“I Am Heath Ledger” debuts on Spike May 17th
Available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download/iTunes May 23rd. Visit the official site to order.
Spike is available via cable and satellite providers as well as part of packages from Sling TV and DirecTV Now.
Remembering Heath Ledger
Hard to believe it’s been nine years since we last heard from Heath Ledger. Seems like only yesterday we were watching his breakthrough performance in “10 Things I Hate About You,” one that fast-tracked his career like no other. To this day, I can’t remember why I even decided to watch that film, but had I not, I might not have been the fan that I was of Ledger. Man did he touch a lot of people and seemed to do so without you even knowing. I realize this kind of stuff tends to be said after someone is lost so young, but it doesn’t make it any less true. So with his documentary set to air on Spike TV only days from now, I wanted to unleash my tribute to him that I wrote shortly after his untimely death.
Although Heath Ledger began his acting career around the age of sixteen back in the small town of Perth, Western Australia, he didn’t become a “name” in the U.S. until around 2000, when he starred opposite another Aussie, Mel Gibson in “The Patriot.” And for those that don’t remember his performance, you might want to go back and take a look, as it was here that I saw his potential as an actor. Sure, I remember him in “10 Things I Hate About You” like I said, but that was just a start for his career in the U.S. and by no means what he was made of. In fact, it was some time after that film Ledger made a point in his career to not do those types of roles, choosing to instead go deeper with his characters. Little did we know, this decision might have played a part in his tragic death some 7 years later. Nevertheless, Ledger was careful in the roles he did choose, often turning down script after script, as if he wanted it to be hard. But, that was his way of doing things for this career he held so dear, one that included such breakthrough performances like the one in “Monster’s Ball” or “Ned Kelly,” two films completely different in nature, but films full of life, just like Ledger.
And what I find odd about Ledger is just how few films we saw him in and yet, I remember almost every role like it was yesterday. That’s someone good at his craft and one that should have been entertaining us for years to come. He chose those films that might not be widespread hits, which of course would make him more money, but he did so because he believed in the stories. He believed in the message they were trying to tell and like so many other actors, he wanted to etch his place in Hollywood as someone that walked a different path, one of which that included roles that many would turn the other direction for, whereas he would run right toward them. And maybe that’s the best compliment I can give Ledger, is that he wanted to go deep and really get into the mindset of a truly tough character. I could sit here all day and rip him for his roles in “The Four Feathers” or “Casonova,” two of his less popular films, but why? The fact is, Ledger took a chance on those films and despite the result; he kept choosing his films the same way, taking on those difficult and often demanding roles.
Just look at his part in the 2003 mystery thriller “The Order,” in which he starred as a young priest sent to Rome to investigate the death of the head of his order. A tricky film and one that for sure got people taking, giving all the religious undertones, but one that Ledger lost an inordinate amount of weight for and one that I felt he was great in, given the severity of the role. Sure, it wasn’t the best film of the year, but it wasn’t supposed to be and if you just watch it for Ledger, you will see what this guy was truly capable of. This was also the case in “Lords of Dogtown,” a relatively unknown film that follows the history of skateboarding and how a group of teenagers with the help of resident surf and skate expert Skip (Ledger) formed a skating group dubbed the ‘Z-Boys’ and revolutionized the sport for generations to come. Again, not a role that you would give an Oscar to, but one that Ledger felt was important enough to star in and one of which that reminded me of Val Kilmer a little. But, what we didn’t know was how all these roles were leading to the one that he would get on the map for, the one that many guys to this day still haven’t seen and the one that he was nominated for an Oscar for.
If there was ever a film that explained the nature of how Ledger chose his roles, it would be “Brokeback Mountain.” Here’s a story that could be one of the best love stories we have ever seen, but one that takes a certain respect to enjoy. You must set aside whatever ridiculous convictions you have on the homosexual side of things and watch this film for what it is. Taking on a topic of two men, falling for each other during the 1960’s isn’t on the top of many producer or director’s lists. Because the reality is, any story dealing with homosexuality is one that will undoubtedly be scrutinized and talked about, creating a wealth of controversy and buzz. And as we all can remember, this film did exactly that, for everyone involved, including Ledger. But, that’s just the footnote to this extraordinary film directed by Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), which takes love and shows the passion that can be involved when a strong connection is made. That’s the heart of “Brokeback Mountain” and the only thing in my mind that should be remembered for this film, because the reality is, no matter how hard they try, people don’t choose their paths, their paths choose them and that’s really all this film tries to explain. And Ledger, no matter how difficult it might have been, chose and acted out this role brilliantly, proving he doesn’t shy away from those roles that no one else wants to do. And although he never won for his part, he was nominated in just about every award show, showing his worth and taste for the impossible.
Believe it or not, it’s been nearly 12 years since “Brokeback Mountain” stole people’s hearts and I still find Ledger’s performance fresh in my mind. Granted, some of that’s helped by the recent story in People magazine and the upcoming documentary. But, the truth is, no matter what story or tribute you find, it was this performance that put him on the map to greater things. And what’s sad is how he only starred in a few films after that before his untimely death. One was the low budget “I’m Not There,” and then of course “The Dark Knight” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” Who knew it would be these three films that would be the last of the young star’s resume? But, out of the three, there’s no doubt his role as The Joker in “The Dark Knight” was his legacy performance. It’s this role, at least in my mind, that people will look back on and say, “wow, this guy was something else.” He might be remembered more widely for his part in “Brokeback Mountain,” but to me, there will be nothing that compares to the look and feel of Ledger’s version of The Joker in the instant classic The Dark Knight. Here is an excerpt from the review I wrote shortly after watching the film for the first time:
As good as Aaron Eckhart (a.k.a. Harvey Dent) and Christian Bale (a.k.a. Batman) were in their convincing roles, this was Heath Ledger’s film. And as hard as it is to even come up with words to describe exactly why that is, know that Ledger was the Joker in a way that no one could have ever dreamed of, bringing attention to a role that is just about as dark as it gets. And I can only imagine what he would say, if he was alive to see the result of what he created in this character. Sure, acting it out is one thing and obviously only Ledger would know what it took to do it, but to still see the fruit of his labor would have been a nice gift to him. And by now, we all know just how much Ledger put into this part and the rumored stories surrounding why he was taken from us that late January day, but this was Heath. This was why he was so loved by many and why it’s still a tragedy he’s no longer with us. I mean, I’m still in shock, I guess, given just how amazing Ledger was in this film. He literary took this story and determined its fate by whatever he did on screen. That’s incredible and it was with all the little things too, that he shined so bright. Little things like, the way he licked his lips before speaking sometimes and even that laugh, which still resonates with me. It all was just so raw that you can’t help but think his fellow co-stars were watching in awe, just as we are now. And I’ll admit, when I first saw that initial preview with him as The Joker last year sometime, I had my doubts if he could actually pull it off. Well, I guess I got my answer, as this truly is one of the greatest villains of our time. Compare it to whatever you like, maybe even Jack Nicholson’s own depiction, cause it ultimately won’t diminish what Ledger was able to do with this edgy role.
Looking back at my reaction really puts it all in perspective, but it shows just how far Ledger dove into his roles. That’s something that you just can’t teach and quite frankly something that he should be honored and remembered for even now some 9 years later.