23 January 2008

Aftermath of Heath Ledger

The shock is over, and now we have to accept the facts: Heath Ledger is dead at 28.

The first hours after the news broke were filled with journalistic misinformation as people scrabbled to know “why” and “how.” Pills were found scattered around his body. False. He was discovered dead in an apartment owned by Mary-Kate Olsen. False. Police suspect suicide. False. The only 100% certainty is that Heath Ledger is gone, his promising career ended, and his two-year-old daughter Matilda will have to grow up without a father. Horribly sad.

And what does this all mean to me, personally? I didn’t know Heath Ledger, never met him, never knew anybody who knew him. To me, he was an actor, a person who appears on a screen to provide dramatic entertainment. I also don’t follow celebrity gossip or care one bit about the personal lives of the stars. I knew Ledger was involved with actress Michelle Williams only because they showed up to the Oscars together the year he was nominated for Best Actor for Brokeback Mountain. But his death has had a strong effect on me for a very simple reason: Batman.

I have invested a lot of interest in the upcoming The Dark Knight because I’m a Batman fan and I loved Batman Begins. I kept close watch on the casting of the Joker, the new film’s pivotal role. Once Ledger was cast, I was personally invested in his acting career, and the more hints I saw about his performance, the more thrilled I became about it. Suddenly, Heath Ledger was one of my favorite actors—and I already knew he was one of the bright young stars in a business that sure could use a couple more like him.

Jett, in his eulogy for Heath Ledger at Batman-on-Film, nicely summarized the fan attachment to the actor:
I didn’t know Heath Ledger, but I know the character he plays in The Dark Knight very well. It’s a character near and dear to my heart, and because of that, Heath Ledger became near and dear to my heart. That’s how it is with fans.
True, that is exactly how it is with fans. But yet I will admit that when Ledger first started appearing in films, I didn’t think that much of him. His first U.S. film was 10 Things I Hate about You, a teen revision of The Taming of the Shrew. A decent film for what it is, but to me Heath Ledger was just heartthrob-import-of-the-month for the teen girls to swoon over. My opinion didn’t change much with The Patriot and A Knight’s Tale. Ledger himself has commented that he got shoved into these leading man roles before he had a chance to grow as an actor, and I think he does look a bit bewildered in these parts.

But then something happened. He started to make savvy choices to avoid ‘pretty boy’ roles and play up dramatic possibilities. And then along came Brokeback Mountain, where I was stunned at how great a performance he turned in. I can’t fault Philip Seymour Hoffman for winning Best Actor that year, but I think Ledger turned in the superior performance and should have gone home with the golden statue.

Even considering Ledger’s new acting credentials, my initial reaction to his casting as the Joker was a touch skeptical. I wasn’t alone; many other Bat-fans were confused. Ledger wasn’t on any of the lists of possible actors for the role. But after a minute of thinking about it, I decided that 1) I trust director Christopher Nolan to make the right casting choice, and 2) Heath Ledger’s Joker would at least be something different.

In the months since, Ledger has done the incredible feat of making the role his own, and the film hasn’t even come out yet. The people who predicted that Daniel Craig would be the best Bond ever before Casino Royale came out were jumping the gun (and ended up wrong), but I think with the Ledger-Joker I am on pretty safe ground in saying that it will be freakin’ amazing! The trailer released in December was all I needed to know: this guy was going to blow the roof off the theaters in July when he plays the the Clown Prince of Crime! After seeing the trailer, I was more psyched than ever to see this film.

And now… with six months left before the film comes out… Heath Ledger is dead.

Is it no wonder I feel a mixture of sadness and apprehension when I think about The Dark Knight now?

I still eagerly anticipate the film. I know it will be incredible. But it will have a strange resonance now, knowing that whatever crazy brilliance Heath Ledger puts on screen will be the last performance we ever see from him.