Heath Ledger died three years ago today.
Let me get something out of the way before I begin: I didn’t like Dark Knight. I thought it was a mess. I didn’t like individual elements and I didn’t like the whole either. It’s not that I didn’t “get it”, or that I was “afraid” of its implications, as the film’s rabid fans were fond of shrieking in the face of any criticism. No, it’s not that I quivered in my seat afraid of what I was actually seeing, and its power, and therefore had to “attack” it. And I’m not attacking it, anyway. I just didn’t like the movie. More than anything, I felt it was incompetent. That was the weirdest thing about it, for me. A day after I saw it I could barely remember it. It’s mostly vanished for me now, except for my confusion about Christian Bale’s vocal-choices, and the memory of Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker.
I knew the second he appeared in the film, his first scene, that he was as good, as lost in the role, as everyone had been saying. He took it to another level. He made everyone around him look like stick figures. He actually took that world seriously. He was in a film about a mythic eternal struggle, not between good and evil, that would be too easy, but something much more frightening, something that any thinking adult can click into easily: a struggle between order and chaos. He was the only one in that film, by the way. Everyone else was in a comic book movie. It is difficult to suggest an apocalyptic vision of chaos triumphant when you have that crazy makeup on your face, and you are required to say these “ba-dum-ching” pun-filled lines, which could add up to the impression that you think everything is a big “joke”. What was extraordinary about the performance, and it has stayed with me, was that yes, he thought it all was a big joke, and no, he found none of it funny. There wasn’t a shred of compassion in him, he was an animal, like Ted Bundy was- a cold-blooded killer, who not only enjoyed death and destruction, but enjoyed making people squirm beforehand. He wanted them to see death coming, wanted them to feel it to its fullest.
I had been watching Heath Ledger for a long time. He had an interesting journey. With Knight’s Tale, the marketing component for that movie took over. It was one of the most promoted movies I can remember. I was sick of it before it hit the screens. And who was that blonde hottie in the billboards and why am I supposed to care? It was overkill. But then I saw the movie, and it was a lot of fun, and he was adorable in it. A real hunk, you know?
The bossy insistence of the marketing campaign did not seem to affect his career. He did not go in the direction it appeared to want him to go, as the next teen heartthrob. He chose carefully what he would do next. The next film he appeared in was the low-key three-person Monster’s Ball. I couldn’t believe it was the same guy. He was heartbreaking and taciturn in that film – a throwback to male movie actors of old. A man who is so stoic he knows how to eat his pain, but he managed to suggest the deep wells of loneliness in this guy. Monster’s Ball was when I got excited about Heath Ledger. I felt I was looking at a true talent, as opposed to what the Knight’s Tale marketing team wanted me to see: the Next Best Hot Thing. He was more than that.
Now he was somebody to really watch.
Lords of Dogtown was the next film I clicked into with Ledger. I hadn’t seen Four Feathers, or Brothers Grimm, and in Lords of Dogtown, he is nearly unrecognizable to what I had seen before. There’s almost a Dude-esque quality to his look here, all California beard and sunglasses, and the comparison to Jeff Bridges is deliberate. Jeff Bridges is my favorite living actor, and one of the things that Bridges, handsome, masculine, and without a doubt a movie star, can do is disappear. Like nobody else. This is not the current trend, where acting is now a fetish of accents, weird walks, and “chameleon” tricks, which I find facile and ultimately shallow, even if I can admire the skill. Today I play a German-Latvian witch doctor, tomorrow I play a steel magnolia from Alabama with a cleft palate, and the next day I play the imperious Queen of Siberia in 300 A.D. Look at my skill!! It is what is being congratulated now, in acting, and acting – as a craft – goes through phases and developments just like any other craft. The days of big star PERSONAE are gone, where people like Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, et al, brought their star power to whatever role they did, always recognizably themselves, but marvelous to watch. No tricks. Nowadays, it is something else that is recognized as “good acting”, and I have feelings and opinions about that, but whatever, it’s the trend.
