Sunday, March 08, 2009

Remembering Heath Ledger

I was very happy when Heath Ledger won the Oscar for The Dark Knight. Yeah, it was a shoe-in since the film’s premiere, but it was still a great to hear his name announced. His untimely death made the already-high expectations of his Joker difficult to live up to…and he exceeded them. The quirky mannerisms, the voice, the petrifying stare: he created one of the great villains in movie history (bettering Hollywood icon Jack Nicholson in the process) and was properly recognized for his achievement.

But The Dark Knight will not be his Rebel Without a Cause, the film that defined James Dean and engrained his effeminate male “cool” into America’s psyche. That distinction goes to his portrayal of Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain.

I have to admit, I really had no interest in seeing Brokeback when it first came out. The trailer made it look campy: a rocky love triangle involving Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Michelle Williams that involved slaps to the face and melodramatic lines with the inspirational theme from Shawshank in the background. It seemed like kitsch.

I was dragged to see it in theatres; afterwards, I decided Heath Ledger was my favorite actor of my generation.

It’s an injustice to simplify the movie as a gay love story. It’s really not a love story, as it’s about a man who lacks the ability to love. The story shows how this inflicts collateral damage upon his daughters, his ex-wife, and the love of his life, Jack.

But he is also pained, even though the story provides little dialogue or action to substantiate such. It’s all Heath Ledger. He rarely smiles. When he talks, he barely opens his mouth. When he parts from Jack, though Jack looks in his rear-view mirror and cries, Ledger only slumps his shoulders and walks away. He doesn’t even engage people with his eyes. He’s an enigma, and not even Jack can open him up.

The performance personifies Heath Ledger, the actor. William Goldman wrote that the problem with modern Hollywood is that there is no mystery behind our movie stars. Ledger was never a YouTube sensation, was never involved in a stupid arrest, was never one to grace the cover of US Weekly. He was a handsome movie star who remained shy and quiet. He was Hollywood’s next pretty-boy in Ten Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale, who turned down the big paychecks for movies he wanted to do.

It gave me hope when he landed the role of the Joker. It was the most coveted role in Hollywood, sought after by ever young male in the game. But it went to the guy who would not conform; the guy who became a star by following his heart.

He won the Oscar for playing a destructive psychopath. I wish he had won for Brokeback as well. It would have been fitting for Ledger and would have been another example of his affect on Hollywood: a soft-soft spoken role wins over a charismatic character with an accent.