Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger, 1979-2008

Sad news today out of New York City: the young and talented Australian actor Heath Ledger was found dead this afternoon in his apartment. His death is believed to be related to a drug overdose of some kind – possibly involving medication he was taking for pneumonia. For the latest, click here.

Ledger is probably best known for his acclaimed role in director Ang Lee’s 2005 film, Brokeback Mountain. Described as an “epic American love story,” Brokeback Mountain features Ledger as Wyoming ranch hand Ennis Del Mar, who, from 1963 to the early 1980s, has a clandestine relationship with an aspiring rodeo rider named Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal).

Above: Heath Ledger (left) as Ennis Del Mar and
Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain.

In bringing the deeply closeted character of Del Mar to life, Ledger devised a jaw-clenched way of speaking that powerfully conveyed, not only the character’s repressed state, but his struggle to come to terms with, and articulate, his true self. It’s an incredible performance, and one that resonates with anyone - gay or straight - familiar with how secrecy and the inability to accept oneself diminishes and devastates one’s life and the lives of others.

As Neil G. Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation,
says: “[Ledger’s] powerful portrayal changed hearts and minds in immeasurable ways.”

Responding to news of Ledger’s death, Brokeback Mountain director, Ang Lee,
noted how Ledger “brought to the role of Ennis more than any of us could have imagined - a thirst for life, for love, and for truth, and a vulnerability that made everyone who knew him love him.”

His performance in Brokeback Mountain also garnered for Ledger numerous accolades from the film world – including “Best Actor of 2005” from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.

Of Ledger’s portrayal of Ennis Del Mar, New York Times film critic Stephen Holden wrote:

Mr. Ledger magically and mysteriously disappears beneath the skin of his lean, sinewy character. It is a screen performance as good as the best of Marlon Brando and Sean Penn.

While in Rolling Stone’s review of Brokeback Mountain, Peter Travers observed that:

Ledger’s magnificent performance is an acting miracle. He seems to tear it from his insides. Ledger doesn’t just know how Ennis moves, speaks and listens; he knows how he breathes. To see him inhale the scent of a shirt hanging in Jack’s closet is to take measure of the pain of love lost.

In a 2005 article in Newsweek, Ledger insightfully discussed the discomfort some straight men feel at the idea of a film about cowboys in love:

I suspect it’s a fear that they are going to enjoy it. They don’t understand that you are not going to become sexually attracted to men by recognizing the beauty of a love story between two men.

Born in 1979 in Perth, Western Australia, Ledger’s first acting role was at age 10 when he played Peter Pan in a local theatre company production. After relocating to Sydney as a teenager, he began acting in independent films and, at 16, played a young gay cyclist hoping to land a spot on an Olympic team in the 1996 TV drama, Sweat.

His “breakthrough” came when, at age 19, Ledger moved to Los Angeles and starred opposite Julia Stiles in the teen comedy, 10 Things I Hate About You, a reworking of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

One thing I admired about Heath Ledger was the fact that despite the numerous (and, no doubt, lucrative) offers to do other teen-oriented movies, he turned them down, opting instead to pursue more challenging roles.

“It wasn’t a hard decision for me,” Ledger told the Associated Press in 2001. “It was hard for everyone else around me to understand. Agents were like, ‘You’re crazy,’ my parents were like, ‘Come on, you have to eat.’”

Yet Ledger stayed true to his own vision of himself as an actor, and, in time, his profile as a serious actor steadily increased – culminating with his Academy Award “Best Actor” nomination for Brokeback Mountain.

In the few television interviews I saw of Ledger over the years, he always came across as a very down-to-earth and friendly guy. I could well imagine sitting down with him over a cold beer or two and talking freely about a range of topics.

I particularly appreciated Ledger’s relaxed and progressive views on gender and sexuality. He was, after all, a straight man totally at ease with his own sexuality and with the sexuality of those who are gay or bisexual. My sense is that the majority of people Ledger’s age embrace this “live and let live” attitude. I find that hopeful.

Also, like
many of his generation, Ledger was wary of rigidly labeling people and experiences. Shortly after his role in Brokeback Mountain, for instance, he remarked that the labels of gay and straight were too strict, that they marginalized people who may have attractions to both sexes: “I don’t think it’s that black-and-white,” he said. “And I think because we label [sexuality] so harshly, there’s just a lot of confused people running around thinking, Oh, fuck, which side am I on?”

In the aftermath of Heath’s untimely death, his family and friends are undoubtedly going through a
very difficult time. My thoughts and prayers are with them. May they, and all who have lost a loved one, know God’s loving and strengthening presence - deep within themselves and mediated to them through the caring words, the understanding silences, and the comforting embraces of those around them.


Following are images of Heath Ledger
in some of his film roles.

Above: Heath Ledger in the 2001
action/comedy film,
A Knight’s Tale.

Above: As Harry Faversham in
the 2002 film,
The Four Feathers.

Above: Ledger’s portrayal of famed Australian bushranger Ned Kelly,
in director Gregor Jordan’s 2003 film,
Ned Kelly, ensured he was
nominated for an Australian Film Institute (AFI) award
for “Best Actor in a Leading Role.”

Above: Ledger as a renegade priest
in the 2003 thriller, The Order.

(For fellow blogger Crystal’s thoughts on Heath’s passing
and on the film The Order, click here.)

