"He was always evolving. Whatever it took, he would go down that road. He was the guy who could do anything. There was just no limit." (Terry Gilliam on Heath Ledger)
It's been 5 years since Heath Ledger died, at age 28, and it's still hard to believe what happened, and that we're not going to see him again in the big screen. Esther and I are both big fans of his work as an actor. It can be said that we've grown up watching his films. We've been witnesses of his evolution from teen icon to a grown up actor. A charismatic man full of joy and talent, that starred on some of our favorite independent films. That's why I've decided to do this tribute post, remembering all the great performances he gave us and that keep his memory alive.
First years: 1990s
Heath Andrew Ledger (4 April 1979) ─ named Heath after Heathcliff, the main character of Emily Brontë's classic british novel, "Wuthering Heights" ─ left school at 16 to pursue an acting career in his country, Australia. After performing roles in television and film during the 1990s, he left for the United States in 1999 to develop his career.
In 1999, he starred in the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, one of our favorite films, in which also stars a young and cute Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and one of our favorite actresses from the 90s, Julia Stiles.
10 Things I Hate About You
Not so famous, but quite great is the film in which he starred with the lovely Rose Byrne, also in 1999, before he left Australia, the acclaimed Australian crime film Two Hands. He was nominated as best actor in a leading role to the Film Institute Awards and Film Critics Circle Awards of Australia, for his role as Jimmy in this film.
(This scene is perfect)
Breakthrough Star: 2000-2003
In 2000 he played a supporting role as Gabriel Martin, the eldest son of Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), in the war film set during the American Revolution, The Patriot. He was surrounded by great actors in that film and he did a great job. This was the first time I saw Ledger on the big screen and instantly he became one of my "ones-to-watch" actors.
(On set with 8 years old co-star Skye McCole Bartusiak)
It was 2001 when Ledger became really famous thanks to his leading role in the romantic comedy A Knight's Tale alongside Shannyn Sossamon. Not my favorite film from him, but I like Sossamon a lot too and it was great watching them together, specially dancing to a Bowie song. That year he also played a supporting role in Monster's Ball as Sonny Grotowski, the son of Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), one of the critics' favorite films of the year and an Academy Award winner.
A Knight's Tale
(At the film's premiere with Sossamon)
His next leading role, on 2002, was as Harry Faversham, a young British officer, in the period action drama, The Four Feathers, with Kate Hudson and Wes Bentley. It's a decent film with a really beautiful cinematography, and Ledger does a good work portraying a British hero.
The Four Feathers
In 2003 he played two really different and bold roles: Alex, a disillusioned priest, in The Order (Sin Eater); and Edward "Ned" Kelly, a legendary bushranger in northeast Victoria, in Ned Kelly. The Order is a bizarre mistery film that had really bad reviews. I think it was not quite good either, but not that terrible, because its atmosphere and the relation of Ledger's character with Mara Williams, a mentally unstable artist, portrayed by Shannyn Sossamon, were great.
The Order (Sin Eater)
Ned Kelly is an Australian film starring Naomi Watts, Orlando Bloom and Geoffrey Rush (they'd work together again in Candy). It's an interesting film based on a true story, and Ledger was extraordinary on it. He was nominated to several Australian awards for his role, and was praised by the critics: "Heath Ledger is fantastic as Kelly. He gives a very immersing performance, and has misshapen himself into the character." (Clint Morris)
(With Naomi Watts at the SAG Awards, his co-star on Ned Kelly and his girlfriend at that time)
International acclaim: 2005
Leaving the teenage icon image so far behind and after his brave leading role in Ned Kelly, 2005 was the year when Ledger was finally recognized as one of the best actors of his generation, with a promising career ahead of him. That year he was on two period films (Casanova and The Brothers Grimm), an indie flick set in the 70s (Lords of Dogtown) and a romantic drama that takes place from the 1960s to the early 80s (Brokeback Mountain). Four very different roles that showed how versatile and what a great actor Ledger was. Like the director Terry Gilliam, with whom he worked that year, said about him: "He was the guy who could do anything. There was just no limit."
