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Heath Ledger, 1979-2008

Published: 1/22/2013

Incredibly, today marks five years since Heath Ledger's untimely death. We look back to Obit Mag's piece published just days after the news broke. Written by David Patrick Stearns. Originally published January 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.

If there's a Bermuda Triangle for tragic celebrity deaths, it's the 27-to-28-year-old age nexus that claimed Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Tim Buckley, Kurt Cobain - and now Australia-born actor Heath Ledger.

 In this Monday, Nov. 6, 2006 file picture, actor Heath Ledger arrives for the premiere of his new film

In this Monday, Nov. 6, 2006 file picture, actor Heath Ledger arrives for the premiere of his new film "Candy" in New York. (AP Photo/Dima Gavrysh)

It's the age when adulthood looms, recreational drug habits advance into something life-threatening, personal relationships go sour and creative activities that came easily in youth must often be relearned more analytically as an adult.

On the surface, only a few of these factors apply to Ledger, which is probably why the world didn't see coming what is widely assumed - pending autopsy " to be Ledger's overdose. Actors are often identified with their roles, and given his Oscar-nominated turn as a stolid cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, he seemed as unlikely a candidate for overdose as Gary Cooper.

Add to that the rosy news about Ledger's personal life reported as recently as a year ago: He and his Brokeback co-star Michelle Williams were happily settled in Brooklyn with a young daughter, Matilda Rose. Ledger reportedly loved parenthood and was to begin shooting what he would later describe as "the most fun I've ever had and maybe ever will have" - playing The Joker in the yet-to-be-released Batman movie, The Black Knight.

A year later, he and Williams had split. He was financially set for life, thanks to the multi-million-dollar salaries he was receiving for each movie, and living in New York City's fashionable SoHo district in an apartment that Australia's Herald Sun claimed cost $26,000 a month.

More glimpses of the real-life Ledger became grim: The bedroom he died in was furnished mainly with a mattress on the floor, and he was surrounded by Valium and Xanax, though in their generic forms, suggesting that they may not have come from any doctor's prescription.

Those close to Ledger have said that, at least since the fall, when he split with Williams, the actor had been adrift in significant ways: Though working on one film after another - he was on break from Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus when he died - he was also dealing, again according to Australian newspapers, with a heroin problem, had entered a drug treatment program and was wrestling with depression over the breakup with Williams. Ledger, it seemed, hadn't escaped any of the late-20s dilemmas.

His combination of remarkable gifts (his face could change ages from 20 to 50 with a mere shift in attitude) and personal magnetism (the smile, when seen, was radiant) count enormously in the acting world, where the checks, balances and controls of a more typical life had to be lacking in his. His is also a world that encourages temporary remedies that allow troubled souls to keep working under high-pressure circumstances.

The fact that he was an artist further complicates the picture. Ledger, named after Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, wasn't just a reasonably well-trained actor who happened to show up at the right place in the right role. His entry into acting coincided, maybe significantly, with the breakup of his parents' marriage when he was 11. His older sister was already working in the entertainment field, he met her agent, and by age 14 he'd made a brief film debut in the little-known Clowning Around.

Like James Dean (with whom Ledger was destined to be compared), Ledger arrived at his Hollywood breakthrough with a considerable body of work behind him (for James Dean it was TV, for Ledger it was small Australian films), which made him seem fully fledged from Day One.

His breakthrough was the 1999 grunge-era update of Taming of the Shrew, set in modern-day Seattle and titled 10 Things I Hate About You: His version of Petruchio was a charismatic low-life rumored to have sold his liver for new pair of car speakers. In a film in which all the male roles are curiously and un-charismatically cast, Ledger couldn't fail.
 

As good as Ledger was here and in subsequent films, his Brokeback Mountain characterization was something only the most keen film buffs could've predicted. There's barely a physical resemblance between the repressed cowboy of Brokeback Mountain and the loveable teen rake of a few years before.

Ledger's economy of movement is astounding: His mouth barely moves when he's speaking, his default position is staring straight ahead with an opaque, mid-distance gaze, and his voice suggests somebody far older than his years. The fact that something so vivid could arise from an approach so severe puts Ledger's achievement far ahead of anything James Dean accomplished.

Ledger claimed that he didn't have a formal acting technique. But his inspiration was such that, in an interview last year, he claimed that when he was offered the role of The Joker in the Batman film, he knew how to do it "inside of five seconds."

The photos and film clips from the now-finished movie suggest that his approach was far more original than the flamboyance Jack Nicholson brought to the same role in 1989's Batman. While Nicholson used the clown makeup as something banal to highlight the evil within, Ledger's Joker is far more seedy and dirty. The permanent smile on his face appears to be scar tissue. The voice is far more menacing, a throaty baritone that seemed to age Ledger, even more so than in Brokeback.

One can almost predict the kind of "swan-song" romanticism that will greet the film, as well as even more talk of unfulfilled potential. But five-second flashes of inspiration are hard to sustain for an actor who cannot use formal technique as a safety net. Ledger walked the creative high wire successfully, but the fear of not being able to do so again can be crippling.

The legend that's likely to grow up around Ledger is perhaps the last thing this post-Columbine world needs. Too easily, his life can become a parable that says when the going gets tough, the tough (and the gifted and the beautiful) check out, whether by design or accident. There are enough sources of morbid fantasies without an artist of Ledger's stature giving romanticism to early death.

Before there were rock stars, suspicious deaths among the famous and talented were kept quiet - and still are in places like England, where beloved musicians like David Munrow and Noel Mewton-Wood aren't discussed as suicide victims, but only as people who simply died. They'd probably want it that way.

No artist wants a stigma of personal tragedy hanging over their work. They want their efforts to be perceived at face value. And Ledger's work deserves the dignity of speaking for itself. But is there the slightest chance that will happen?

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