It says so much about what a brilliant actor he was that even from the very little I'd seen of his work until recently--"Monster's Ball," "The Patriot" and "A Knight's Tale"--I knew he was something special, and had high hopes for his career. (And was quite certain after getting a glimpse of just a few stills of his Joker, long before "The Dark Knight" was released, that Heath would be the perfect Joker, like no other Joker we'd ever seen!)
Even my introduction to him in "A Knight's Tale" made me stand up and take notice and think, this guy is gonna go places. Sure, he looked a bit the young heartthrob with his sun-bleached, surfer-dude good looks. But right off the bat, he conveyed many qualities onscreen that set him apart from the legions of other young heartthrobs.
What came through so delightfully in "A Knight's Tale" was his very apparent sense of humor, his willingness to be the butt of jokes, to appear awkward, inept, and perhaps not quite cut out for the job of noble knight. Instead of trying to be the flawless hero, he refused to take himself too seriously, invited us to laugh at him a bit.
Maybe that was his Aussie heritage showing, part of the whole "tall poppy" syndrome. (The Aussies have a saying that goes something like: The tall poppy gets cut down first. So most of them try to keep a pretty low profile, try to avoid standing out in a crowd through boasting, arrogance, etc....even those who've got a lot going for them that they could boast about if they were so inclined.) Whatever their source, I've always found those humble, softspoken, self-deprecating qualities extremely appealing in actors (and in people in general).
So yeah, I knew who Heath was, and always regarded him as a young actor of great promise. But I hadn't seen him in anything since those three movies I mentioned, which came pretty early in his career. So until in a recent one-two punch I saw first "The Dark Knight" and then, just days later, "Brokeback Mountain," I had no idea just how much he'd already reached that potential, how high he'd already climbed as an actor. And now I fully understand (and agree with) what "Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan said when he accepted the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for Ledger recently: that "a hole had been ripped in the future of cinema" with Ledger's passing.
Now movies about comic book superheroes normally are not my thing at all. So in spite of the fact that I was anticipating Ledger's take on The Joker, I didn't rush out to the theater to see "The Dark Knight" when it opened last summer. It wasn't until my kids suggested we rent the DVD recently that I finally sat down to watch it with them.
I'm so glad I did. Ledger exceeded my wildest expectations. Like most everyone else who's seen his incarnation of the Joker, I was blown away by his performance. The movie in general caught me offguard; it had a lot more emotional resonance than your average comic-based movie. I was surprised to find myself almost tearing up during a few scenes, or getting a lump in my throat, which is a credit to the cast, director and screenwriter. The only other Batman movie I'd ever seen--the one with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson--had left me cynically laughing when I wasn't supposed to be and thoroughly bored.
"The Dark Knight" does go on a bit too long. As my husband succinctly put it, "Too much Two-Face." But as for the Joker, you can never get enough of this guy! Whenever he's onscreen, you can't take your eyes off him. And whenever he's not onscreen, you miss him--as much as one can miss a psychopathic, mass-murdering clown--and want him to come back. He becomes this sort of presence lurking at the edges of every frame of the movie, even those he's physically absent from.
The word "real," in fact, is a key to the frightening effectiveness of Ledger's performance. All previous Jokers were played as campy cartoon villains. But it's not laughs Ledger's Joker induces so much as shudders of horror. He offers us the Joker as a man gone bad--really, horrifyingly bad--but a man rather than a two-dimensional character. The black makeup around his eyes might give him a zombie-like appearance, but this Joker can't be written off as a soulless monster. Behind those eyes lurks a soul...a malevolent, murderous soul no doubt, devoid of all compassion. But there's such fierce intelligence and awareness glimmering behind those eyes that we find ourselves wondering what makes this guy tick, how he really got those scars, what unspeakable cruelty wounded and warped him for life.
And because this lean, lanky Joker has got so much charisma, so much unaffected cool, we find ourselves thinking that if only this guy didn't have a tendency to inflict death by pencil and push fair damsels out of skyscraper windows or blow them to bits, he'd probably be one cool cat to hang with. He's a magnetic force who somehow manages to attract us while he's repelling us, and vice versa.
It would be a difficult task to try to compile a "Best of the Joker" video, though I'm sure many YouTubers have tried. There isn't a throwaway line among the many he delivers. And how he delivers them! From "Here...we...go!" to "I love this job!" to "Why so serious?" to "I'm so glad you could come, Batman." to "Look at me!," he offers them up with just the right level of demented glee, deceptive cordiality or satanic fury. It's the kind of performance where almost every line, every movement he makes or action he takes, is memorable, iconic and worth hitting the rewind button to catch again. He's that mesmerizing, that commanding.
