By Scott Holleran
How sad and shocking that actor Heath Ledger was found dead in his Manhattan home. I first noticed him eight years ago in a movie starring Mel Gibson as a barbaric American called The Patriot; it was a long, brutal picture improved by Ledger’s turn as an idealistic American revolutionary.
As the Gibson character’s son, Ledger was serious—a rare quality today’s actors often mistake for vacant—and he made a strong impression. His intense character is the emotional center of a movie that dramatizes the American Revolution. Whether he’s charging the British redcoats or charming his lover (Lisa Brenner) with a mischievous smile, covered in blue ink, Ledger really brings the theme to life.
His abilities are more prominently on display in two outstanding performances in 2005; as a repressed, rural homosexual in Ang Lee’s aching Brokeback Mountain and as the playful Venetian lover in Lasse Hallstrom’s delightful Casanova.
Ledger is brooding and mysterious as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback, awakening when it is too late, a broken man in the final frames. He is bright and spirited as the title character in Casanova, his eyes dancing throughout the jaunty affair, ending with a kind of unmasking—letting go of celebrity and its attendant troubles—that one wishes Heath Ledger could have realized in his lifetime.
Looking back at Ledger’s television footage, he rarely seemed at ease. Practically every clip shows him fidgeting, tapping or touching his face and an overhead shot shows Ledger walking the red carpet with his then-lover, actress Michelle Williams, with whom he had a daughter, pausing to pose for photographs—and, a second later, nervously rubbing his hand up and down his leg, as if the attention is more than he wants to bear.
The handsome Australian—balancing the pressures of being an immigrant, a single father and a leading Hollywood actor—struck me as a sensitive soul struggling to find his way in a troubled world.
At age 28, he evidently stumbled into a life filled with medication and the company of a masseuse whose first inclination, upon finding his lifeless body, was to call one of the Olsen twins—reportedly, four times—before calling an ambulance. What happened when the ambulance arrived in front of his apartment building is an indelibly sickening sign of our times: a cacophony of cellular phone cameras flashing while Heath Ledger’s body was being removed.
He had tremendous potential and it is tragic to have lost him. Those who missed him in Brokeback Mountain or Casanova or his other movies should see them and make their own judgment. I’ll venture that Heath Ledger would have liked his work to speak for itself.
This article originally appeared on Box Office Mojo on January 31, 2008.