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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2 p.m. ET

Heath Ledger: His Life, Career and Death

Medical Examiner Says Autopsy Inconclusive

Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 23, 2008; 2:00 PM

An autopsy on Heath Ledger was inconclusive, and more tests are needed, the medical examiner's office said Wednesday, a day after the 28-year-old actor was found dead with sleeping pills nearby.

Washington Post staff writer Hank Stuever was online Wednesday, Jan. 23, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the life, career and death of Ledger. Read the Appreciation.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


A transcript follows.


Hank Stuever: Hi everyone. We're here to chat about Heath Ledger, who died yesterday at age 28.

My only caveat is that I am not in New York, and I know nothing more than what the rest of us (instantaneously, nowadays) already know.

But I can help post your comments and ruminations on celebrity death, the way in which we break and analyze these stories, Ledger's career, etc., etc.

Let's chat.


Washington, D.C.: There's a story up now on CNN that an estimated 45,000 people are dying EACH MONTH in Congo as a result of internal conflict and humanitarian crisis. Five million people have died since 1998.

It's running secondary to the lead story about Heath Ledger's kindness to strangers.

I thought Heath Ledger was a wonderful actor with great promise. I'm truly sorry to hear about his death. But this kind of skewered priorities in our country is what breaks my heart.

Why is this, do you think? Are those 45,000 people not real enough because they’re not on screen? Or is it just an unimaginable number that can't be grasped, while one handsome man's death can be?

Hank Stuever: This line of thought always comes up when a celebrity dies. In a world of constant pain and death for so many, how come everybody focuses on the death of a movie star?

I have some immediate thoughts on that:

1. People have a capacity to care about more than one thing at once.

2. A narrative is always more interesting than a statistic, more real.

3. Celebrity is a language many more media consumers (and media makers, frankly) speak. We're more fluent in celebrityhood than say, global politics, etc.

But it's always a good frame of reference, to put some celeb death against the perspective of something far worse. And I think most movie stars would agree. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Was his first name really Heathcliff and was he named after that character in Wuthering Heights?

Hank Stuever: Yes, according to his bio.


Washington, D.C.: Since "The Dark Knight" is already in post-production, it's easy to see how it can still be released on time in the summer of 2008. But what about the other movie that Heath Ledger was filming, Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"? What will happen to that production?

Hank Stuever: I believe "Imaginarium" was still filming, so I don't know. If anyone has seen any industry news on that (Hollywood Reporter? Variety?), please send a link.

"Dark Knight" is in the can, mostly, and all indications are that Ledger totally dominates the role of the Joker, and that he's really terrifying. That may just be the makeup. We shall see.

Others have asked if this is a marketing detriment for "Dark Knight." I would guess the contrary.


Washington, D.C.: There are plenty of middle-aged (and younger and older) adults on multiple prescription drugs for sleep disorders/anxiety/pain/ depression, etc. What is so sad is that it seems as though Heath was ill with pneumonia, and coupled with the presciption and nonprescription drug use, coupled with perhaps recreational drugs...his body just collapsed. He was so young, but frankly, it is a wonder that it doesn't happen to more of us!

Hank Stuever: The pneumonia thing is still a possibility, though last I checked the wires, there was nothing conclusive.

The Reliable Source women said this earlier, and I will AMEN it: Insomnia is the worst. I can knock myself out with a single Excedrin PM, but then again, I'm not trying to finish two films at once, dodge paparazzi, deal with all the BS that comes with being a movie star, co-parent a 2-year-old ....


washingtonpost.com: Discussion: The Reliable Source (washingtonpost.com, Jan. 23)


Gaithersburg, Md.: So sad about Heath. He was a favorite of mine. One thing I hate about this is separating the tabloid speculations from the truth.

Hank Stuever: I'm afraid that's the world we live in now, Gaith'burg. I also prefer the wait-and-see. I am grateful that my only assignment yesterday when the news broke was to just think about his life and try to tie something thematically.

Does anyone remember back to when all the rock stars were dying in the late 60s and early 70s? How quickly did news like that spread? How intense was the coverage of say, the death of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix ...

