With the opportunity to act comes an opportunity to escape the binds of one’s own skin, the opportunity to live life anew. However, even with the most respected actors, there is the ever-neglected tale of what is going on behind the role. We all make choices in life that are relative of our present states of mind, and the late, great Heath Ledger was no different. A wildly versatile actor who managed to win one Academy Award and be nominated for another by age twenty-eight, Ledger earned a startling amount of critical acclaim for his cinematic accomplishments. Having done all of this in such a short lifetime, it was easy for viewers to watch Ledger mature as a person, to watch him grow from a teen heartthrob into one of the most brilliant actors of his time. Through many of Ledger’s roles, and how he approached those roles, his current stage of life was often well reflected through his on-screen performance.
Exactly how did Heath Ledger come to be? Born on April 4, 1979 in Perth, Western Australia, or as he referred to it, “the most isolated city in the world” (Lipsky 2006: 45), Ledger’s childhood and adolescence provided for anything but a Cinderella story. John McShane, author of Heath Ledger: His Beautiful Life and Mysterious Death, notes, “While it would be romantic to say that the infant boy was born into hardship and strife and would have to battle against poverty as he grew up before achieving fame, this was not the case. The Ledger name was a well-known in Perth and Western Australia and the family owned and ran a large foundry which provided many of the metals, raw materials and parts needed to construct the 330-mile-long Perth-to-Kalgoorlie pipeline-one of the longest in the world” (McShane 2008: 7). Such benefits opened up possibilities for Ledger, one of which being the opportunity to attend the coveted Guildford Grammar School, a private, K-12 school for boys. Ledger’s success in school came through two forms, field hockey and drama. Although he was an extremely successful (nearly Olympic) field hockey player, Ledger’s childhood obsession with Gene Kelly’s work inspired him to choose the ladder. (Heath Ledger: Talented Actor)
Reflecting on an interview he had with Ledger, columnist David Lipsky summarizes the section of their interview when the two discussed Ledger’s high school career coming to an end, “Halfway through eleventh grade, Ledger sat for his graduation exams, "got my marks and fucked off." ("I was a bit of a punk at that age. I had a problem with authority.") School is an airport terminal, organized waiting; he'd already caught his flight. He packed a car, drove the 2,000 miles to Sydney, which is where Australians go to meet their fates. He borrowed gas money from his parents, and never took anything from them again.” (Lipsky 2006: 48) It was evident that Ledger was emerging as somewhat of a bad-boy (or at least a mysterious individual). And this is the first image that Americans got of Heath Ledger. After starting his career in a few Australian pieces, Ledger’s first complete American film was Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). A pip-squeak twenty year old who just burst into his own life in both an independent and rebellious fashion, Ledger’s role in 10 Things I Hate About You was not very different of that in his real life. Ledger’s character, Patrick Verona, is the story’s misfit. A rough-around-the-edges teen that drinks, smokes cigarettes, and spends most of his time in a pool hall, Patrick Verona is somewhat of a bully who gets paid to charm an equally tough girl who can’t stomach the thought of a relationship. While not necessarily immoral, Ledger’s personally tough spirit mirrored that of Patrick Verona.
Ironically, Verona and Ledger were both also unable to deal with the horrors of success. Verona succeeds in charming his girl, but falls in love with her in the meantime (as she does with him). His loving side takes over, and although it takes a few very rocky steps, he develops a relationship with her instead of continuing to earn money off of it. Ledger’s success in real life, however, was a bit more substantial. After gaining huge popularity from his work in both 10 Things I Hate About You and The Patriot (2000), Ledger was quickly becoming recognized as a teen icon. Ledger’s image was becoming as deep as a puddle; envisioned as someone who would just make millions for doing teen movie after teen movie. Brian J. Robb, writer of Heath Ledger: Hollywood’s Dark Star, states, “As he soon discovered, he was expected to play a big part in that process. Ledger was summoned to a meeting in the Columbia boardroom with fifteen suits from the marketing department. There he saw the posters with his face front and centre, above the slogan, ‘He will rock you’. ‘I’m freaking out,’ he recalled of his realization that the film’s success or failure rested squarely upon his shoulders. ‘They outlines their plan for the release: “We’re sending you around America, to twenty states, then twenty countries around the world.” I got this two-hour spiel on how they were turning me into Columbia’s new “It” boy. I couldn’t speak. I left the boardroom, found a bathroom, shut the door, and just started crying.’ . . . He was forced to explain to his agent, Steve Alexander, why he had such trouble with Columbia’s plans. ‘I tell Steve I can’t do it, I don’t want my life to be in their hands.’”(Robb 2008: 68) From then on, Ledger turned away from the money, and sealed his own fate, on his own terms.
