A Dark Night

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Now this is sad.

By now, everyone has heard the tragic news that Heath Ledger has died at the very young age of 28. Although the media snake was twisting itself into an ouroboros yesterday looking to spin every whispered rumor into hard news, as the dust settled, some truths came out.

He was not found face-down, nude in a pile of pills like some fevered Hollywood cartoon cliché. Ledger was found unconscious in his room, in his apartment (not Mary Kate Olsen’s) with a prescription bottle of pills nearby. As a police spokesman wisely cautioned, there are no outward suggestions that this was a suicide. The final cause of death will have to wait as the results of an autopsy performed this morning were inconclusive. Regardless of the findings, there is one incontrovertible truth – there is no rationale when it comes to a young life’s early exit.

Ledger’s death came as a genuine shock to me. Yes, I was eagerly awaiting his turn as the Joker in this summer’s much anticipated follow-up to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight. From the early stills and most notably, the latest trailer released for that film, Ledger confirmed the positive vibes I felt when it was first announced that he would portray the Clown Prince of Darkness. Keeping with Director Christopher Nolan’s knack for populating this franchise with character acting over just pretty faces, Ledger’s addition as the Big Bad seemed pregnant with possibility. I knew he would bring complexity and menace to a role that can too easily slip into camp.

And it’s that role that will serve as Ledger’s fitting memorial. From the early footage, he nailed it, bringing the Joker back to his roots or more specifically, to those etched by the man who resurrected The Dark Knight, Frank Miller. Miller’s Joker was a sick, sadistic psychopath who delighted in tormenting a fragile Gotham. Ledger looked to have imbued this nemesis with a depravity lacking in Jack Nicholson’s otherwise expert audition of the role. He was Miller’s Joker in the flesh.

I bring Batman up because I, like I’m sure many other film fans, had a selfish knee-jerk reaction. “Would they still release the movie?” Then guilt sucker-punched me and I immediately recalled that Ledger was a mere mortal like the rest of us. That he had a loving family who awoke in Perth, Australia to the devastating news. That he had a two-year old daughter whom he adored. That he was young… too young.

His didn’t seem to be a life of excess – he was no Lohan or Spears – and now that the facts are being separated from the fiction, it would appear that his death, while cruel and untimely, smacks of normalcy. There were no trashed hotel room histrionics on display. No sudden career nose dive. Nothing to make sense of the senselessness.

One thing that really impressed me about Ledger was he seemed poised for matinee idol success, but much like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp before him, he opted to seek out more challenging material in order to grow as an artist.

I think both actors are apt comparisons to Ledger.

Depp was on Jump Street when he made a concerted effort to hide behind layers of Stan Winston’s makeup and bring Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands to life. That decision led Depp to a lifetime of more meaningful roles which had he not initially followed his heart, no doubt he would have found the easy paved path did not lead to relevancy – at least not this late in life.

Pitt had done the same, cutting his own hair for Seven and scarring up his People’s Sexiest Man mug in a bid to separate from shear celebrity. Once he lost the Tiger Beat tribulations and sidled up to David Fincher and Terry Gilliam for some more challenging roles, Pitt dropped the groupies but gained me as a fan.

In Ledger, I saw the same aesthetic. When he starred as the gay cowboy Ennis del Mar in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, Ledger was bombarded with criticism that it was career suicide. Well it wasn’t career suicide, it was a crime of passion. By taking that role and embracing the challenges, Ledger assassinated the career Access Hollywood wanted him to have. When they lost him as a cover story, the world gained another great talent.

That’s why it was a real shame to hear this news. To know that somewhere, out there, a little girl no older than my daughter was waking to a world without her beloved Daddy. To know that across the Globe, a family mourned their little boy. To know that the world had to say an untimely goodbye to another exciting talent… once again.

A dark night indeed.

Comments now closed (2)

  • Great piece, Ed. I too was shocked by this. I kept thinking/hoping it was some hoax or, God forbid, a PR stunt.

    And it’s true that I had only recently started to become interested in Ledger following his casting in The Dark Knight, but I had seen him in The Patriot and Brokeback Mountain and he was a fine actor.

    I think this has cast a pall over The Dark Knight, much as Brandon Lee’s death did to The Crow. One has to wonder whether the mental and psychological stress of portraying a murderous sociopath took a toll on Ledger’s psyche, or at the very least, deprived him of sleep (which he mentioned in interviews) and drove him to the sleeping pills.

    That said, I too think his portrayal of the Joker may be remembered as a great final performance and just might lead to a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Not that any of that matters–I’d take all of that and his performance in TDK to have him back.

  • @JFCC – Thanks for the kind feedback and I agree with you on all counts.

    The Crow connection is apt. I remember that Brandon Lee’s death during filming delayed the release for a full year. When The Crow finally screened, I remember really taking to Lee’s performance and remarking that he seemed poised for great things. It underscored the bittersweet poignancy in a film that already boasted that as a theme.