“Wasn’t he just there, standing right in front of us?”
Actors are known to be complicated beings. Because the successful ones loom so large in our vision, their deaths are complicated too, even when they grow old and die of natural causes. Their recorded legacy always remains so vivid, so attached to life and youthfulness, that death seems to be one more Hollywood illusion. Weren’t they just there, standing right in front of us, taking our breath away? But nothing feels stranger than when an actor’s life is cut short irrevocably in his prime, as was proven again by the shocking, still unassimilable death of Heath Ledger, on January 22, 2008.
A sense of inner contradiction is conjured up already within his name itself, composed of two strong yet poetic nouns — a rugged outdoor setting familiar to readers of Wuthering Heights, and the studious lined pages into which school lessons are copied out and accounts totaled up. So Heath Ledger seemed to possess both qualities of a man of action and of contemplation. Maybe it was his Australian nationality that made him seem convincing when he spoke of his life as “a walkabout” — a ritual harmonizing of body and spirit with nature and the universe. His sincerity made it seem like more than just new age speak, as it would have sounded from nearly anyone else.
Even from his earliest, most casual roles, we see him seeking some depth beneath the surface. His bid for seriousness did not take the form of apologizing for his handsomeness, or trying to conceal it; at least not exactly. But consider the way he appears in 10 Things I Hate About You — almost bemused that the school looks up to him as a sex symbol. Rather than condescend to the geeky outcasts who solicit his help with girls, he seems to seek out equal ground with them. In A Knight’s Tale he plays shepherd to a scraggly, straggling flock of born losers, riding to their rescue again and again. Fellowship is an abiding theme of his films, and it does not seem accidental that Terry Gilliam cast him as the sensitive Grimm brother who cares more genuinely about the brotherhood and its precarious enterprise.
Perhaps these roles led more naturally than anyone could have supposed into the film for which he will probably be most remembered, for better or worse, but I think for better. As much as Brokeback Mountain functions as a kind of ensemble drama, it is Ledger who steals scene after scene with ferocious understatement. This makes his moments of uninhibited emotion all the more powerful. Who can forget his restless pacing by the window while he waits for Jack to arrive, and then his giddy bounding across the floor when he finally sees his pickup truck pulling up — one of the most honestly and unabashedly romantic moments in all of recent cinema. Or the way he lets his features distort with pain during the argument with Jack by the lake where they spend their precious time away from their heterosexual lives? And of course the last devastating close-up as he peers tearfully into his closet full of memories — a summation as succinctly elegiac and sublime as the closing shot of Victor Seastrom in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.
He was not known for leading a wild life or getting into trouble with the law, unlike other young actors. Perhaps he kept things as bottled up as some of his characters. The sleeping pills that were found around his bed, as well as the massage therapist whose regular appointment led to the discovery of his body, suggest that there may have been stresses in his life that no one was aware of. The entertainment industry has been known to squeeze blood out of stones; it is a truism that the system tends to breed real-life disasters more poignant and heartbreaking than the plots of the films it churns out. Is Ledger the latest in that long line of casualties who found themselves overworked, strung out on dizzying swings between adulation and excoriation, unable to wrest any semblance of a private life back from the glaring eye of public scrutiny? Fame is not a walkabout after all, but a one-way ticket, and the destination often changes midway through the journey. We are all deprived by the fact that Heath Ledger could not reach that destination.