In Memoriam

Ledger’s Final Balance

The young star had talent and guts, but his choice of scripts was atrocious.

By 1.28.08

"A gifted young star, a tragic old story," reads the headline in Entertainment Weekly. The effort to canonize Heath Ledger as artistic martyr, it seems, is already underway.

The actual cause of Heath Ledger's death remains unknown as I write this. An autopsy was inconclusive and there are conflicting reports over whether it might have been prescription drugs, illegal drugs, or some purely natural cause that killed him at age 28 last week.

The emerging narrative of the actor's life story is much clearer: He was a sensitive soul who was crushed by his efforts to be a True Artist. He pushed himself too far in pursuit of his muse and gambled with his sanity and his health.

In his native Australia the headline in the Sydney Daily Telegraph headline read: "Heath burned candle at both ends...but what a Beautiful Flame," while the Sydney Morning Herald described the "sleepless stress of a troubled star."

In the U.S., the Washington Post noted that Ledger "was self-taught and often castigated himself in interviews about his perceived shortcomings as a performer."

The Post quoted him as saying, "I feel the same way about everything I do...The day I say 'It's good' is the day I should start doing something else."

READERS WERE TOLD again and again that he was a great actor, always pushing the boundaries. He had turned away easy heartthrob roles in bankable films for more challenging, artistically risky parts.

Director Terry Gilliam noted how Ledger was perfectly at ease with "screaming like a girl" in The Brothers Grimm. Entertainment Weekly called Ledger "alluringly restless" and said that in his performance as the gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, "he showed just how deep he could go."

The L.A. Times's Kenneth Turan said, "Ledger brings this film alive by going so deeply into his character you wonder if he'll be able to come back."

Ledger's last completed performance was playing the Joker in the upcoming Batman sequel. Now that may sound like an easy payday for a big Hollywood blockbuster to you or me. But we would be wrong.

"Ledger must have found the prospect of playing a leading role in such a high-profile enterprise daunting," reported EW.

The prescription drugs found near his dead body? Well, he couldn't sleep. If you had been pushing yourself as hard has he was to re-invent the role of Joker for the Batman franchise, you'd need some meds to handle the stress too, wouldn't you?

Is it possible that something other than the demands of his art killed him? The AP asked Lee Daniels, who directed Ledger in Monster's Ball, (aka that film you rented because Halle Berry got naked in it) whether Ledger might have had a real drug problem.

Impossible, Daniels replied, then added: "The definition of substance abuse is really up to one's perspective...I didn't see him as a drug addict. I saw him as someone who enjoyed life. I know drug addicts; he was not a drug addict."

Glad we cleared that up.

GIVE THE RECENTLY deceased his due: He was a good, versatile actor and he had a certain amount of guts too. It cannot be easy to play a part in a film like Brokeback Mountain, knowing you'll be on the receiving end of "steers and queers" jokes for years to come.

But his death, like most, is a tragedy for those who knew him intimately. For the rest of us he was a flickering image on a screen, soon to be replaced by another.

Whether or not he suffered for his art the awkward truth is that most of his films were pretty weak. He appeared in Mel Gibson's The Patriot, in which we learned that our nation was created not from a desire for independence but out of the uncontrollable urge to butcher those British bastards who killed Gibson's son, damn them.

His other films include the woefully misbegotten, PC-crippled remake of the classic British Empire story the Four Feathers, the hugely overrated downer Monster's Ball, and The Order, a film about a conspiracy in the Catholic Church so preposterous that it makes The Da Vinci Code seem plausible.

Brokeback Mountain was vastly overrated too. It contained about 45 minutes of genuine drama -- about enough for a "very special episode" of a weekly TV drama -- and then proceeded to stretch it over 2 and a half tedious hours of screen time. Give director Ang Lee credit, though; he knew how to make the audience feel the agony the characters in the film were feeling.

I doubt many of his films will linger on in collective memory after the shock of his dying so young passes. He was not the voice of his generation. There's no shame in that. Very few people are. Ledger was just an actor who didn't know his time was shorter than he thought.

As EW tells us, Ledger's death was "an unlikely end for a star deliberately removed from the Hollywood maelstrom that seemed to consume the likes of River Phoenix and, more recently, Brad Renfro."

To which one can only respond, "Brad who?"

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About the Author

Sean Higgins is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.