I'm not sure what I could possibly say about Heath Ledger's shocking death that hasn't already been said online or among conversations with friends. But as someone who's spent the last six months touting Ledger's upcoming performance as The Joker and who admired his work in Brokeback Mountain, I figured I should write something. I was stunned when I saw the headline on my Google Reader, followed shortly by an e-mail from Mis Hooz (who actually doesn't work very far from the scene in question), and a subsequent phone call.
I've often sneered at my mother for talking about celebrity news so seriously, as if it involves someone she might know. But today, I was right there with her. What a crazy tragedy. Only 28 years old, tremendously talented, and a great future in front of him. Ledger's career was about to blow up with The Dark Knight. Now that role (which he had completely finished, by the way) is going to carry a whole other level of meaning with it.
This was an actor who enjoyed challenging himself. Playing The Joker is indicative of his choices. Here was a guy who could've played Batman or any other superhero. But he wanted to play the scarred, psychotic villain. I imagine that portraying a closeted gay cowboy isn't a direction that many actors would've opted for at that point in their careers, either.
Maybe Ledger challenged himself a bit too much. That was some of the speculation during much of the news coverage last night, sprinkled in between guesses at the cause of death. Here's a quote from a November New York Times article that's been cited:
He is here in London filming the latest episode of the “Batman” franchise, “The Dark Knight.” (Mr. Bale, as it happens, plays Batman; Mr. Ledger plays the Joker.) It is a physically and mentally draining role — his Joker is a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy” he said cheerfully — and, as often happens when he throws himself into a part, he is not sleeping much.
“Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night,” he said. “I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” One night he took an Ambien, which failed to work. He took a second one and fell into a stupor, only to wake up an hour later, his mind still racing.
Even as he spoke, Mr. Ledger was hard-pressed to keep still. He got up and poured more coffee. He stepped outside into the courtyard and smoked a cigarette. He shook his hair out from under its hood, put a rubber band around it, took out the rubber band, put on a hat, took off the hat, put the hood back up. He went outside and had another cigarette. Polite and charming, he nonetheless gave off the sense that the last thing he wanted to do was delve deep into himself for public consumption. “It can be a little distressing to have to overintellectualize yourself,” is how he put it, a little apologetically.
Who knows? Well, I guess we'll know after the autopsy. Speculation has ranged from suicide to accidental overdose to pneumonia. Either way, parents have now outlived their son, a daughter doesn't have a father anymore, and filmgoers are deprived of a great talent.
If you have any doubts about that, check out one of the best scenes Ledger ever performed in one of the most important movies of the last ten years.