Heath Ledger (Wikimedia Commons / Howie Berlin)
When Heath Ledger died four years ago today, the world was shocked. Only 28, his star was still on the rise, buoyed by Ledger's strong and gritty performances. He was the rare young actor who seemed to ignore (or be unaware of) his own good looks and took roles that, rather than showing off his handsome face, displayed his impressive acting talent.
Not that Ledger's early years didn't include a traditionally romantic role or two. The Australian star's first big success in the U.S. was in 10 Things I Hate About You, playing a teen rebel who reveals a softer side when he falls in love. A glimpse of Ledger's career to come, the movie was well-received and a cut above the average teen romantic comedy – not least because it was based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. But great lead performances by Ledger and Julia Stiles helped a lot, too.
Ledger didn't remain in romantic comedy land for long. He soon began taking more serious, unusual roles, exercising his skill in movies like Monster's Ball, Ned Kelly… and, of course, the film that launched a thousand controversies (and Ledger's first Oscar nomination), Brokeback Mountain.
Ledger met Michelle Williams on set, sparking a romance that Williams called "cosmic" in a recent GQ interview. Together the couple had a daughter, Matilda Rose, but the relationship – no matter how cosmic – wouldn't last. Ledger and Williams would go their separate ways just months before Ledger's death.
While he was involved with Williams, Ledger was also working on the performance that would make him a big-screen legend. He threw himself into the role of the Joker for The Dark Knight – living alone in a hotel for a month while immersing himself in the world of what he called "a psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy."
Ledger died before The Dark Knight was completed. When it was released the summer after his death, the public finally got to see the performance they'd been eagerly anticipating – and they weren't disappointed. Ledger's talent and hard work came together to form a madman like none we'd ever seen before, leaving us stunned and wishing we had the opportunity to see what else the talented actor could do.
On Jan. 22, 2009, exactly one year after his death, Ledger was nominated for an Academy Award for his turn as the Joker. The following month he became only the second actor in history to win an Oscar posthumously, a bittersweet end to a career and life that ended much too soon.
Written by Linnea Crowther