But Jeff Bridges disappears. These are not tricks, these are not skills. This is genius, plain and simple. Whatever work he does (unlike most of the people being celebrated for this kind of stuff today) is completely invisible. His transformation is total. He submerges his personality entirely and something else emerges. Who knows how he does it. How is irrelevant. I mention Bridges because it is rare that a man that handsome has a career like the one he has. His sex appeal is undeniable, and obviously in his prime he played roles that capitalized on that – Against All Odds, Jagged Edge, Fabulous Baker Boys. But what he was actually doing in those parts was always way more subtle than your basic beefcake hottie fucking the gorgeous movie actress.
When I saw Heath Ledger in Lords of Dogtown I was completely delighted by him. An old-fashioned word, but a propos. I just enjoyed him so much. Who was that guy? Not just the character, but HIM. He seemed to really get a kick out of acting, and not only that, but he had great skill. Skill that was (as I mentioned above) relatively invisible. He submerged himself, in all his young golden-boy handsomeness, into whatever part he was playing. There seemed to be very little ego in him. The job was the thing for him, not the celebrity or the sex symbol thing. That’s rare. The pressure had been on him from the beginning to fit into a certain pigeonhole – hot new young actor – and the choices he made continuously bucked against that. Good for him. Knight’s Tale, as cute as it was, could have ruined him. But he (and I am imagining he got a lot of advice telling him what to do, what to choose, what to play) did what he wanted. He took it down a notch. He got everyone’s attention, with the billboards on every bus for Knight’s Tale, and then immediately following, he took his career in a quieter more independent path. I thought that was really cool. Brave.
Then came the juggernaut that was Brokeback Mountain. I had a lot of feelings about that one going in, due to my love of the short story (I wrote about that here). I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that that was one of the greatest short stories I have read in the last twenty years. It knocked my socks off. I read it when it first came out, in The New Yorker, and it almost made me nervous, as things usually do when I realize I am in the presence of not just greatness, but something mythic, something truly important. I felt that way when I read Mary Gaitskill for the first time. It’s a rare sensation. That story came out in 1997, but my admiration for it was still vibrating through me when the movie came out. And although Ang Lee was at the helm (I thought that was a good, if not obvious choice), and I liked both Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger – I got nervous. What would they do to it? I feel a sense of ownership towards that story, in the same way I do towards all works of literature that pierce me to my core. It took me years to see John Huston’s “The Dead”, because I felt I just couldn’t bear to see it outside of my own head. (I loved the movie, by the way). I refused to see The Shipping News, because the second I heard they cast Kevin Spacey as Quoyle I realized which way the wind was blowing, what interpretation they were going to put on it, and I thought: Not on my fucking watch. I won’t see that movie on principle. If they had cast John C. Reilly, I would have gone to see it, even though I would still have been nervous about what they had done to that precious book I love so much.
So I had all of that going in. Parts of Brokeback Mountain, the story, were with me word for word. I reread it before seeing the movie, trying to strengthen myself. Even if the movie was bad, it still wouldn’t touch the story!
Watching that film was an odd and incredibly emotional experience for me. First of all, the story is 30 pages long. How do you make a two-hour movie of that? Well. They took entire parts of it word for word, first of all. They didn’t change a damn thing, in terms of what those two men said to each other. And what they did add (details of Jack’s marriage to the Texas rodeo queen, fleshing out what is suggested in the story) was just right. I felt they honored the original work, especially in how those two actors played the scenes. What the story manages to convey in 30 pages is nothing less than breathtaking. You feel like you have been sucker-punched by the last line. What Ledger and Gyllenhall played here was twofold: the stoic unreflective nature of both of these men. They are like the animals they watch over. They bear it (in Ledger’s best line – “we just got to stand it.”) But they also play that this, out of nowhere, is love. It’s awful. It’s truly awful. There is nowhere to put such love, it fits in with no kind of life, and there are no options out of it. “We just got to stand it.” Both of them NAIL that very difficult balance throughout the film. It is that that gives the story its power (well, and Proulx’s off-the-charts writing), and without it, you’d just have a prurient fuck-fest. The context surrounding these men is as important as their love. Ang Lee directed that with delicacy, I thought, and sensitivity, not being too on the nose. There is the scene at Thanksgiving where Gyllenhall has to keep getting up to turn off the television, and his wife’s father keeps getting up to turn it back on. It’s a wonderful scene, truly tense and awful, evocative of the entire life of humiliation and emasculation this guy has experienced. It’s enraging. (This is one of the scenes that is NOT in the book, but it just goes to show you the adaptation was spectacular).