After having watched the Fellini's Casanova (1976), which offers a really beautiful and moving perspective on the persona of Giacomo Casanova, portrayed by the charismatic Donald Sutherland, I didn't expect this one to be as good. Fellini was a genius, his films are a feast for the eyes, and the music of Nino Rota turns that film into a haunting tale. The truth is that Ledger is highly charming in this 2005 version, and he does a great job as being this genuinely fascinating and seductive person. The film it's really entertaining, and it's also nice to watch for its setting, the costumes, and the lovely ladies that star alongside Ledger: the gorgeous Sienna Miller (the female star), Lena Olin (one of my favorite actresses), Lauren Cohan (in a little role) and a young and ethereal Natalie Dormer. Sir Jeremy Irons, which is always a good reason to watch any film, and the cute Charlie Cox (Stardust) star in Casanova too.
The Brothers Grimm
Terry Gilliam (a member of the Monty Python), its director, has an imaginative and unique mind, and he's done really original and terrific films like The Fisher King (one of my favorite films), Time Bandits, Twelve Monkeys or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so I had high hopes on this one. The result was not that satisfying, even that Ledger did a well job as the more shy and gullible brother (and the bravest at the end), Matt Damon did well like always, and it was funny to see the beautiful Monica Bellucci on an evil role, and Lena Headey, sharing screen with Ledger, as she is one of my favorite actresses.
Lords of Dogtown
In the summer of 1975, modern skateboarding was invented in the Santa Monica and Venice Beach areas of California. The young members of the Zephyr Team, sponsored by a permanently stoned surfboard store owner, revolutionized the sport. That's the story behind Lords of Dogtown, a true story based on those skater kids from the 70s, in which Heath Ledger plays Skip, the "permanently stoned" mentor, and he does a great job doing it. Actually, it's nice to see him in this role, with the surfer looks and the laid-back attitude. If you're fond of skateboarding and California on the 70s, you'd love this indie film directed by Catherine Hardwicke. The film also stars Emile Hirsch (before he went all famous with Into the Wild), Michael Angarano and Nikki Reed.
What can be said about the renowned and acclaimed Brokeback Mountain? It's a powerful and moving film adaptation of the 1997 short story of the same name by Annie Proulx, which I recommend you to read because, honestly, I think it's even more emotional than the film and one of the best short stories I've ever read. Ang Lee, with his peculiar way of telling stories, manages to tell us this romance between two cowboys with an exquisite taste, and he knows how to touch you in ways other films are not able to. And a great part of it it's thanks to the great job of all the actors. Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are wonderful on their supporting roles, Jake Gyllenhaal is perfect (one of his finest performances), and Ledger is superb as Ennis Del Mar. His last scene, at the ending of the film, it's one of the endings in which I've cried the most, an unforgettable scene.
(With Michelle Williams promoting the film. They began dating on the set of Brokeback Mountain, and had a lovely daughter, Matilda Rose, on 2005)
His fantastic portrayal of Ennis Del Mar gave him the recognition he needed. He won the 2005 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor and the 2006 Best International Actor award from the Australian Film Institute, and was nominated for the 2005 Academy Award for Best Actor, and the 2006 BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Back to Australia: 2006
On 2006 Ledger starred on one of my favorite films: the Australian independent film Candy, alongside the beautiful and flawless Abbie Cornish (I also loved her on Bright Star) and Geoffrey Rush. Candy is a romantic drama film, adapted from Luke Davies' novel Candy: A Novel of Love and Addiction, and one of the most heartbreaking films I've ever seen. Cornish and Ledger ─ who plays the role of a poet named Dan─ are perfect on it. They make you feel what they feel, be moved by their struggle, and try to understand why they're living that self-destructive bohemian life. The film has an amazing soundtrack featuring the great Tim Buckley (father of Jeff Buckley), the cinematography it's delightful, and it also features one of my favorite poems from E.E. Cummings "I carry your heart with me (i carry it in)", that Ledger reads aloud with his deep voice. The film won several awards, including the Australian Writers Guild Award for the adapted screenplay, the Film Critics Circle of Australia (Best Actress in a Lead Role to Abbie Cornish, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role to Geoffrey Rush, Ledger was nominated too), and it was nominated to the Golden Berlin Bear, the Australian Film Institute Award, and the Inside Film Award.