Legendarily, the drag queens rioted in the streets the night Judy Garland died, but that was because they were being hassled by cops already and IN NO MOOD at that point for any krep from the cops.

How about Marilyn Monroe? What was the TMZ equivalent, besides weekly gossip mags, in 1962?


Re: Celebrity death vs. More important stuff: I think people spend so much time focusing on celebrities' lives because 45,000 people dying in the Congo is sometimes too sad or emotional to think about. I know that there are much more important and pressing/depressing issues going on in the world right now and that is precisely why I read about celebrity gossip -- it's a break from all of that.

Hank Stuever: Yes, you're right. People read celebrity stuff as a salve to the "real" news. I just hope they're also reading the real news.

I think we've all had the experience of reading -- in the Post or NYT or LAT -- a really compelling story/narrative about ONE person or family in a Congo-type situation in another part of the world, and that makes it so much more real, and less like a number.

I have always believed that we pay attention to celebrities because, as long as there's been civilization, we need godlike figures, about which to tell stories of triumph and tragedy. It's all Greek to me.


Tampa, Fla.: A comment: I was watching CNN last night, trying to get caught up on the presidential election. Of course they were just going on and on about Heath Ledger.

I really dislike the way celebrity infotainment seems to be taking over traditional hard news outlets.

Hank Stuever: I sympathize, and I suppose if there was a way to win the ratings game without doing infotainment, then the people at CNN would have thought of it by now.

I guess in situations like that, you could turn off CNN and pick up an actual copy of the day's Washington Post, which would get you up to speed on both, and you could decide which you want to look at first...


Re: The Dark Knight: I've heard that Heath Ledger gives one mighty performance in The Dark Knight. Would it be beyond the scope of possibility for him to receive a posthumous Oscar nomination next year, much like Peter Finch did for Network?

I'm willing to bet that Christopher Nolan will dedicate the film to Heath, too.

Hank Stuever: I suppose it's possible, though Oscar is never kind to performances in big-budget movies like that -- Johnny Depp in Pirates being a rare exception.


Alexandria, Va.: Hello,

I think part of why people care about the death of a performer like Mr. Ledger is that he gave them something specific and they are grateful. It's perfectly natural that they should feel personal connection and personal sorrow.

People may certainly feel sorrow over things like the deaths in the Congo or similar terrible situations. However, it is a much more abstract sorrow. How could it be otherwise?

Hank Stuever: Good comment. Thanks.


Say what, Washington, D.C.?: What the poster from Washington, D.C., is suffering from is a lack of perspective. If we compare everything we do and discuss to the most disastrous events going on, we'll never do or discuss anything. I was brushing my teeth this morning when I realized 45,000 children are dying in Africa. How could I be so selfish to be brushing my teeth when so many children are dying? I was devastated.

The obvious question for the Washington, D.C., poster is: with so many people dying in Africa, why are you wasting your time posting to a Washington Post discussion?

Needless to say, most of us are dynamic enough and have enough perspective, to discuss an event that isn't Number 1 on the World's Priority List.

My condolences to Mr Ledger's family and fans.

Hank Stuever: Some blowback...


Germantown, Md.: I didn't realize that Heath Ledger's latest role was that of the Joker in the newest Batman movie, Dark Knight. Have people who've had a peek into his performance commented on his interpretation of the character? How does his recent work compare to his past work?

Hank Stuever: There's a terrific trailer that came out in theaters in December and is probably available online if you Google "Dark Knight" and "trailer."

It's a very different Joker than the Jack Nicholson one. It's terrifying and psychotic, more like the "Arkham Asylum" Joker that comic-book fans really love.

I remember people groaning when it was announced that he was playing Joker. Now people are raving about the glimpse we got in the trailer. I even put "Heath Ledger as Joker" as "in" on this year's In and Out List on Jan. 1. (I put Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer as "out", but of course people disagree.)


Baltimore, Md.: You mentioned some comparisons in your appreciation. I have another one. Brandon Lee. Can't help but think of "The Crow" including the makeup (like the Joker in Dark Knight) and how the movie was released after his death.

Hank Stuever: I thought of The Crow too, especially because of the makeup. But I also thought about how little anyone ever mentions him anymore. Heath Ledger had a much bigger career behind him, and ahead of him, IMHO.


