Born in 1979 in Perth, Western Australia Ledger decided on acting on more of a whim than a conscience career decision and his rise to fame was extraordinarily rapid. From the obligatory bit part in Australian tea time soap opera, Home and Away to starring opposite Mel Gibson in under three years. And not just three years, three roles. A remarkable achievement whichever way you look at it, apart from perhaps from the inside. Ledger himself often said he felt he had done little to earn his early success. He may have been right, but even in the beauty-obsessed film industry a chiselled jawline and a great smile are not enough to secure a lead role in a $100+ million movie. Hollywood saw something in Heath Ledger, something enduring, something that would lead to greater things.
Off the back of Gregor Jordon’s Aussie comedy crime thriller, Two Hands, Ledger landed the part of bad boy Patrick in 10 Things I Hate About You, a smart-mouthed and sassy reworking of The Taming of the Shrew. In his next role, Ledger played heroic in big budget American Revolution action drama The Patriot. Very much a vehicle for Mel Gibson to chomp on the scenery, Heath held his own in all their scenes, an early indication of his on-screen presence.
At the age of just 21 he scored his first major lead role in A Knight’s Tale. The film was a success and secured his status in Hollywood’s young elite. But it was a small role in Marc Forster’s heavy drama Monster’s Ball that drew attention to his abilities as an actor rather than a poster boy. Although it was Halle Berry’s film, the character of Sonny provides the story’s most shocking moment.
In the three years that followed Heath Ledger seemed to be everywhere, making back to back films as he attempted to dismantle his reputation as a pretty boy and earn some points as an actor.
“Doors kept opening and I kept walking through them.”
The Four Feathers, Ned Kelly, The Sin Eater, The Brothers Grimm and Casanova came in quick succession. Although the films themselves experienced varying success with the box office and the critics, Heath Ledger’s star continued to rise.
In the summer of 2004, he began work on what would become the pivotal role of his career. Based on a short story by The Shipping News author Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain is the story of two young ranch-hands who spend a summer together herding sheep in 1963 Wyoming, an experience that binds them together for a lifetime. The film earned him Golden Globe, BAFTA & Oscar nominations. Despite its controversial subject matter, it was a massive critical and global box office hit, Ang Lee taking the Best Director Oscar and narrowly missing out on Best Film to Crash. Ledger’s extraordinarily powerful and restrained performance as Ennis Del Mar was easily a lifetime best. Ennis is a man wound so tightly by fear and obligation he is literally imprisoned by his own feelings. Ledger’s physical and emotional embodiment of this turmoil was remarkable, demonstrating a new maturity in both his acting and his choice of role.
And Ledger himself for once seemed satisfied with his performance. His output slowed taking just two smaller roles in two years as he settled down with fiancé and Brokeback co-star Michelle Williams and their baby daughter. Shooting on his next major role in The Dark Knight took place during 2007. In early 2008, a few months after he and Williams had ended their relationship Ledger returned to his New York home after the London shoot of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a film he would never complete. He was found unconscious and unresponsive by his housekeeper at 2.45pm on 22nd January 2008.
At the time of his death the buzz surrounding Ledger’s work on The Dark Knight was already strong; in fact there was never any doubt that as The Joker he was going to rock. The film’s marketing was in its infancy and images of him were already circulating, although this was toned down after his death. The Dark Knight was released in July 2008. And it was Heath Ledger’s film, he stole it and he owned it. He literally bounced around the screen, mesmerising and disturbing, the personification of criminal psychosis, sealing the deal that Heath Ledger had indeed been, an acting force of nature.
His incomplete, final work, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was eventually finished with some clever and creative use of other actors and released in tribute to him in 2009, the same year he became the first person in Academy history to be awarded the Best Supporting Actor Oscar posthumously.
There is no doubt that Heath Ledger would have gone on to get better and better. Even with those two earth-shattering performances in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight it still feels like he had barely begun. At just 28 he had just found his stride, already one of best actors of his generation, but always with an air of potential. When I watch films now I wonder which role he might have played had he lived. Four years on, there is still a small but significant hole in the world, and it is in the shape of Heath Ledger.