Heath Ledger, Ten Years Later
"Heath Ledger is dead. He was 27.” The words came with more bite than the January air. Many goodbyes have been said to talented individuals at that particular age, but this loss was devastating because news of his death came just as The Dark Knight was gearing up for a summer release. For many, the film and the actor’s passing are intertwined in memory. Coverage of the film swamped the news leading up to the film's July release, and each story always made sure to mention Ledger‘s untimely death. Marketing materials popped up everywhere, and his work as the Joker automatically made The Dark Knight one of 2008's most anticipated features. And it didn't fail to live up to expectations. Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's film won acclaim from critics and fans alike, resulting in multiple Best Supporting Actor awards.
A year after his death on January 22nd, 2008, Heath Ledger was nominated for an Academy Award for his work in The Dark Knight. Less than a month later, he won. He was just the second actor to do so posthumously, after Peter Finch for Network. Ledger's interpretation of the Joker is as fundamentally broken and ugly as he is mesmerizing. Refusing to go unseen, he demands "Look at me!" multiple times to his fellow characters. They, as well as the audience, always oblige.
The first of Ledger's two Oscar nominations came for his Brando-esque turn in Brokeback Mountain. The Best Actor category is usually reserved for large, towering performances, but it's an innate stillness that defines Ennis Del Mar. He possesses a guardedness that makes every word feel like it's being dragged out of him. Ennis is trapped by the perception of masculinity that defines his job and role as father/husband. He should be content with his wife, his infant daughter and house, but he isn't. The only happiness he ever possessed is openly rejected by the outside world. His reluctance to give in to love can be read from this confession to Jack: “if we can’t fix it, Jack, we have to stand it.” Like the ending of Brokeback Mountain, which focuses on a single object, Ennis is revealed through a single gesture. After years of emotional dysfunction, and not being allowed to express his love, Ennis' eyes well up with tears as he embraces a piece of Jack for the last time.
The beauty of these two performances is that while appearing radically different, either character could spring from the other with relative ease. Ennis beats two antagonizers at an Independence Day gathering in short time, letting brutality define his manhood. Joker's pencil trick also takes a split second, but from this act, criminal onlookers know he means business. It's not difficult to see the leap from repressed man (Ennis) to one who inflicts his own brand of rules on society (Joker). The Joker, as a character, represents the selfish and self-destructive nature of humanity. Each backstory he presents is one of loss, betrayal, and, ultimately, destruction. With nothing left to live for, violence is his sole pursuit.
Ennis Del Mar and The Joker both wear masks, one figurative and another literal. Ennis' stoicism hides a fragile psyche. His childhood was marked by his father implicitly admitting to murdering two cowboys who found themselves in Jack and Ennis' shoes. From early on he was taught to hide inside a portrait of a red-blooded, rugged pioneer that defined the American West. Audiences aren't treated to a backstory for Ledger's Joker, but if you take his revelations literally, it was more than one bad day that created this madman. An abusive father taught him that he had to be willing to strike first. A life as a soldier numbed his sense of violence. And a wife that was taken away from him left more than mental scars. Unable to deal with the consequences of his pain, his mind warps to complete evil. For most of Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight, viewers see the performance art of Ennis and The Joker, but Ledger remarkably lets the cracks show the characters underneath.
One can't help but wonder how many more times Ledger's name would have been called on Oscar night, were it not for his passing. What else would he have gone on to do? In only ten years, Ledger was prolific, adding 23 films to his name. In addition to acting, he dabbled in directing music videos for Modest Mouse, N'fa, and Ben Harper. Prior to his passing, Ledger was also working on making the leap to features and had plans to adapt the Walter Tevis novel The Queen’s Gambit. Would he have made a career transition similar to Ben Affleck? Or would he have kept making odd gems like the video for "King Rat?"
In addition to his directorial ambitions, Ledger still exhibited the ability to choose excellent parts. He had been considering roles in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life as well as George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road while both were in development. It's impossible to say what would have happened in an alternate timeline, but given the complexities he displayed in Monster's Ball, it would have been exciting to see what he could have brought to playing the stern-yet-loving father, or perhaps the existential drifter who is torn between the grace and grit of his parents. As Max Rockatansky, Ledger would have again tackled a character defined by brutality, trying to make sense of a world dominated by violence and destruction. A man formerly tasked with trying to restore the world to order instead helps break it down around him. That neither performance exists is deeply saddening.
By all measure, Ledger was only beginning to tap into the height of his powers as an actor. As he crooned "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" from stadium bleachers in 10 Things I Hate About You, it was easy to see why the charismatic thespian would go on to greater things. After turning in two of the best performances of the decade inside of three years, moviegoers understood that they were watching an icon being born. Tragically, that future potential went unrealized. Heath Ledger had a knack for finding a truthful portrait of humanity inside even the most theatrical of parts. His time came too early, but his work shines brightly in the vacuum of his absence.