Heath Ledger would have celebrated his 40th birthday today (April 4), and with fans around the world paying their respect, his death feels as raw as ever.
On January 22, 2008, Ledger died from an accidental prescription drug overdose at the young age of 28.
Fans were shocked when the news broke, and began to mourn the loss of a great talent who showed such promise.
Ledger is often remembered as a Hollywood heartthrob, with posters of the star adorning the rooms of thousands of teenagers in the early 2000’s.
A whole generation fell in love with the young actor when he serenaded Julia Stiles’ character Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You, singing Can’t Take My Eyes Off You with the help of a marching band.
That single scene established Ledger’s status as a heartthrob, and from then on, Hollywood couldn’t get enough of the Australian actor, complete with his wavy locks, deep brown eyes, and charming smile.
His performances as William Thatcher in A Knight’s Tale and the title character in Casanova only further cemented this status.
It’s no wonder then when you search for ‘Heath Ledger’ on Google, tribute articles such as ‘Remembering Heath Ledger: Beautiful Photos From His Movies’ appear.
However, Ledger was so much more than a heartthrob. He was a phenomenal actor whose creativity, talent, and dedication to his craft made his performances enigmatic and memorable.
For myself – and no doubt countless others – it’s Ledger’s performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece The Dark Knight which displays some of the finest acting cinema has seen. And I don’t say that lightly.
Shaking off the heartthrob label, Ledger’s manic, sinister and anarchic Joker was unlike any other role he’d taken on, and he truly made it his own.
Posthumously winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, there’s no doubt Ledger deserved the award.
His portrayal of the Joker unsettled audiences, with his character showcasing a love for chaos, but yet entrancing them with rare snippets of charm.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Nolan had wanted to work with Ledger on numerous projects prior to The Dark Knight, but met with the actor to discuss the character of the Joker.
Although it’s now hard to imagine anyone else in the role, at the time, the casting decision proved to be controversial, especially with the studio (Warner Bros. Pictures), the crew, and fans.
In an interview last year, Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote The Dark Knight with his brother Christopher, revealed how even he was unsure at first.
He told The Hollywood Reporter:
When I wrote The Dark Knight, Chris had to figure out how we’d tackle the Joker. Chris had a good meeting with Heath Ledger.
And no one got it — I didn’t get it, the studio didn’t get it. And the fan community was… we were fucking pilloried for it. ‘Disaster, worst casting decision ever!’
Chris just stuck to his guns. It was a question of not giving the fans what they’re asking for but what they want — which is, ‘Let’s find a really fuckin’ serious actor, somebody who’s going to come in and just tear this role to pieces’.
But that’s exactly what they got. Ledger really did tear the role to pieces – the risk paid off.
In an interview with Empire while on the set of The Dark Knight, Ledger admitted he was afraid to take on the role, following in the footsteps of Jack Nicholson and taking on arguably the greatest villain to appear in comic books.
Although Ledger was always well prepared for his roles, he took this commitment to a whole new level for the Joker, mainly due to the added pressure.
Taking on a method approach, Ledger revealed to Empire he isolated himself and wrote a diary to get into the mindset of the character:
I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices — it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh.
I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath — someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts.
He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown, and Chris has given me free rein. Which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what the Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke.
‘Free rein’ was exactly what Ledger needed to bring to life his agent of chaos, redefining the character, taking it to a dark, gritty, and realistic realm it had never been to before.
The way in which Ledger pushed himself, both physically and mentally, completely throwing himself into the role, ensured he delivered an outstanding performance. One which earned him critical acclaim, multiple honours, and the attention of the mass public.
Although Ledger’s performance as the Joker will always be his most memorable, he also showcased his extraordinary talent as Ennis Del Mar in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain.
Capturing the stillness of the character, Ledger’s Ennis was tender and loving, but struggled to express his emotions, instead repressing them.
Ledger’s impeccable acting made it clear in the way he delivered lines, appearing to always be holding back, remaining continually hesitant, sometimes barely opening his mouth while speaking.
Similarly to the Joker, Ledger’s dedication to the role shines through in Brokeback Mountain. He revealed in an interview with PopEntertainment he ‘thoroughly’ prepared for the role of Ennis:
I really wanted to investigate him thoroughly. I had to ask a lot more questions than Ennis obviously had ever asked himself.
So I essentially knew a lot more about him than he ever will. So after discovering his battles and what he was battling against, and why he was so unable to express and love.
And then the physical – his walk and his speech. I wanted him be clenched. A clenched fist. I wanted his mouth to be clenched. Any form of expression had to be painful. I put a lot thought into that.
Ledger’s stoic Ennis couldn’t have been more different to his lawless Joker, so with Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight alone he showed off his versatility and creativity.
The preparation he carried out for these two films demonstrated the dedication he had to his art, and the high standards he set out for himself.
Although his performances as Ennis and the Joker were his best, across his 23 acting credits Ledger shone brightly, proving himself to be one of the most talented actors of his generation.
During his career Ledger delivered a number of stunning performances, all enviable of others within his field.
It’s remarkable how much he achieved before his death at the age of 28, and although no one knows what the future would have held, the talent and skill he showed indicated he had the potential to shine even brighter.
RIP Heath, you are so dearly missed.
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Emily Murray is a journalist at UNILAD. She graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA in English Literature and History before studying for a Masters in Journalism at the University of Salford. Emily has previously worked for the BBC, ITV and Trinity Mirror. When Emily isn’t writing about topics including mental health and entertainment, you can find her at the cinema which is her second home.