“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.
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.