When Heath Ledger died in 2008, the world mourned for the loss of one of the most promising talents in decades.
Despite a number of his performances now part of cinema history – The Joker in The Dark Knight and Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain – some critics voice opinions that the late actor’s star power was hyped up posthumously as a mark of respect.
In an opinion piece for The Guardian, David Thomson wrote in 2009 that while we all venerate Ledger and his performances, his career may well have taken a downward trajectory had he not died.
It’s an opinion, though, to be taken with a pinch of salt; a critique of Hollywood’s enthralment to big character franchises, as opposed to big names who court the skirts of typecasting.
Ledger in his early 20s was a young hunk, a nice-looking fellow with some pride and panache. He is watchable in The Patriot, Monster’s Ball and Casanova, and helpless in many other things.
His very success as the Joker almost certainly means he would have been offered loads of money to spin off a Joker franchise. And one day soon, that might have seemed like a prison as grim as Mission: Impossible.
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But this is not an opinion held by many in the acting business, and certainly not an opinion held by the most decorated actor of all time: Daniel Day-Lewis.
Day-Lewis is a true actor’s actor, and one whose talents are undeniable when you watch his transformative and transcendental performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood.
When Day-Lewis won his Screen Actors Guild award for his performance in TWBB in 2009, he was clearly moved by the sentiment, but all he could do in his speech was praise the other actors nominated in his category, and the late Heath Ledger.
The thing that gave me a sense of wonderment, of renewal, the thing that teased me with the question ‘How is such a thing possible?’ and then ‘Dare you go back into the arena one more time?’ with longing and self-doubt jostling in the balance – it’s always been the work of other actors.
There are many actors in this room tonight, including my fellow nominees who’ve given me that regeneration. Heath Ledger gave it to me. In Monster’s Ball, that character that he created seemed to be almost an unformed being retreating from themselves, retreating from his father, from his life, even retreating from us – and yet we wanted to follow him and yet were scared to follow him, almost.
He was just unique and then of course in Brokeback Mountain he was unique, he was perfect. That scene in the trailer at the end of the film is as moving as anything I think I’ve ever seen and I’d like to dedicate this to Heath Ledger.
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In fact, this statement captures perfectly just why Ledger is a perfect actor, even if not technically. His performances may not be the most nuanced in cinema history, but his ability to make you believe in his characters through sheer magnetism was his perfection.
Even in lighter fare, like everybody’s guilty pleasure A Knight’s Tale, his crooked grin and sheer screen presence elevated the material to true lofty heights.
He refused to be typecast, and would try different roles, and his dramatic portrayal in Brokeback Mountain broke all but the coldest of hearts.
But if any role reveals the true extent of Ledger’s acting prowess, it is the Joker in The Dark Knight. Sadly, his other roles will be relegated to the footnotes of cinema history in the shadow of this incredible performance.
His technique was notoriously method, and he admitted to locking himself in his London hotel room for a month and writing a character journal as well as trying different voice inflections.
Ledger was cast in this role before the script was even written, which gave him ample time to properly prepare and fully assume the role.
Aaron Eckhart – Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight – recalled to Larry King a particular scene in the hospital in which The Joker would try and corrupt Dent to his way of thinking.
Eckhart says that while the crew were surrounding the two actors getting things ready for the scene, Ledger would stand in the corner of a room and talk to himself in character, and would walk around the hospital bed in which Eckhart was sat.
This would continue for about an hour before the scene was shot, but Ledger never broke; after the scene Ledger simply said to Eckhart, ‘That’s what acting’s all about.’
There are many anecdotes of Ledger’s sheer ability, and close friends of the Australian-born actor – namely Matt Damon – have said he was the best they had ever worked with.
So while Ledger may well have never been the best actor – he didn’t have the time to earn that title – his screen presence and ability to adapt to such a variety of roles made him one to be reckoned with.
But what made him perfect was he was so completely Heath Ledger in everything he did that truth shone from him in even his darkest performances.
That, if any, is the mark of a perfect actor.