A Rough-Edged Actor Who Carved An Indelible Image
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
A young movie star dies and the mind automatically cues up the clip reel and FFs through the footage, even before it occurs to you to simply turn on the television and just watch the actual, endless loop:
Here is Heath Ledger -- fresh and hunky and unknown -- singing "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and dancing on the school stadium bleachers in a teen flick adaptation of Shakespeare ("10 Things I Hate About You," a reworking of "The Taming of the Shrew"). Here is Heath Ledger caressing that empty, soiled cowboy shirt kept by his dead lover in "Brokeback Mountain." And Heath Ledger as one of the Bob Dylans in "I'm Not There," in sunglasses and a dour expression, one of the Bob Dylans who were impossible to be around.
A sneak peek of Heath Ledger from this summer's upcoming Batman movie as the Joker, fully unhinged, erasing in a few seconds any ownership Jack Nicholson may have claimed to that role. Working backward now, here is Heath Ledger in period pieces, wooing women or fighting in the Revolution. Heath Ledger in a knighthood fantasy, with swords. Heath Ledger as the unhappy prison guard in "Monster's Ball" who shoots himself in front of his father . . .
Edit that, rewind, start again:
Video suddenly from someone's phone of the curious crowd that gathered in the early evening yesterday, the gawkers and stalkers in all of us, at the SoHo apartment where Ledger was found dead at 28 by the housekeeper and the massage therapist. He was naked in a bed, with prescription sleeping pills reportedly found nearby -- fame's tragic tableau mort. Next we carry him to the gauzy and reverential place we reserve for such men: James Dean in a roadster on the highway, River Phoenix at a nightclub.
There can only be so many articles about a young actor's understatement, about his steeliness and cool. These always go with pictures of him in $400 jeans. Here you had a man who got a decent chance at everything a young actor could hope for, starting from Australian TV and leading to an Academy Award nomination for "Brokeback Mountain" -- a part that, by conventional Hollywood wisdom, had just as much potential to kill a leading man's career.
Had he lived to old age, Ledger would have never stopped hearing "I wish I knew how to quit you" jokes, the line uttered by his co-star Jake Gyllenhaal in "Brokeback Mountain." MTV gave the two of them the "best kiss" prize at its movie awards show. What got lost in all that is how good the movie was, and how good Ledger was as Ennis Del Mar, the pent-up ranch hand with a broken heart. (Really it was a role about not talking, about the unsaid. Easier said than done.)
Some of Ledger's movies worked, and many of them did not, but all along, a viewer could sense that he went about the craft with almost too much seriousness, with pain. In almost every interview he downplayed celebrityhood, tried to deny its meaning and place in his life, shrugged the usual serious-actor shrugs -- often while lighting his cigarette, creating a mood of nonchalance. Just a couple of years ago he and his pretty girlfriend moved to the pretty part of Brooklyn and had a pretty baby girl. People (the magazine, and actual people) followed them everywhere. They broke up, and it seemed like a shame, though what sort of shame you can never quite say: Ours? Theirs?
Despite the initial huzzah and marketing by Ledger's publicists -- the Vanity Fair cover eight years ago and the expert chiseling that goes along with that -- the heartthrob thing never clicked for Ledger. He worked another angle, something that is sometimes called "smoldering" when writers are out of ways to describe it. It looked like it was a chore for him to be cute. "He's handsome, but not in a traditional sort of way," Shekhar Kapur, who directed Ledger in the 2002 drama "Four Feathers," said about the actor to The Washington Post. "He's a bit craggy, but he's very, very sexy."
Craggy sexy. That was it, and perhaps that was all of it. Craggy sexy is not a lot of smiles and fashion spreads. The result of craggy sexy is that a certain niche of fans winds up swooning, writing letters of adulatory praise to Entertainment Weekly, but not as many people who opt for the more mainstream definition of sexy. Those people like Brad Pitt.
In public, Ledger kept dirtying up, dressing down, adding tattoos, chain-smoking, letting his hair get long and greasy. (Message: I don't care about that kind of thing. Message: Only the art matters.)
But like all of them -- all of these craggy sexy serious actors in search of a good part -- he cleaned up good. The lasting photo is of him in a tuxedo, making his way down the red carpet in 2006 with his then-girlfriend, Michelle Williams. They'd met on the set of "Brokeback Mountain." They'd just had the baby a few months before, and named her Matilda. In the carpet moment, Williams is in curry yellow Vera Wang chiffon. The couple do their best to fulfill all the requirements of the carpet, talking optimistically and proudly about his nomination for Best Actor, and also talking about nothing, and looking great.
He didn't win. Hours later, at the Vanity Fair party at Morton's in Beverly Hills, he was drinking with friends. People stood near him and just watched him. It was Ledger, Williams and Jake Gyllenhaal. It was Gyllenhaal's talented sister, Maggie, and her fiance, the un-craggy, heavy-lidded Peter Sarsgaard.
We hovered around them and tried to overhear their conversation. Soon enough they all drew closer and shut everyone out with their body language. They formed an impenetrable circle of young Hollywood cool.