Louisville, Ky.: I think the Ledger news is more upsetting because he had real talent and seemed to have more of a sense of who he was and what he wanted to do than most young actors. I have to admit I lost some respect for him when he split up with Michelle Williams and started modelizing this fall. Carrying on in bars, sleeping with Lindsay Lohan (rumored), and running around when he had a beautiful little girl at home and a fiancee he could have been working things out with. It just seemed stupid and really disappointing -- though it's not my business or anyone else's how he or any other public figure chooses to spend his time.

Now these emerging stories of problems with drugs (legal and illegal), depression, etc., throw all that in a different light.

Hank Stuever: I keep thinking of River Phoenix.


Silver Spring, Md.: Before the internet, cellphones, texting, it was just TV, radio and word-of-mouth. The celeb death that affected me most was John Lennon. That was big enough to break in on Monday Night Football and announce.

Hank Stuever: Yes! Lennon was the first one I remember (Dec. 1980, I was in the 7th grade) where EVERYBODY stopped and was sad for several days and weeks, and there was lots of writing about what he meant. It outdid Elvis (d. 1977) by a long shot, at least in my early pop awareness. Because I was still fetal when MLK and RFK were shot, Lennon was the first time I saw a celeb death get the sort of treatment that resembles later celeb death coverage. (And face it, Ledger doesn't come anywhere near that level. I have thought for a long time that we are in for a BIG ONE, but I can't think who. Let's not speculate.)


London, UK /Bklyn: I don't really have a question, but just wanted to make a couple of comments. I think people have been drawn to the news of Heath's death because he seemed like a nice, normal, likeable person, even if he was a celebrity. I also wanted to caution people from guessing what the cause of death was -- no one knows yet. Regardless, it is a sad story. He was too young and had too much to offer as an actor and more importantly, as a truly decent human being by all accounts.

Hank Stuever: Thanks.


Baltimore, Md.: From the vantage point of age 59, re Morrison, Hendrix and Monroe: I remember hearing about the deaths of Morrison and Hendrix on the radio. They got mentions on the evening news, but they were both symbols of the rebellious counterculture and mainstream media did not, as I recall, make a big deal of it. Monroe was different. I was only 14 when she died, but she was the ultimate American sex symbol and her death was big, big news. God only knows what it would have been like had we had the cable news monster to feed on her bones.

The Heath Ledger story is so sad. Did Michelle Williams break up with him, or vice versa?

Hank Stuever: Before the day is over, I'm going into the Post page archives (we have microfilm pages in electronic form now -- hallelujah) and see where deaths like Hendrix and Morrison played in the paper. I'm curious.

I do not know the details of Michelle Williams' and Heath Ledger's breakup. I wasn't reading US Weekly too closely of late.


Re: Judy Garland: True story: my mother went into labor with me (two weeks early), the night the Stonewall riots began. I ended up gay. Nature or nurture, I ask you?

Hank Stuever: Fabulous Nature, doing her thing.


Michelle Williams: I read that the mother of his child was in Sweden with their daughter and that when she recieved the news, she immediately boarded a plane to go home. I was thinking how difficult it must be for her to deal with such shocking and horrible news and having to sit on a long plane ride with everyone knowing what had happened. And then deboarding the plane, and having to deal with more people, etc. This is something us noncelebs don't have to deal with -- having to experience some very dark times out in the open. Very sad.

Hank Stuever: I agree.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for your great appreciation piece on Heath Ledger today. You noted that he kept "dirtying up, dressing down," etc., as part of effort to be taken seriously as an actor. Dressing down in public seems to be a pattern among celebs. Whenever I see stars on talk shows, etc, they seem to be competing to see who's the grungiest. It seems odd to see a star do that, especially when they probably had to focus intently on their looks, etc., in order to become celebs.

Hank Stuever: Yes, other than the dirtiness of fashion (that has come and gone and come and gone five times now), I don't know why they do it, but I have one pet theory: Dressing up and grooming is too much like work. When you're at that level, you spend a lot of time in make up (for movies, for magazine shoots) and you just get sick of it. All you want is to be left alone and pick your own clothes, and, perhaps petulantly, you want people to see that you're real, dirty?

