A toothtastic grin, messy hair, deep voice – Heath Ledger was undoubtedly a heartthrob in Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You. But the scene that left the deepest imprint on my 15-year-old mind was the ballistic energy with which Ledger’s Patrick descends the stairs as he serenades Kat (Julia Stiles) with ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, and cheekily spanks a security officer trying to nab him for disrupting the discipline of their high school. That scene has endured through the years in much the same way as Tom Cruise’s jig from Risky Business. Looking back, that particular scene, in a way, encapsulated his attitude towards his career on the whole. Patrick is sincere in his attempt to woo Kat, but knows how to have fun whilst doing so, and that idea of fun is rooted in defying conventions. Ledger’s dedication to films continues to be talked about because of the way it goes against the grain. To say that his choice of films was brave would be an understatement. At barely 20, after the success of 10 Things, he was certain that he did not want to be a part of another high school romance movie.
It is hard to reconcile with the fact that 10 years have passed since the unfortunate event, but it is even more surprising that Ledger’s career in Hollywood spanned the same length – such was his genius, such is his legacy. Born and raised in Perth, Australia, Ledger, an avid football player and chess prodigy, was determined to shoot for the stars. He also had a penchant for photography and art, which he later tapped into as he made his foray into directing music videos for Ben Harper and N’fa Jones. Growing up with an admiration for fellow Australian actor, Mel Gibson, Ledger cemented his presence in Hollywood after he successfully auditioned for the role of Gibson’s son in his American Revolution drama, The Patriot (2000). The impact of his supporting role was profound enough to be evoked by Daniel Day-Lewis in his acceptance speech as he dedicated his Screen Actors’ Guild Award to Ledger a mere few weeks after his demise in 2008. In retrospect, it does not seem much of a stretch to compare Ledger’s career to Day-Lewis’s. Although the latter has had fewer missteps in his nearly 40 year-long career, both their filmographies boast of a shared element of peculiarity and unconventionality.
In 2001, Ledger appeared in the role of William Thatcher in Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale, which notably made use of classic rock songs despite a medieval setting. Ledger stated in several interviews that he almost stopped reading the screenplay after the point where his character enters to the beat of Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’, which is the opening scene. However, the film made a star out of the actor, when it was publicised with colossal images of Ledger’s face, accompanied by the tagline, ‘He Will Rock You’. Not unlike Day-Lewis, Ledger had an uncomfortable equation with his fame; he had already declined the role of Spider-Man in Sam Raimi’s superhero trilogy, but the ensuing prominence reinforced his search for more character-driven roles. Monster’s Ball, Ned Kelly, Lords of Dogtown followed, until Brokeback Mountain happened in 2005.
The Ang Lee-directed drama, co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams, became a watershed moment. As a young actor in his mid-20s, taking on the role of a gay cowboy could have had a detrimental impact on his image that the media had cultured – that of a pretty boy, a heartthrob – but Ledger’s portrayal of Ennis Del Mar, an anguished lover, in Brokeback brought him his first Academy Award nomination, and also sparked a relationship with his co-star, Williams, with whom he later had a daughter. Set in Wyoming, Ennis’ love and longing is reflected in his landscape – at once majestic and hostile. Ledger imbued the character with a quiet, sublime pain, in the way he speaks with a clenched jaw, as though afraid to reveal his soul; every syllable is an effort, making him appear as one of the least voluble lead characters, despite the most lines.
In his 16-film long career, Ledger repeatedly gave examples of his genius by choosing roles that became memorable regardless of the time spent on screen. If Ennis seemed taciturn, the Joker was on the other end of the spectrum. For his villainous turn in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 feature, The Dark Knight, Ledger isolated himself for six weeks to dig deeper within himself and find the right voice, laugh, and attitude; he kept a diary and made videos of himself, compiling the thoughts and ideas that would be idiosyncratic to his mass-murdering, psychopathic, anarchist Joker. His death, six months prior to the film’s release, surrounded its publicity when it was reported that his character drove him to the edge, and the internet further diluted the news with various versions of drug overdose.
In the 2017 documentary, I Am Heath Ledger, not only is the rumour dispelled, it is also revealed that his creative energy, his desire to keep making something new was what kept him up at night. Hence, the prescription drugs. His directorial debut, The Queen’s Gambit, was in the offing, as were several videos for Nick Drake’s music. He left Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus unfinished, which was later completed with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell alternately stepping into his role. The documentary also brings forth a facet of Ledger’s life that would have perhaps found a fascinating manifestation in this age of social media, an urge to capture everything on camera. The footage, which made the documentary possible, shows Ledger spinning round and round as he films himself with a handycam. There is a sense of unwinding, of unfurling, like a spinning top about to lose its centre, at which point it becomes difficult not to recall the image of Ennis Del Mar as he smells the blood-stained shirt in Brokeback Mountain. It is an acutely palpable moment of grief as he leaves the words ‘Jack, I swear…’ hanging in the air. As the scene cuts to black in both the films, it is left for us to imagine what could have been.
Featured Image Courtesy: time.com