Obituaries—especially obituaries for the young, beautiful, and unexpectedly dead—are a hopeless genre to write. The deadline is, by definition, past, and you know you’ve already been scooped countless times. So rather than research a tribute to Heath Ledger by watching the ghoulish three-minute-long video of Ledger’s body being wheeled out on a gurney, or clicking through photos of his 2-year-old daughter (just three months older than mine), I stayed up most of the night watching and re-watching a few of his movies. I wanted to understand, without resorting to gushy and imprecise phrases like “most promising actor of his generation,” the particular quality he had that will be missing from movies now. There are plenty of promising actors in his generation, but there’s no one who can do that Heath Ledger thing. What was it, exactly?
For one thing, there was the novelty of a guy that effortlessly good-looking—who in his or her right mind wouldn’t want to get next to Heath Ledger?—gravitating to eccentric, even flamboyant, character roles. In Lords of Dogtown (2005), Ledger plays not one of the blond skate rats but Skip Engblom, the middle-aged and perpetually drunk surf-shop owner who coaches the skateboarding team to greatness. This scruffy, inspirational sports picture, a fictionalized remake of the skateboarding documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, can barely contain Ledger’s gonzo performance. He’s fresh from Val Kilmer College, comically unhinged and unprecedentedly ugly. Late in the movie, after the Z-Boys skate their way to juicy endorsement deals and desert Skip one by one, he hurls surfboards off the roof of his store in a self-destructive rage, then sprawls on the roof’s edge, guzzling from a bottle of whiskey while the crowd below gasps for fear he’ll throw himself off. Hard to watch on the night he presumably died of an overdose? A little bit.
Then again, so was the sheerly goofy scene from the 1999 romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, in which a 19-year-old Ledger belts out“Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” to Julia Stiles over the school PA system during soccer practice. This is Ledger in straight-up teen-heartthrob mode—throwing paintballs, going to the prom—but, once again, he doesn’t quite fit in the movie. It’s not that he’s ill at ease in the role, quite the contrary. His graceful physicality and loose-limbed charm point up the artificiality of the whole proceedings and make the rest of the actors look stiffly conventional. Like Brando and James Dean—actors to whom he’s no doubt now being compared, and whom he was clearly referencing as the tormented movie star in I’m Not There—Ledger was an actor whose sheer physical charisma seemed at times to jut out from the surface of his movies.
But then there’s Brokeback Mountain, a movie in which Ledger belongs so completely that, in the end, the movie belongs to him.That’s not to discount Jake Gyllenhaal’s fine performance as the volatile, openly needy Jack Twist. But it’s the recalcitrance of Ennis Del Mar, Ledger’s more deeply closeted cowboy, that drives the story forward. Brokeback Mountain isn’t just about the impossibility of two men loving each other; it’s about the impossibility of anyone loving this particular man. Not only Jack Twist, but Ennis’ wife (Michelle Williams, who fell in love with Ledger during the filming) and a dime-a-dance bar girl (Linda Cardellini) all hack away unsuccessfully at Ennis’ shell. I remember, when Brokeback came out, two friends telling me separately that the flinty, secretly tender, intermittently rageful Ennis reminded them painfully of their own shut-down fathers. An impressive achievement for an actor who was 26 at the time.
I’m Not There, the 2006 addiction drama Candy,and the tantalizingly creepy trailer for this summer’s The Dark Knight all suggest that Ledger was learning to choose roles that took advantage of that peculiar quality he had of seeming at once larger than life and inwardly focused. In the years to come, I’m sure there’ll be movies that make audiences think, damn, Heath Ledger could have nailed that role. So I won’t opine on how sad it is that a gifted young man, someone’s father and someone’s son, lost his life at the threshold of a great career. I’ll just say that the movies themselves will miss Heath Ledger.