Or maybe they just dig it.


N. Carolina: Read your commentary yesterday in Weingarten's chat about "appreciations," very interesting. Thank you.


Hank Stuever: The Appreciation essays in Style aren't entirely arbitrary, but it's really about what more can be said that won't be said in the obit. Notoriety is not the only requirement. Sometimes a writer has to be convinced by the editor to do the appreesh, sometimes a writer really has to beg the editor to get an appreesh on the Style story budget for the next day. The writer's "emotional" attachment to the subject is certainly not a requirement, as I have "appreciated" subjects on deadline having started from almost scratch when the assignment is given. (Sometimes you only have an hour or two to do the whole thing.) Sometimes the Appreciation is not all that appreciative. My favorite ones are of flawed characters (Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, Evel Knievel, etc.). I've certainly written some Appreciations where readers demanded an explanation ("THAT was an 'Appreciation'?!"), and I usually have to point them to the more formal obituary on A1 or in Metro. (We have great obituary writers.) I like to think of the difference as if the obituary is the funeral home (professional, elegant, official), and the Appreciation is the drink at the bar afterward. I can't think of another newspaper that has such a regular feature -- the essay that is NOT the obit, that runs in addition to an obit. Very often the challenging thing for the Style writers is to not duplicate the content of the obit. And yes, sometimes we just skip it -- either no one was moved to write it, or couldn't be assigned to it, or the section is crammed, or there really wasn't anything else to say. Like, the other day, with the Whamm-O guy. (He was the co-founder. We wrote about the first guy, when HE died.) Or Sam the Butcher from Brady Bunch, whose obit is in Metro today. (I can say that I really want to save any stray Brady musings for a biggie -- like ALICE.)

Gene Weingarten: Okay, so this is the definitive word.

Hank Stuever: I think this fits the Alanis Morrisette definition of ironic, dont'ya think?

I put this into Gene's chat yesterday when the subject came up, a chatter asking who and what decides how and why Style does an Appreesh. I stand by it! (And I stand by ready for the next one!)

I will say this: I think this is the first time I had to write an Appreesh for someone so young. It's much harder, not because it's tragic, but because there's a lot less to write about.


Washington, D.C.: Have there ever been any post-morten Oscar nominations, or wins? Seems like the Academy would be suckers for that sort of thing, particularly since Ledger didn't win for Brokeback.

Hank Stuever: Surely an Oscar trivia buff can help us out here. I'm sure there have been, especially for quite old actors who died byt he time their movie was release. It's probably an obvious one, but I haven't the time to look around for my Oscar trivia books....


Washington, D.C.: Kurt Cobain was a Big One for all the Gen X'ers.

Hank Stuever: Huge, and some newspapers in 1994 did not quite "get" it right away, and either briefed it on their national news page or in their "people" briefs. I was at a newspaper where a young feature writer had to PLEAD with the editors to get Cobain's death the appropriate play. The outpouring that came the next day proved her right.

The takeway lesson for any media organization is to make sure you have a roomful of diverse journalists, who will know things the editor may not.


Falls Church, Va.: I was a young adult when Lennon went down. I attended the candle light vigil at Lincoln Memorial afterwards. It was very shocking to see the assassination trend of the '60s move from politicians to celebrities. I truly feared for a remarkable young golf professional when his fame was white hot about 10 years ago. This celebritology thing is a modern and destructive form of gossip. The obsessive media coverage of naughty young starlets/singers reflects a true decline in our culture. Responsible journalists must turn away from this.

Hank Stuever: OK.

I wonder if responsible journalists, however, can't bring some quality to it? I know that's what we think about around here. We could never win the gossip wars, but what we sell here is synthesis and thought.


Rhode Island: Just another perspective on perspective -- it's one thing to mourn the passing of a talented young man. The fact that it's Heath Ledger, however, takes it a step further.

His portrayal of Ennis del Mar was a character for the ages. He has been compared, reasonably, to a young Brando. The character of Ennis touched a chord with millions of people. If Heath Ledger had never acted in another film, he'll be remembered for that.

Hank Stuever: Yes, thank you Rhode Island.

