I had planned to revive my blog with a discussion of the Oscar Nominees announced today, but the news of Heath Ledger’s death changed all that. A native Australian, he first burst onto the silver screen in 10 Things I Hate About You, which I did not see, for which he received significant praise. I have only seen three of his films, the first of which was The Patriot eight years ago. He struck me as having a pleasing sort of personality, and decent acting skills, and managed to hold his own with Mel Gibson in a fairly straightforward action film. He injected humor and romance into the film, and turned a character designed solely as motivation for another (the father) into a character we genuinely cared about. The last movie of his I saw was, of course, Brokeback Mountain. I was not a huge fan of the film when I saw it; I felt the script was lacking and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance was poor. However, Heath Ledger turned what would have been a mediocre, gimmicky movie into something more. I won’t argue that it is a great film, but his performance is absolutely phenomenal. He injected so much soul into such a quiet character, every look, every motion, every line had meaning. He made the character so tragic that it couldn’t help but break your heart. The scene at the end where he goes through his love’s closet is absolutely heart wrenching. Brokeback was the film where he finally lived up to the potential that had been seen in him since the beginning.
It is the only other film of Heath’s I’ve seen, however, which truly stuck with me. As silly as it sounds, A Knight’s Tale has long been a favorite of mine. It is a clever, silly film that is fun to watch, with a wonderful supporting cast, but what struck me the first time I saw it was how he could act from all directions. There is no actor I can think of who could have played the role of William Thatcher as perfectly as he did. Really, for me, it (and all his performances) comes down to honesty. Anyone else would have either played it just for laughs, or stiff and dramatic. He fully committed to the role, and the purpose of the film, and managed to bring everything to the table. You don’t just root for the character because that’s what you’re supposed to do, you root for him because he becomes a character you really want to root for. And that is what makes all the difference.
Regardless of what is discovered concerning the circumstances of his death, it is without a doubt a tragedy. If he died of natural causes of some sort, it’s a life cut down too soon (he was only 5 years older than I). If he accidentally overdosed on some sort of drug, it’s tragic because it was preventable. And if he died by choice, that is the most tragic of all. He leaves behind a short career, but more importantly a 2-year old daughter. When she grows up, I’m sure she will watch his films and wonder what could have been, as we all are doing today.
(I would be remiss if I did not also mention the tragic loss of Brad Renfro, the 25 year old actor who died just a week ago of apparent drug overdose. Renfro had several childhood and young adult roles in such films as The Client, Ghost World, Apt Pupil and Sleepers.)