It just so happened that I'd recently added "Brokeback Mountain" to the top of my Netflix queue, so after being astounded by Ledger as The Joker, I was glad to have another one of his highly praised performances waiting in the wings. "Brokeback" had long been on my list of must-see movies. But I don't find much time or money these days to keep up with movies as I'd like to, so I was as usual long overdue for this one.
If only I'd known what I'd been missing, I would have seen this one long ago. Amazingly, Ledger is just as utterly gripping and perfect as the wounded cowboy who resigns himself to a life of loneliness and sadness in "Brokeback Mountain." As Ennis Del Mar, he's as heartbreaking and vulnerable in this movie as he was horrifying and untouchable as The Joker in "The Dark Knight." It's hard to believe it's the same person playing two such polar opposite roles!
"Brokeback Mountain" is a thing of beauty, the kind of movie that some of us live for. It makes you care deeply about and ache for the characters, treats you to stunningly beautiful (and often bleak and lonely) landscapes both geographical and emotional, and lets a heterosexual woman like me see the world through the eyes of two men in love.
It's the kind of lyrical, exquisitely shot film that moves as languidly as a herd of sheep through a valley. It has as many wide open spaces as the undulating Wyoming foothills much of it takes place in, and sometimes it's as forelorn and quiet as the dusty, barren smalltown tableaus it captures.
Each of the major players is wonderful. But Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar is a beautiful, astounding revelation. It's no hyperbole to say that this is as good as anything James Dean, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Russell Crowe or any of our greatest actors have ever done.
Ennis breaks our hearts as he resigns himself to the fact that he can never truly be with the love of his life, that he lives in a time and place where a love so great it should be shouted from the mountaintops must be kept locked inside him forever. As he tells his lover, Jack Twist, played well and sympathetically by Jake Gyllenhaal, "If this thing grabs hold of us at the wrong time, in the wrong place...we're dead."
Ennis is the embodiment of still waters running deep. Because he's got so much overpowering emotion locked up inside him that he can't express, he's literally a clenched man. He walks around with his fists clenched, his chin tucked low--even his mouth barely opens when he manages to grumble a few carefully chosen words.
It's to Ledger's great credit that none of this ever comes across as forced or stagey...it's just Ennis. Everything about this character feels real and lived in and just right. Whether he's packing his gear for the trail, gracefully riding his horse, shooting a gun, whittling in his tent, awkwardly trying to dance with the waitress at the local honky tonk, or gently cradling one of his sick girls, we totally buy this young man from Perth as a young ranch hand from Wyoming.
And we care about him...deeply. We want to see him happy. But like the waitress--who tries and fails to bring him out of his lonely shell--tells him with tears of exasperation: "Girls don't fall in love with fun, Ennis!" No, they often fall in love with sad, wounded guys like Ennis, hoping they'll be the special one who can bring a smile back to that handsome face.
But Ennis, of course, wouldn't be Ennis, wouldn't be the incredibly sympathetic character we grow to care so deeply about, if he was always walking around smiling and happy-go-lucky. It's the sense of sadness and deeply buried emotion he carries with him throughout the movie, and especially after he loses Jack, that touches us in a very deep place. And the true marvel is the way Ledger conveys that sense of loss so profoundly with rarely a word being spoken.
When he visits Jack's parents (this whole sequence another high mark in the annals of screen acting), Jack's mother invites him to have a look at his bedroom, which she's preserved just as her son left it. While riffling through Jack's closet, Ennis discovers his own long-lost shirt (bloodstained from a fist fight they'd had on Brokeback Mountain) on a hanger with one of Jack's jackets. At this moment he realizes that Jack had "stolen" his shirt and secretly kept it as a precious memento of Ennis for all these years. He takes the shirt and jacket in his hands with exquisite tenderness, clutches it to his chest, closes his eyes and inhales the scent of Jack. And in so doing, he conveys more movingly than any words ever could just how much he misses him, how deep the pain of his grief.
And the entire coda of the movie, beginning when his daughter pulls up to his trailer and ending with his moment at the closet, is some of the most quietly, profoundly moving acting I've ever seen. Again, the relationship between father and daughter feels totally credible, as does Ledger as a 40-ish man. We fully believe their long history together. Pretty amazing when you consider he was about 25 at the time he made this movie, and the actress playing his daughter about 18 or 19.