I have had several messages this morning from the (for lack of a better descrip) "gay community" who are feeling an additional pain, and really hold BB Mountain in special reverence -- for its story, for its filmmakers, and absolutely for the Ledger and Gyllenhaal performances.


Peter Finch died before getting his Oscar....: Peter Finch was in "Network" and died the day after being on the Johnny Carson show. He died before getting his Oscar; his wife accepted for him. This was about 1977 or so.

Hank Stuever: See?


San Diego, Calif.: RE: Infotainment

I agree, that celebrity gossip has taken over a much larger percentage of "news" coverage. It pays and unfortunately that is how our economy drives these trends. But the media could police themselves and put some morality into their mission statements.

In fact I heard yesterday that the executives of E! Network were meeting to discuss halting the coverage of Britney Spears until she goes to get help. That is great "news" in my opinion.

Hank Stuever: Earlier this week, before Ledger died, there was a bit of a kerfluffle around the fact that the AP has already prepped some obituary copy on Britney, to keep in a file in case she suddenly dies. People think it's crass, but these people have never had to write an obit on deadline. Other people think this may have an added benefit, if a starlet learns that her life has gotten so bad that even the AP has pre-written her obit.

Unfortunately, in this case, I wouldn't be surprised if Britney's respone to that is:
What's an obit?
What's an AP?


Washington, D.C.: I think of the River Phoenix death too. I remember how I didn't even hear about his death until the evening news, when all they would run were the teasers ("Hollywood mourns the loss of a talented actor. Details at 11.") I was in utter shock when I find out who it was, and it wasn't until even recently that I learned of the exact details of his death, thanks to the Internet. For this, and Anna Nicole Smith this year, not only do we get a blow-by-blow account, but we get every single rumor (Mary-Kate's apartment, anyone?) and a picture of the body being taken out on stretcher. Have we lost the idea of death with dignity?

Hank Stuever: More thoughts...


San Francisco, Calif.: Although I am only 35, I clearly felt the generation gap when reading the comments on the times after this actor's death. 900 comments and all nearly the same, the writer felt sad,the event was tragic. Has there come a point now when every minute thought that occurs in one's mind gets dropped onto a keyboard and sent to cyberspace, no matter how inane or superlative? Do people think this isn't tragic unless they comment on it? Just curious?

Hank Stuever: I'm sort of with you on this, yet here we are...


Sad, but with perspective, Md.: I can't seem to read enough interviews or reviews of what I think was an impressive body of acting work. But when the TV Guide Channel assembled their "experts" last night it was Anna Nicole all over again.

I hope this (and I'm including my sadness under the same heading with the presence of a Washington Post online discussion)is more about tragedy and the end of a truly bright career than spectacle, yes? I mean, Ennis Del Mar was an amazing performance and even Casanova was brilliant.

Hank Stuever: Thanks for dropping in.


Heath's next movie: Defamer said the Imaginarium has been terminated. Not going to happen. Apparently Terry Gilliam has some sort of curse....

Hank Stuever: Some instanews. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Just a comment: What utterly infuriates me is how some in the press seem to be jumping to conclusions that he either had a drug problem or killed himself. One DJ this morning described him as "talented, but troubled." Troubled? I never got that impression. I wish people wouldn't be so quick to think the worst of others. I read that his autopsy showed he was suffering from pneumonia. Maybe something he was taking for that interacted badly with the Ambien. Scary. Something like that could happen to anyone. What a tragic loss. My condolences to his family and friends.

Hank Stuever: Thanks for the comment.


Baltimore, Md.: It saddened me to hear about Heath Ledger's death principally because of his exceptional talent -- though also because of his young daughter and because he seemed like a nice guy. He had tremendous acting ability, a versatility proven in many roles as well as remarkable depth. His performance in Brokeback Mountain floored me. Before that, I thought he was a solid actor, but nothing special. As a heterosexual woman, I didn't expect to care so much about a "gay cowboy" love story. Brokeback is one of the great cinematic love stories, period. The movie was a revelation for many ordinary people -- those who may not be prejudiced but aren't always necessarily comfortable with gay themes -- feel the pain and waste of any great love that must be hidden. Heath's performance was central to the film's success. What more he might have done onscreen, we'll never know.