Music video director
This year, Ledger directed a really beautiful music video for the song Morning Yearning from his friend the musician Ben Harper:
Being Bob Dylan: 2007
Heath Ledger starred in another one of my favorite films on 2007: I'm Not There, the biographical musical film directed by Todd Haynes, inspired by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan (at the start of the film, a caption reads: "Inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan"), one of my favorite musicians ever. Six amazing actors depict different facets of Dylan's life and public persona: Christian Bale (they'd work together again in The Dark Knight), Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, and Ledger. The part of the film starring Ledger is my favorite, as he portrays Robbie, a moody, counter-culture actor who represents the romanticist side of Dylan. He stars alongside the lovely Charlotte Gainsbourg, his lover and later his wife in the film, a character inspired in both Suze Rotolo and Sarah Lownds, former girlfriend and former wife of Dylan respectively. The film was praised by the critics and won several accolades including an Academy Award nomination for Blanchett's incredible role, she also won the Golden Globe and the Volpi Cup, the film and the director won at Venice too, the Independent Spirit Awards' Robert Altman Award for the whole cast and crew, and many more critics' associations awards.
I'm Not There
(Favorite scene: Charlotte, Heath, and Dylan, what else? )
Dylan himself said this about the film last year: "I thought it was all right. Do you think that the director was worried that people would understand it or not? I don't think he cared one bit. I just think he wanted to make a good movie. I thought it looked good, and those actors were incredible."
(With Charlotte Gainsbourg on set)
A legend is born: 2008 - 2009
Ledger died on 22 January 2008. A few months before his death, Ledger had finished filming his penultimate performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Ledger received numerous accolades for his critically acclaimed performance in the film, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, a Best Actor International Award at the 2008 Australian Film Institute Awards, for which he became the first actor to win an award posthumously, the 2008 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor, the 2009 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor and the 2009 BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor. At the time of his death, he had completed about half of his final film performing the role of Tony in Terry Gilliam's film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
The Dark Knight
"His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss."
(David Denby, The New Yorker)
Being honest, I think The Joker was an awesome role, but Ennis Del Mar was not worse, nor Ned Kelly, or Dan in Candy. A pity that the big awards only came when he was gone. The Dark Knight was a good film, with a great cast (Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman), but it was quite sad to see Ledger on the big screen knowing he was no longer among us. A curious thing about it, Ledger was allowed to shoot and mostly direct the videos the Joker sends out as warnings. Christopher Nolan, the director of the film, said this about Ledger: "It was tremendously emotional, right when he passed, having to go back in and look at him every day [during editing], but the truth is, I feel very lucky to have something productive to do, to have a performance that he was very, very proud of, and that he had entrusted to me to finish."
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a 2009 fantasy film directed by Terry Gilliam ─ who also directed Ledger on The Brothers Grimm ─ starring Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole, and Tom Waits. Ledger's death one-third of the way through filming caused production to be temporarily suspended. Gilliam's initial thought about the production was: "The film's over, it's as simple as that." Although production was suspended indefinitely by January 24, Gilliam later determined to "salvage" the film as a "memorial tribute to the man many have called one of the best actors of his generation". Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell signed on to take over Ledger's role, portraying transformations of the character as he travels through a dream world, and the three actors donated their fees for the film to Ledger's and Michelle Williams's daughter, Matilda Rose.
"I like to think of Heath as not having disappeared. Because the one thing the screen does, that the theater does not, is to make you immortal. He was a joy and he’ll go on being a joy. Heath will be with us forever." (Christopher Plummer, his co-star on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)
"I'm not good at future planning. I don't plan at all. I don't know what I'm doing tomorrow. I don't have a day planner and I don't have a diary. I completely live in the now, not in the past, not in the future."
"I don't have a technique. There are no rules and there is no rulebook. At the end of the day, it all comes down to my instincts. That's the one thing that guides me through every decision professionally. Socially, also."
"It's not that I don’t want the money, it's just that I would have been really happy sitting on a beach or surfing every morning... I never had money, and I was very happy without it. When I die, my money's not gonna come with me. My movies will live on – for people to judge what I was as a person. I just want to stay curious." - Heath Ledger