Like many, I was completely shocked to hear of Heath Ledger's passing today at the age of 28.
While he had a short career, he did have an important impact on the cinematic landscape. Truth be told, I missed a lot of his films due to lack of appeal, so I can't really comment about films like 10 Things I Hate About You or A Knight's Tale, for instance.
The first time I saw him was in The Patriot, costarring Mel Gibson. While the film is nothing to write home about, I did take notice of Ledger's appeal and his talent. It wasn't until Monster's Ball, however, that I became a fan and saw the beginnings of an interesting career. Although the role was brief, he really got to the heart of that character as much as anyone could in that screentime and created an indelible impression.
The next film I saw him in wasn't until a few years later, which was Brokeback Mountain. I will admit to being a fan of the film and while I would even put in my top 5 of the 2005, and I'll easily say that it should have won Best Picture that year over that ridiculous Crash nonsense, I'm not quite the heads-over-heels fan that most gay men are about the film. Not to discredit the film in any way. I own it on DVD and, actually, I'm watching again as I type this. It's just that every year hold about 2 to 4 films I absoutely love to death, and Brokeback Mountain is probably the 2005 film that comes closest to that group without being a part of that group.
But, that aside, I think Ledger was flat out amazing in the film and deserved every accolade that came his way. His performance exhbited skill and talent that I think very few actors his generation could muster, and even fewer would have the courage to take on this role. And that courage meant something to a lot of us. For those within the gay community, we respected not only his courage, but fell in love with the character and how identifiable he was. For those outside of the community, his portayal of Ennis Del Mar was an entry point (for those intelletually mature enough to get past the Brokeback jokes) to see what it's like to live as a man in denial of everything. It was a beautiful performance, and one that Ledger handled with a tremendous amount of dignity and grace both on and off the camera. It was a shame that he and Philip Seymour Hoffman gave such great performances that year, since I would have liked for both of them to win, but alas there could only be one.
The next film I saw him in was a little seen Australian film called Candy, costar ring fellow Australians Geoffrey Rush, Abbie Cornish, and Noni Hazelhurst. Truth be told the film is just alright. But it is elevated by some great acting, mostly from Cornish and Ledger. He again tapped into his dark side as a struggling heroin addict, and gave yet another great turn.
The last film I saw him in was I'm Not There which I wrote about previously, though I didn't talk much about Ledger. He gave a fine performance in the film, and his segment of the film (along with Charlotte Gainsbourg) was definitely one of the better segments of the film.
I think one of the things I admired most though was that he didn't seem to be an actor who rested on his laurels and he seemed to take on roles that gave him a challenge, particularly once Brokeback Mountain afforded him the opportunity to do so. I think this distinguished him from most of his contemporaries, leaving us with only Joseph Gordon Levitt and Ryan Gosling to keep the torch going. Brokeback, while a great film in itself, once seemed to be the stepping stone that would vault him into the league of actors with better offers and more selectivity with the roles he had to choose from, but now it seems that it will go down as his legacy. Not a bad one to have though. Like River Phoenix a decade before him, a very talented young man who was taken to soon and we'll never know just how far he would have gotten.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Ledger. You did good with the time you had, and you meant a lot to more people than you probably ever knew.