they have usually had on our persons. When the great Robin Williams committed suicide, for instance, it made us weep because he was an icon from our childhood. When Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher passed away within a day of each other, it hurt due to them being pioneers in the world of cinema.
Adding to this esteemed list of lost legends is Australian actor Heath Ledger. Most people no doubt remember him for two major parts: Ennis Del Mar from Brokeback Mountain and The Joker from The Dark Knight. Both masterpieces that pushed the envelope of their respective genres, and both featuring top-notch performances from Ledger that earned him Oscar nods (with him winning for the latter).
And yet, Heath Ledger’s range, talent, and filmography were even greater than these cinematic gems. His career began in the television industry where he starred in an innumerable amount of serials, either as a guest part or recurring character, all of which he gratefully used as opportunities to develop his acting persona. However, it was not until 1999 when he played brooding “bad boy” Patrick Verona in the cult favorite 10 Things I Hate About You that he started to gain some rightful attention. Ledger capitalized on this notoriety by starring in two controversial, yet ultimately successful movies: Mel Gibson’s The Patriot and Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball. Both expanded his repertoire and depth.
Unfortunately, like most great actors, Ledger fell into a career slump between 2002-2005, during which he starred in a string of flicks that either flopped or underperformed, including A Knight’s Tale, The Four Feathers, The Order, Ned Kelly, The Brother’s Grimm, and Lords of Dogtown. Evidently, this did not in any way dampen Ledger’s spirits, for he emerged strong by the end of the year in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. As stated before, this movie about the growing homosexual bond between two men in the Midwest earned widespread applause from critics and audiences, with Ledger and co-star Jake Gyllenhaal getting launched into stardom.
No doubt recognizing that sticking to mainstream Hollywood would result in him getting typecast, Ledger went the more indie, experimental route, playing heroin addict Dan in 2006’s Candy, and one of many personas of famed singer Bob Dylan in the unconventional 2007 biopic I’m Not There.
It was 2008, however, that saw Ledger return to the blockbuster spotlight with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. A sequel to the superhero reboot Batman Begins, The Dark Knight saw the Caped Crusader square off against his comic book archnemesis The Joker. Early responses to Ledger’s casting were notoriously cynical, with the actor being met with derogatory terms such as “jokeback mountain” amongst others. Since the film’s release, however, these skeptics have become a prime example of the immaturity of premature judgments as Heath Ledger’s take on the infamous villain opened to standing ovations-worth of praise. Not only were comic book junkies overjoyed, but professional outlets including film critics’ circles, actor’s guilds, filmmaker associations, and of course the Academy Awards all bestowed Ledger with their highest honor in the “supporting role” category.
Unfortunately for fans, Ledger had died from a drug overdose during the production for what would be his last film: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Though Ledger was unable to complete the movie, he still managed to get some posthumous praise, with the late critic Roger Ebert noting that Ledger’s lack of presence in the rest of the movie made it lose a sense of groundedness and continuity.
It has been a good seven years since Parnassus was released, and we now have the documentary I Am: Heath Ledger to look forward to in terms of both insight into the actor’s aspirations as well as closure for any moviegoer who had grown close to him. We will miss you, Heath.
[Featured Image by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images]