Hank Stuever: A lot of my otherwise enlightened straight male friends skipped Brokeback Mountain. Their wives and girlfriends went to see it with one another, or not at all. The men kept complaining that they were being guilted about not seeing it. They were ooky about it. I guess I understand. (I kept telling them that there's a sex scene where you see Ann Hathaway's breasts. They didn't believe me.)

It's a great performance from Heath Ledger. It's on HBO a lot these days -- do check it out if you haven't.


Takoma, D.C.: You know, I was 18 and a freshman in college when Kurt Cobain died (and of course I knew some Nirvana songs) and I just don't remember it having any particular impact on me. Was I just the wrong kind of kid? Have the 14 intervening years addled my brain? Was I unable to care without the Internet to give me the details?

Hank Stuever: Did you like the music back then? Were you an involved consumer of new music, or was it all just background noise? Being 18 and following the news/culture don't always go hand in hand, even thought EVERYTHING is marketed straight at you at that age.


Chicago, Ill.: Oscar Trivia: Yes, Peter Finch is the only person to recieve a posthumous acting Oscar. Others with posthumous nominations -- but without awards -- were Jeanne Eagels for The Letter (1928-29), James Dean for East of Eden (1955) and Giant (1956), Spencer Tracy for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), Ralph Richardson for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984), and Massimo Troisi for Il Postino (1995).]

Hank Stuever: Thanks so much, Chicago.


Dirtying up/Dressing down:: Gotta say, it seems to me that it's only in the U.S. (although now increasingly globally where people want to be "western/modern") that anyone upper class (be it by birth, celebrityhood, or money) dresses down in any way. It's sort of a fake nod to the fallacy that we're a classless society. Everywhere else, when you can, you dress up. So that people won't think you're poor/shabby/without.

Just an observation. And one that occurs to me all the time when celebs dress grungy, in clothes that are frequently stupidly expensive.

Hank Stuever: Some fashion analysis. Thanks.


Central Virginia: What has really disturbed me about all the media attention (in addition to what's going on in the Congo), is the fact that I read that his housekeeper discovered his body shortly before 3:30 Eastern, and I read he was dead at about 3:45 Eastern on post.com. Was it even possible for any of his family to be contacted? How horrific to hear this from the media! Why can't news like this be kept under wraps for say, at least an hour?

Hank Stuever: It simply can't. Not when you're famous. That is the price of fame. Police routinely hold IDs of deceased from reporters when it's a non-famous victim, until the family has been notified.


Baltimore, Md.: Of course it's his work from Brokeback Mountain that has prompted our friends from the Westboro Baptist Church into action -- they will be protesting his funeral and are already celebrating his eternal damnation.

Hank Stuever: They may have to go to Australia to do it.


Arlington, Va.: Two questions:

1. I read somewhere that it was actually Mary-Kate Olsen's apartment he was found in. Is there any validity to this?

2. It struck me last night that Heath Ledger's death, while tragic, is getting far more press than Brad Renfro's, who also died recently. Why the difference in coverage?

Hank Stuever: 1. That rumor was shot down last night. But nevertheless it worked its way all the around the web, which is what makes some of us newsosaurs jittery about the way journalism is done now.

2. Brad Renfro's career in no way stacks up to Ledger's.


Bethesda, Md.: Ann Hathaway and Michelle Williams!

Also, Ledger was impressive in Monster's Ball as Sonny.

Hank Stuever: Yes!
He was great in Monster's Ball. He plays Billy Bob Thorton's son. It's also a tragic role.


Washington, D.C.: I'm actually okay with the amount of coverage.

To me, the difference is that Anna Nicole was famous for having no talent, Heath was famous because he did have talent.

I could have done without wall to wall Anna Nicole death coverage for that very reason.

Hank Stuever: Good point. I think we also got soooo much Anna Nicole coverage because there were about six storylines to follow there -- the baby, the paternity, the will, the downspiral, the mess.....

On that sad note, I thank all of you for choosing to drop in and chat, or lurk. I think that our celebre-culture, while disturbing, can be navigated with intellect and emotion and thought, and you have proven that over the last hour. We're not as messed up as we seem.

Take care. Bye.



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