The Legacy of Heath Ledger

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On April 4th Heath Ledger would have been 34. Through advocating the maxim ‘gone but not forgotten’ instead of merely repeating it, this article looks back at his career and remembers the fine actor who had the potential to be as big as they come.  Looking at Ledger’s IMDB profile, what’s immediately noticeable is just how few films he actually made despite his rise to prominence. The likes of The Brothers Grimm, Ned Kelly, Monster’s Ball and The Patriot show, in reverse-chronological order, the fringes of his known work.

At the end of his career are the noticeably ensemble casts of I’m Not There, the Bob Dylan biopic, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the Terry Gilliam directed fantasy. The roles of Depp, Farrell and Law in the latter only came about, however, in order to complete and release his last piece of work after his untimely death. In fact it’s within ensemble (or semi-ensemble, if you’ll allow such a term) casts that he’s flourished from day one, creating a rapport with his co-stars whilst simultaneously sticking his head out from the crowd.

This is best evidenced through the four films he’s most “known for” according to IMDB: 10 Things I Hate About You, A Knight’s Tale, Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight. Though they are a rather eclectic collection, they can be split down the middle into two groups. First up is 10 Things, destined to forever be one of the cult films of the 90s. Not only did it introduce us to Ledger on the big-screen (having already featured, like all Australians, in Home and Away) but was Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first leading movie role too. The modernised Taming of the Shrew high-school comedy became a must-see indulgence for many of a certain age, particularly on DVD, and this is in part due to Julia Stiles’ brilliantly independent feminist Kat Stratford and her chemistry with Ledger’s Patrick Verona.

His thick Aussie accent was no longer audible by the time he came to play William in period piece A Knight’s Tale alongside a noteworthy cast given the where-are-they-now revelations. Again more of a cult comedy-drama than serious piece (despite its 2+ hours length), Ledger’s helpers Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk provide the camaraderie, and have respectively since featured prominently in Game of Thrones and Firefly. Paul Bettany – the third of the sidekicks – has gone on to star in the likes of A Beautiful Mind, Wimbledon and Margin Call, and a young Berenice Bejo (The Artist) also shows her face.

Ledger plays two very likeable protagonists in these landmark appearances for him: the more traditional underdog in the latter and a more complex character in the former where he delivers the unforgettable rendition of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. But from here his career veers off into a new direction and the next two films on our hit-list document the clear progression from teen-idol into devoted actor. To say that he wasn’t a serious artist before this point would be to sell short his legacy: we have already looked at the offbeat impact and staying power of A Knight’s Tale and particularly 10 Things. Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight, however, take things a step further.

Brokeback Mountain was a risky, brave choice considering the nature of the production and the inevitable controversy that would follow. Despite it simply being an honest account of conflicted love between two cowboys living in the wrong era, the right-wing branches of America (and other countries) were out in force to deny the right of Ang Lee’s tender and painful drama to reach the worldwide audience that it deserved. Despite its robbery (by Crash!) at the Oscars, it still became a sensation where it mattered and was the true winner of the year. Though now taken for granted to an extent, this was a major breakthrough for gay film in the mainstream media and multiplexes. What followed just three years later was Milk, but it arguably would not have been able to do so without the impact of the beautifully-crafted, well-shot and wonderfully-told love story Brokeback.

His swansong, of course, was his powerful and destructive routine in The Dark Knight. Blowing Nicholson’s Joker out of the water and then some, his portrayal of the man who developed those scars is all-at-once playful, chaotic and frightening. Though most were aware of his extraordinary talent by that point, his ability to mesmerise on-screen was set beyond repair. Despite questions over his casting, he highlighted his incredible skill even further as he floated between his terrifying “look at me!” yell and maniacal moments of clapping which are the immortalised moments of film which capture the essence of Ledger’s Joker.

Featuring alongside him in Brokeback, 10 Things and Dr. Parnassus were Jake Gyllenhaal, Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Andrew Garfield respectively. Heath died at 28. If the same happened to Gyllenhaal, we’d never have seen him carry Duncan Jones’ sci-fi thriller Source Code, or experience his excellent chemistry alongside Michael Pena in last year’s End of Watch. To cut Garfield’s career short at that age would have been to eliminate his version of Spider-Man and any future pieces of brilliance he will surely go on to make. And last but not least, Joseph Gordon-Levitt – who Heath Ledger stole the show from all the way back in 1999 – would quite incredibly never have made any of The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, 50/50 or Looper.

Heath’s astonishing journey via four memorable films of his own showcased his versatility and potential. The lengths he was both able and willing to go to meant that he could have gone to dizzying heights in future roles, though it was not to be. A glimpse at his would-be career, though distressing, also reminds us of the fortunate position we are in, to bear witness to the films he did make and the on-screen charisma that he brought to them. And, unlike Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist, these are memories that we never want to quit.

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