I remember walking out of an advanced screening of Ten Things I Hate About You. I was a little less than a year out of college, working at Mike Clark’s Movie Madness at the time, and either the store gave out passes, or my journalist friends got me and a friend into the screening. I remember the film being immensely likable, one of the better would-be Hughes of the period, but was more impressed with Julia Stiles (and her table dance to Notorious B.I.G.’s Hypnotize) than Ledger. He was good, but it wasn’t the role. But he was Teen Beat-hunky enough to have it be a launching point, though he wasn’t as fey as the tweener set tends to favor (think Zac Efron and all the other pretty-boys who are described by nice parents as non-threatening and by less sensitive men as a little further over on the Kinsey scale). But magazine covers beckoned, and Sony decided to stake him with both The Patriot and A Knight’s Tale. At the time he became the male Gretchen Mol, the man set up to be the next big thing, but – like so many before him – he didn’t find that audience. And The Order and Four Feathers looked to be a one-two punch into Vincent Spano-land, even if he gave a great performance (albeit briefly) in Monster’s Ball. By 2003, you could imagine him top-lining something that went straight to video. Which he sorta did with Ned Kelly.
But directors seemed interested. 2005’s summer brought Lords of Dogtown (which bombed) where he was doing the best Val Kilmer impression imaginable, and the not-his-fault failings of The Brothers Grimm. Brokeback Mountain kicked around for a while, and names like Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix circled the parts that Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal got, while the cast was rounded out with Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway. The two leads played gay cowboys. No pudding was involved though. The casting was underwhelming and suggested it could air as a very special episode of Dawson’s Creek. It seemed like a joke, and before anyone saw it, it looked like an also-ran from the director of Hulk. Everyone involved had something to prove.
2005 turned out to be a pretty great year for film, but some days I could go so far as to say that Brokeback was the best of them. And as much as that was a group effort, it was Heath who broke your heart. He found something, was allowed to do something that showed he had it, and had it in ways that those previous attempts to capitalize on his good looks could not. He emerged like a phoenix. This was Heath Ledger 2.0, the undeniable talent.
Since then, there has been little (such is the nature of the business) but his fine performance in I’m Not There. His section is the least eccentric: His version of Dylan is “the actor,” the one who cannot live up to the words of the protester, the man who sees his marriage and life dissolving before him. That section will surely gain a new resonance, though they were there in the text, and (to me, at least) those elements rose up stronger in a second viewing.
But with his turn as The Joker, the world seemed his. He had a showy role that looked to cement his ascension. Though the first Batman has its warts, my reaction upon leaving it was similar to seeing Raimi’s first Spider-Man: I got the impression what they got right was right, and what they got wrong they could improve with the next one.
And that’s the thing. Ledger had gracefully entered into his second act. He was probably ready to laugh at the time Hollywood tried to turn him into what he is/was now: an actor-star. What is most beguiling about his death is that the story of his career had just become interesting. He was ready to show us his mettle. And it looked like he had “it.” Now people will turn to Brokeback, I’m Not There and (probably) The Dark Knight to show people who this Heath Ledger was and why it sucks that he died so young. If I was an asshole, I could suggest his third act is as disappointing as Batman Begins’, but I’ll leave that for some other asshole.
Whatever led to his death – though some will focus on that – is irrelevant to the art. And the loss to cinema is intangible but felt. The man had gifts, and it’s a shame cinema only had a brief opportunity to see what he could do with them.