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It may not have been the kind of day that marks people but I still remember where I was when I first heard that Heath Ledger had died. It was nowhere special. I was just sitting at my desk at work when my brother called to tell me what he had just seen or heard or read on the news. It didn’t make any sense to me. It couldn’t possibly have been true. He must have been mistaken or the reports must have been overblown. And while the details surrounding Ledger’s death in the press certainly were blown out of proportion, my brother was definitely not mistaken about what he had seen, heard or read. The 28-year-old actor and father died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs on January 22, 2008. A dark night, indeed.

I walked home stunned and, after pouring myself a generous glass of red, I settled into my couch to watch BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. I was compelled to do so. I somehow felt that by watching this modern classic that transformed Ledger from another pretty face in the crowd to a bonafide contender would keep him alive for a couple more hours. You know what? It did. Watching Ledger as Ennis Del Mar is like witnessing the miracle of life. The manner in which he mutters instead of talking, his tongue unconsciously twisting inside his mouth and the hushed self loathing that permeates through his squinted eyes stripped him of his charmer looks and revealed a calculated talent capable of creating great, new depths of character. Though Ledger had been seen on Hollywood screens for nearly ten years (ever since his eye catching turn in the Shakespearean teen adaptaion, 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU), it was his Oscar nominated performance in the revelatory BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN that made him a real star.

After his first taste of Hollywood success, the native Australian saw his career heading in a direction he wanted nothing to do with. When he saw his giant mug plastered across America and the world as the face of the medieval joust comedy, A KNIGHT’S TALE, he put on the brakes. He was offered the lead in the SPIDER-MAN series but turned it down because it simply wasn’t him. He wanted to make movies that spoke to him. The first signs of his emerging talent showed themselves in his brief part as a suicidal police officer in MONSTER’S BALL. He carried himself with such sadness and disappointment that I wondered how much of his depression was based in reality. The years that followed brought disappointments despite his best efforts but BROKEBACK opened his doors wide open. In the little seen, CANDY, Ledger shows that no movie is too small as long as the story is strong. His turn as a heroine junkie is somehow just as romantic as it is heartbreaking. Showcasing his delicate ability to balance duality yet again, Ledger plays Robbie in Todd Hayne’s Bob Dylan masterpiece, I’M NOT THERE. Again, Ledger makes the unlikable somehow still sympathetic. And just as all of the world’s eyes were turning toward him, he passed, leaving only one role left to be seen.

Of course, that last role will become infamous. It will be nearly impossible to take your eyes off of Ledger as the iconic Joker in Christopher Nolan’s second Batman feature, THE DARK KNIGHT. There is no way to know if the world would be buzzing as much as it is about Ledger’s performance had it not been his final one but the world is watching and that’s what he wanted. The Joker himself would probably find the whole thing quite amusing. Young kid makes good and finally learns to infuse his passion for the craft into the Hollywood machine but doesn’t live to see it unleashed. Oh, the irony. I like to think that Ledger is smiling too about the whole thing. After all, he went through such trials to divert our attention to the performance and not the person and, without him here, we will be forced to do just that.

Heathcliff Andrew Ledger
April 4, 1979 to January 22, 2008

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