In the coming years, Heath Ledger would go on to become an actor of more depth. His maturation as a person matched his maturation as an actor, tackling roles than could be taken more seriously, for his own happiness and personal sense of dignity. Such roles include Sonny Grotowski in Monster’s Ball (2001), Harvey Feversham in The Four Feathers (2002), and Ned Kelly in Ned Kelly (2003). While these films were not all box-office successes, Ledger felt as though they helped him become a more complete actor. Then, in 2005, Brokeback Mountain (2005) came along.
Yet another opportunity that was handed to Ledger, Brokeback Mountain tells the heart-wrenching tale of, as author of Heath Ledger: Talented Actor Stephanie Watson describes, “a romantic relationship between two men–a controversial subject, even for Hollywood . . . In the story, Ennis and Jack work together on Brokeback Mountain in the summer of 1963. Slowly, the pair develops feelings for one another–feelings that Ennis tries to keep bottled up over the men’s entire 20-year relationship. The script required the two actors to become physical with one another, including a few kissing scenes. Even though both men were heterosexual, Ledger did not feel awkward kissing his male costar. He said he tried to think of Gyllenhaal as just another person, rather than as a man” (Watson 2010: 56-57). At age twenty-five, Heath Ledger earned his first Academy Award nomination for his performance of Ennis Del Mar. A role like this, however, cannot be played by just anybody. A certain level of understanding needs to be present in the actor for any success to be insured. That being said, could Heath Ledger have been any less qualified? As this production was in filming, Ledger was busy standing up for his rights on A Current Affair and Enough Rope, passionately protesting against the war in Iraq; refusing to take the unethical treatment of humans lightly, capturing the essence of humanity with comments such as, “This is the first time in the history of our country that we’re an aggressor, and we’re not an aggressive nation or people. I’m certainly not, and I’m very proud of my country and I’m very proud of the people here and we shouldn’t be a part of this. It’s not a fight for humanity; it’s a fight for oil. And screw it and screw them. I think we should all pull out and live a peaceful existence down here.” As if it wasn’t enough for Ledger to be seen as an icon for the rightful existence of all humans, he was also falling into a love just as deep as Ennis Del Mar was. On the set of Brokeback Mountain, he met and fell in love with costar Michelle Williams, with whom he had a child the following year. Ledger said of his newfound love, “She’s my soul mate and we couldn’t love each other anymore than we do already. We’re like two peas in a pod” (Watson 2010: 68)
Following Brokeback Mountain were a plethora of roles tailored to Ledger’s particular interest and talent. He was quickly joining the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sean Penn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, etc. as one of the finest performers that Hollywood had to offer. However, not all things were well. Ledger was spending far too much time on his roles, having serious trouble sleeping, constantly battling illness, and worst of all, suffering a break-up with Michelle Williams. Many said (likely to produce a good story for the news) that Ledger was slowly dipping into a general state of insanity due to his over achievement in creating the Joker, his latest role. During the time that The Dark Knight (2008) was being filmed, Ledger was at a point where he wanted to keep pushing the limits, transcending his boundaries (haha). The press said that Ledger was losing his mind, going too crazy with this role. How ironic it is that Ledger was allegedly going insane while playing the Joker, one of the most “insane” characters ever to grace the cinema. All of these rumors came from Ledger’s dedication to the method. When asked about the Joker in an IESB interview prior to The Dark Knight’s release, Ledger said, “My preparation process for this and my process for the Joker are completely different. I mean, for the Joker I locked myself away in a hotel room for six weeks. I just formulated a voice and a posture and found a real psychology behind the Joker. I really put a lot of work into it” (Movie Blog 2007: 1). Many actors are criticized for taking the method so far to the point that their health is in jeopardy, and Ledger was no different. Since Ledger’s death (ruled as an accidental overdose) in January of 2008, there has been never-ending speculation that Ledger’s extreme contribution to his craft and his attempt to adapt the full insanity of the Joker played a factor in his untimely death. (Heath: A Family’s Tale)
Heath Ledger died at age twenty-eight, earning more critical acclaim than Marlon Brando had at that age; than Robert DeNiro had at that age; than Al Pacino had at that age; you name it. While we all wish to know who the stars of the screen “really are”, it is feasible to think that if one watches enough of Ledger’s work, one can see him evolve as a person, and watch him thrive more and more at what he loved most; acting.