As I wrote in my piece about him when he passed away:
It is one of the more visceral performances of recent memory. You could smell the nicotine on the edges of his fingers, you could smell his sweat. This was not a man who spoke much, felt comfortable speaking … and any time he did open his mouth to speak, it was as though the vocal cords took a while to realize: “Oh … we’re doing this now? We’re talking?”
Jim Emerson wrote about Ledger’s portrayal of Ennis:
Rare is the performance that can honestly be called a “revelation,” but that’s what it felt like to watch Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain.” Not only did he bring iconic life and nuance to the existential loneliness of Ennis Del Mar, a taciturn but complex (and conflicted) character, but for such mature work to spring from the teen-idol star of “10 Things I Hate About You” and “A Knight’s Tale” was… well, revelatory itself — the astonishing revelation of a suddenly, fully developed actor who, in the superficial juvenile parts he’d played previously, had given little indication he was capable of such moving depth and clarity. Ledger emerged as if from a cocoon, gleaming with promise and flexing his wings.
The performance was revelatory in a lot of ways. It was revelatory in what he was able to suggest, with very few lines, it was revelatory in its raw passion and silent suffering, and it was revelatory about manhood, in general. I mentioned it being a “throwback”, and these are some of the things I have said before when I’ve written about Rourke, or Jeff Bridges, or Russell Crowe.
Brokeback Mountain relies on the cinematography of the gorgeous haunting landscape, as well as the sound of the wind whistling through almost every scene. You can feel the coldness of the mugs of coffee in their hands, and the scratch of the cold logs they sit on. The script is spare, and that is right. But none of it would have worked without Ledger’s quiet suffering stoic presence. It was not a put-on, it was not contrived. I did not feel that he lived now, for example. Heath Ledger was obviously an early 21st century man, that’s his time and place … but in Brokeback Mountain, no way on EARTH was that guy “now”. He does this with no tricks, no disguise.
The strangest thing about this is that when you saw him in interviews, and in person, he was really just a gangly skinny little guy. I was always amazed by how slight he seemed in person. That picture of him skateboarding at the top of this post makes him look like a teenager, not fully grown up yet.
But he seemed much bigger in Brokeback Mountain. Not because of weight gain or anything artificial (he might have had a bit of padding there at the end, to suggest middle age). His size came from his presence, and that is really what I mean when I talk about him being a “throwback”. The old-time movie stars, creating personae that they would play in every movie, were huge because of their presence. Humphrey Bogart was a pipsqueak who had to stand on a damn BOX in his love scenes with Ingrid Bergman so that he seemed taller. But who had a bigger presence than that guy? And he didn’t have to manufacture it, or pump it up. All he had to do was show up. He plays chess in the first time we see him in Casablanca, the camera moves up from the board, and there he is.
Pow. Gets you right in the gut.
Heath Ledger, with every squinting suffering quiet moment in Brokeback Mountain, has the power of the old movie stars. Jake Gyllenhall, although wonderful as well, does not. He has a bit more of a stretch to seem middle-aged (although he does a nice job – you can see the work, but it’s okay, it’s an okay job) – and he also has to play a character who is more chatty, restless, and emotional. He does all of that well.
But it’s Ledger’s movie. The misery he endures, without a complaint, quiet, gritting his teeth, turning his wife over when he fucks her so he can’t see her face, leaning against the trailer wall, head down … not saying much, not revealing much … but God, revealing everything. If our hearts don’t break for him, then none of it will work. Jack is more of a wild-card. We don’t worry as much about him, for some reason, even though he is the one more willing to flirt with danger. Ledger shows the heart of his character, a heart cracked open by love, something he almost resents and wishes would go the hell back where it came from.