They play out this scene with exquisite tenderness and delicacy. Many years after her parents have divorced, this sweet, loyal daughter has never given up on her father. She seems a bit baffled by his lonely lifestyle, can't quite understand why he chooses to live so far out of town in his shabby, sparsely furnished trailer, why he's never found himself another wife.
But her eyes are filled with love as she tells him about her upcoming wedding, and then a hint of tears as he indicates that his work might keep him away from her big day. Her momentary sadness and our disappointment in Ennis make it all the more redeeming and satisfying when he gets up, pours two glasses of wine and proclaims with a smile and a devil-may-care tone that they'll just have to find themselves "another cowboy," because a daddy can't miss his daughter's wedding day.
As she drives away, he realizes she's left her sweater behind, and tenderly folds it up and places it in his closet. And that's when we see the shirt and jacket hanging there. Along with a photo of Brokeback Mountain tacked up on the closet door, they form a sort of shrine to Jack. They're all Ennis has left of their 20 years of secretly loving each other.
He fumbles with the shirt's buttons, straightens out the photo...and then comes The Moment. Suddenly the tears well up in his soulful eyes, he quietly whispers, "Jack, I swear," and we feel the ocean of grief and loneliness and loss he's been holding inside him wash over us. And then he closes the closet door and walks away, and that's it. And we're left heartbroken for Ennis, and we don't want to leave him like this, living all alone in his little trailer on the bleak Wyoming plains, with nary a friend left in the world.
That Moment of Ennis Del Mar in his sad little trailer with those tear-filled eyes has now joined the ranks of other such Moments I've experienced and never forgotten throughout my years of watching movies. Certain moments in certain movies can touch us deep within our core, in a place that's usually touched only by those big moments in our own lives: when we fall in love or recite our wedding vows, when our babies are born, when those same "babies" graduate, when we lose someone we love or experience any kind of trauma or tragedy, etc.
Sometimes a moment in a movie will shimmer like a gem, stirring those same heightened emotions we sometimes forget--in our everyday, paying-the-bills existence--that we're capable of feeling. They can send waves of elation, heartbreak, tenderness--or on the flip side, anguish, anger, dread or horror surging through us . They make us Feel.
Some of my cinematic Moments have been Meryl Streep and her "silent scream" in Sophie's Choice, or friends Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran sitting together in silent communion throughout the night in "The Killing Fields," waiting for the dawn and the Khmer Rouge to come and take Pran away to nearly certain death. Or the moment in "Damage" when Jeremy Irons watches his son fall over a balcony railing to his death many stories below, then has to make the agonizingly long run down many flights of stairs to cradle his son's lifeless body in his arms. Or the breathtakingly exuberant "Singin' in the Rain" sequence in that classic musical.
Ennis in his trailer with those tear-filled eyes now has its hallowed place among such Moments.
And now the actor who created that Moment is gone, the actor who obviously had so many more such moments inside him just waiting to emerge. He was clearly on his way to being one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen. For The Joker, Ennis and Sonny in "Monster's Ball" alone (and probably a few of those performances I haven't yet had the pleasure of seeing), I'd say he's already earned that distinction. Yet even with all these achievements already under his belt, it seems he was just hitting his stride, just beginning to really soar. And now he's been grounded forever.
Oh how I wish he could have been here through all these weeks of awards ceremonies, basking in all the recognition, acclaim and standing ovations that have come his way for his incomparable work in "The Dark Knight." He died six months before it was released, which means he never got to see an audience's reaction to his performance, never knew how much we all love his Joker. And now he won't be here tomorrow night to pick up the Oscar that's practically got his name written on it. We won't be treated to the lovely sight of a tall, tuxedo-clad Heath Ledger walking up to the podium and making a characteristically humble, gracious speech of gratitude and appreciation for his Oscar.
And of course, as sad as it is that we've lost such a fine young actor just hitting his prime, his little daughter Matilda has lost her daddy. She was just two years old when he died, and she already bears a striking resemblance to him. So this is one of the ways that Heath Ledger will live on.
Another way is through his movies. Thank you Heath for your beautiful spirit, which shines through in every one of your performances. Thank you for all those "moments" you've created and left behind for movie lovers and lovers of great acting everywhere. Even in your tragic early passing, you've left us one more such moment, which will come tomorrow night when our own eyes well up with tears and a bittersweet mix of heartbreak and joy and mourning and happiness for you surges through us as we watch your family accept your Oscar.
And we'll now have a new phrase to replace that very sad one, "the late," which often precedes your name these days. From here on out, you'll forever be known as "The Academy Award-winning Heath Ledger." That is just as it should be. It fits you so well, like that cool purple suit.