Sorry for the jokey subject line. I’m actually not feeling especially jokey at the moment. Call it gallows humor.
I believe Heath Ledger was one of the finest surprises in the movie industry in recent memory. A guy who seemed to be just a pretty face (“A Knight’s Tale”), who might churn out a string of uninteresting flops and then disappear, turned in a wrenching, tightly-wound performance in “Brokeback Mountain” and basically made that movie. And I mean no disrespect to Jake Gyllenhaal, who was typically good in it. But without Ledger, “Brokeback” does not become the enormous success – financially, artistically and culturally – that it was. It was Ledger’s movie. And when the credits rolled on “Brokeback,” I think there was a collective feeling out there that a bright new career was blooming.
From out of almost nowhere, it seemed that Heath Ledger might join a handful of others as one of the best actors of his generation. I mean that he had the potential to walk on to the short list of guys who make almost any movie worth seeing. Ed Norton, Johnny Depp, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Leonardo DiCaprio, and lately Matt Damon. With a single performance Ledger threatened to add himself to that group. How fucking rare is that? How magnificent?
He really had something. Maybe a young DeNiro type of something – that same bottled intensity and expressive minimalism. I hope you’ll forgive my temporary lapse into hyperbole and sentimentality. But each of the three times I’ve seen “Brokeback Mountain” I really was thinking: this is a tremendous talent. An unbelievably rare talent. The kind of talent that made his casting as The Joker in “The Dark Knight” seem not at all a stunt, and more of a gift from the movie’s director, Christopher Nolan. I think the population of my fellow geeks and pop culture addicts out there was, for the most part, greedily anticipating Ledger’s performance in that movie. We wanted more Batman, of course, but what we REALLY wanted to see was how dark, how fucked-up Heath’s Joker was going to be. It was much easier to imagine than if he had somehow bypassed “Brokeback” and gone straight into the purple suit. It’s fair to say that if there had been no “Brokeback” his casting in “The Dark Knight” would have caused an uproar. Instead, it led to a rumbling, subterranean chorus of, “That’s fucking cool.”
As it turns out, The Joker will be the last of Ledger we get.
As it turns out, the darkest and most fucked-up thing might have been Ledger himself.
Found lying on a bed, surrounded by pills (rumored at this early stage in the news cycle to be sleeping pills, and assuredly an indicator of an OD). Talent burned out.
If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s a boring and redundant one. We’ve already learned it a thousand times. Unfortunately the people who really need to hear it will not, or are somehow immune to its wisdom when they need it most. We will continue to say goodbye to our River Phoenixes, our Kurt Cobains, and our Heath Ledgers. We will continue to wonder what movies or albums they would be making for us if they were still here. We will continue to lose fine young men and women who are too depressed or too careless to control themselves in their moments of weakness.
It’s damn dispiriting. I’m sorry to be one of the thousands of voices commenting on it this afternoon. But I’ll be glad to be one of the millions of viewers taking in Heath Ledger’s last performance next summer, and imagining what else he might have done… if.