It is an iconic performance, referencing us back to the giants of movie stars back then … when the power of your presence was what made you a star. It is also an amazingly generous performance. He did not protect himself. He turned it all inside out, so we could see.
I had been watching him for a while. I was strangely proud of him for that performance. I felt to myself, watching it, “Wow. Holy fuck. Good for you, dude. Good for you.”
Taken in context with the rest of his roles, it was obvious that we were looking at a giant talent.
The kind of talent I find lacking in today’s current trend – of more showy actor-y parts (and nothing against many of those performances – I do love a lot of them … it’s just that I have a fondness for the other kind of acting). Ledger has presence. Which again, was so funny, because he almost had NO presence in person. He was shy, kind of inarticulate. But that’s just the mark of his talent. His weirdness and passion and suffering went into his work. He didn’t wear it on his sleeve as a regular man on the street.
Before The Dark Knight came out, some stills had been released, and some photographs taken while filming.
The images were startling, terrifying. What the hell was going on with Heath Ledger? It was amazing to see, and I know for me it got my hopes up to see the movie. Jack Nicholson as The Joker made an indelible impression, what a wacky performance, but suddenly, with one backstage view of Ledger filming the movie, all that was swept away. He looked demonic. Not just because of the makeup, but because of the dead cobra-light in his eyes. This character had obviously infiltrated him. You could see it in those stills.
I know he had problems during filming. He was an insomniac, and he made a couple of mentions about how playing The Joker had disturbed him, made him manic (small wonder). His exhaustion shows in the role. Not that he seems tired, on the contrary, but that he seems on edge, at the end of his rope, with the manic clarity that sometimes comes when you can’t go to sleep, and it’s suddenly 3 in the morning, and you have to get up at 6:30 a.m., and all kinds of horrible thoughts start catapulting through your mind, about the world, your life, your disappointments, your lost dreams. I’ve had those moments. He doesn’t just nail such an energy, he plays it from the inside out.
It is a deeply unsettling performance.
He is not just riveting – but inevitable, awful, relentless, with not a shred of conscience. He’s Iago. We are so used to seeing “villains” onscreen, who are supposed to embody these anti-social qualities, but really just come off as cliched. A comparison to what Ledger did in Dark Knight is Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, although, thinking about it more, I would say that Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter is the closest to what Ledger was getting at here. You do not reason with these men. You do not reason with a cobra, you kill the cobra. That’s your only option. There are forces of anarchy on the planet, and it is best to recognize them for what they are, not rationalize them away, or try to “understand” them. The thing is: if you truly understand, then you know what you must do: obliterate that force as quickly as possible. Understanding does not always mean empathy. Sometimes it means resolve to destroy.
The thing that is so great about his performance, so above-and-beyond anything else that is in that movie, is that it has a chilly inner logic to it. If The Joker just thrived on chaos, then we could perhaps condescend to him, like he’s a silly (albeit dangerous) child, who needs a Time Out, and desperately. But Ledger is playing a man with a philosophy of life, far far stronger than the philosophy of those on the “right” side, who spout vague platitudes about justice and order, but who can’t even come close to the level of belief that The Joker has in chaos.
His belief trumps everything.
Ledger, in a slamdunk, is not just acting here, he is embodying an idea – and boy, the pitfalls with trying that are everywhere. He avoids all of them. His moments of grief, when tears stream down his face, are grotesque, commedia dell arte gone deeply satanic. The mask is so complete that he has internalized it. There is no differentiation between the face and the man.
How he accomplished all of this I will never know, but I chalk it up to his giant talent, which was already on display, and his power of imagination. What an imagination. He could dream his way into that? What else could this man do?
And so I sit here today, and I just find it odd and sad that he is gone.
A young man.
But he’s left an impressive (albeit too short) body of work. I mourn now what I won’t get to see. I mourn what won’t be.
He was the real deal.
A young slim man in a hoodie skateboarding through Brooklyn. Disappearing before our eyes.