Above: As the notorious Venetian libertine,
Giacomo Casanova, in the 2005 film, Casanova.

I first saw Casanova as an in-flight movie on a Los Angeles-Sydney
QANTAS flight in May of 2006. I’d recently read Hans Küng’s
The Catholic Church: A Short History, and was intrigued by
the film’s depiction of a papal inquisitor (played by Jeremy Irons)
sent to Venice to arrest the “fornicator,” Casanova. I later wrote a
Wild Reed commentary entitled
Casanova-Inspired Reflections
on Papal Power – at 30,000 Ft

Above: Ledger as Ennis Del Mar in the award-winning film,
Brokeback Mountain.

Of Ledger’s character and performance in Brokeback Mountain, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly notes:

Stung by childhood memories of a rancher who lived with a man and got bashed for it, [Ennis] fears that exposure could kill [him and Jack]. In the classic Westerns, the cowboys were often men of few words, but Heath Ledger speaks in tones so low and gruff and raspy his words just about scrape ground, and he doesn’t string a whole lot of those words together. Ennis’ inexpressiveness is truly . . . inexpressive, yet ironically eloquent for that very reason, as tiny glimmers of soul escape his rigid facade. Ennis says nothing he doesn’t mean; he’s incapable of guile, yet he erupts in tantrums — the anger of a man who can’t be what he is and doesn’t realize the quandary is eating him alive. Ledger, with beady eyes and pursed lips, gives a performance of extraordinary, gnarled tenderness.

Above: With co-star Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain.

Above: Ledger as the poet and heroin addict, Dan, in the 2006 Australian
Candy. Directed by Neil Armfield and co-starring Abbie Cornish
and Geoffrey Rush, the film is an adaptation of Luke Davies’
novel, Candy: A Novel of Love and Addiction.

Above: In what will now be his last role, Ledger plays the
Joker in the soon-to-be released film, The Dark Knight,
a sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins.

Above: Possibly the last photograph of Heath Ledger while
he was alive, taken on Saturday night on the London set of the film,
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
. It has yet to be announced
how Ledger’s death will
affect production of this film.

Heathcliff Andrew Ledger

Fear no more the heat of the sun,
Nor the furious winters’ rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this and come to dust.

Fear no more the frown of the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke.
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak.

All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee and come to dust.

William Shakespeare

Recommended Off-site Links:
Australians Mourn Actor Heath Ledger - Associated Press, January 22, 2008.
Heath Ledger Left an Intense Legacy - Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe, January 22, 2008.
An Untimely Death - Ramin Setoodeh, Newsweek, January 22, 2008.

Heath Ledger - Short Career, Lasting Images - Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 2008.
A Private Guy, An Urban Dad, A Huge Talent: Ledger’s Death Strikes Sad Chord for Many - Jocelyn Noveck, Associated Press, January 23, 2008.
Actor Would Not Be Stereotyped - Richard Jinman, Sydney Morning Herald, January 24, 2008.
Vulnerable Male: Actor Redefined What It Means to be Masculine - Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2008.
Heath Ledger’s Death Triggers Internet Meltdown - Asher Moses, Sydney Morning Herald, January 24, 2008.
Working with Ledger One of the Purest Joys: Ang Lee - Sydney Morning Herald, January 24, 2008.
Ledger’s Death Puts Last Films in Bind - CNN, January 24, 2008.
Heath’s Family Writes of Heartache - Lisa Pendrill, PerthNow.com, January 25, 2008.
Perth Burial for Ledger - Australian Associated Press, January 25, 2008.
Heath, We Hardly Knew You - Neil McMahon and Gabriella Coslovich, Sydney Morning Herald, January 26, 2008.
Private Funeral for Ledger - Australian Associated Press, February 4, 2008.
Accidental Pill Overdose Killed Ledger - Amy Westfeldt, Associated Press, February 6, 2008.

See also: Tale of an Untrained Homeboy - Janet Hawley, Sydney Morning Herald, April 8, 2006.

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
The “Real Gay Cowboy” Remembers His Friend, Heath Ledger
Christian Draz’s Critique of Brokeback Mountain


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing so movingly about Heath Ledger, Michael. He was a gifted and beautiful young man. Paula

CDE said...

His family did issue a public statement, which I've posted over on my blog today.

crystal said...

A thoughtful post, Michael.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your tribute to Heath Ledger. He did a huge favor for the gay community in his courageous portrayal of a conflicted gay man. An unforgettable role, and an unforgettable young man. What a terribly sad loss.

Michael-in-Norfolk said...


As always, you so wonderfully sum up what many of us are thinking and feeling. Thank you for this moving post on Heath Ledger.

As a formerly closeted and married gay man, Ledger's portrayal of Ennis hit home to me with great intensity and showed the conflict of being in the closet and married: the need to be who you are versus what you are expected to be (not to mention the obligation to children and a sadness over hurting your spouse). Ledger made all of that pain and conflict come alive and, hopefully, caused some understanding to be kindled in some people.

Terry Nelson said...

A very beautiful tribute.

ItzAlSex2Me said...

This is outstanding. As a HUGE fan of Mr. Ledger I applaud this moving and fitting tribute. Well Done! Rest in Peace Heath...

ItzAlSex2Me said...

I just happened upon this.I mourn Heath Ledgers death to this day. this is a wonderful tribute to the man.