Written By: Nick Poulimenakos
Today marks the ten year anniversary of Heath Ledger’s sudden death. The late actor was found dead in his Manhattan apartment on January 22, 2008 and was 28 years old.
It was news that rippled throughout the globe as many media outlets began to speculate how and why the actor was suddenly taken from the Earth, just months before his career-defining performance would debut on the silver screen.
Like James Dean, Kurt Cobain and Marilyn Monroe before him, Ledger died too young and during the peak of his popularity. As an actor, Ledger was incredibly dynamic, taking roles in films across genres. From his breakout performance in 10 Things I Hate About You, to playing the dual role of Mel Gibson’s troubled sons in The Patriot, Ledger was on top of the world and the sky was the limit.
Today, we remember the actor for what he gave to cinema. The laughs, the heartache and the fear. Ledger was someone who usually shied away from bigger roles in favour of smaller, more meaningful portrayals, always looking for something new and different. Ledger was even quoted as saying “I feel like I’m wasting time if I repeat myself,” a testament to his work ethic and dedication to cinema.
Constantly admired by his peers, Ledger was a man who was known for being a ray of sunshine with Matt Damon going so far as to say that Ledger was the best actor he’d ever seen. In an interview with the July 2016 issue of GQ, Damon had this to say:
“He was too bright for this world. Coming off [The Brother’s Grimm, I was] telling everybody that I just worked with the best actor I’ve ever seen. And people were like, ‘What are you talking about? The guy from A Knight’s Tale?’ And I was like, ‘You just wait. And wait until you see what kind of director he’s gonna be.’ There were things that he did where I couldn’t have got there in three lifetimes.”
While Ledger had many memorable performances, there were two that stood the test of time. The first came in 2004 with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. A film that was reviled by conservative critics who literally called it “The Gay Cowboy Movie,” Brokeback Mountain received acclaim from film critics and movie-goers as Ang Lee challenged society’s stereotypes for love. It was a massive gamble for Ledger who, at the time, was only an actor for six years. Evidently, the gamble paid off in a huge way as both Ledger and his co-star Jake Gyllenhaal cemented themselves as the newest leading men in Hollywood. Ledger went on to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 2005 Academy Awards and, to this day, his performance is remembered as being one of the most complex and layered portrayal in a romantic drama.
Two years after Brokeback Mountain, Ledger would find himself earning the role of the most popular comic book villain of all time. In 2006, Warner Bros. announced that Heath Ledger would become The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight. While this would eventually go on to become Ledger’s second performance that is still remembered to this day, at the time, his casting was seen as an incredibly unpopular choice.
Hate mail filled Warner Bros’ message boards but nevertheless, the studio and crew remained confident that Ledger would do the character justice and production began for The Dark Knight.
Ledger began preparing for the role by staying in a hotel room for one month, all alone. Studying everything there is to know on serial killers, rock stars and the Clown Prince of Crime himself, Ledger began to formulate the voice, walk, laugh and everything else that would encompass his incarnation of The Joker. He even kept a diary of what Batman’s greatest villain would be thinking and what drives his motivations for chaos.
For a comic book movie, Ledger’s performance was an anomaly. Obviously there have been fantastic portrayals by big name actors (Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine to name a few). But no one dove as deep into the role as Ledger did. From the second he appears on screen during the legendary bank robbery sequence, he completely dominates the film. It may be called The Dark Knight, but this is The Joker’s film.
This was not a character that just wore make-up and acted as a “villain of the week.” Taking inspiration from classic antagonists such as Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Ledger’s Joker differentiated from other interpretations, as he always worked towards reducing society to chaos. His ideal of “one bad day” rendering people to drop their morals, made for some of the most entertaining and frightening moments in film history. Alfred Pennyworth said it best: “Some people just want to watch the world burn.”
Ledger’s performance immediately stuck with critics and fans, becoming a pop culture icon. Appearing on everything from T-Shirts to mugs to toys, Ledger’s portrayal even earned him a second Best Supporting Actor nomination (and win) at the 2009 Academy Awards.
Unfortunately, this is where the story ends as Ledger was found dead before the film even premiered. Luckily he had finished his work for the film but this was an immense tragedy by all accounts. It is impossible to know where Ledger’s career would have taken him after the career-defining performance in The Dark Knight, given the fact that he never wanted to repeat the same kind of role. Regardless, Ledger went out on the highest of highs, and The Dark Knight is now hailed as being the greatest superhero film of all time.
It has been ten years since his passing and every day, fans and friends continue to miss Ledger and the unmatched captivation and talent he brought to every film.
Thank you for everything Heath. Gone but never forgotten.
And remember… Why so serious?