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Heath Ledger’s Legacy

A promising career cut short

Dec. 16, 2008
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The greatest irony in Heath Ledger's tragically short career is not only that he may receive a posthumous Oscar for his disturbing, revelatory performance in an ambitious if overproduced action film, but that his widely anticipated portrayal of the Joker may well have been crucial in beefing up the box-office momentum of The Dark Knight. This serious-minded, comic-book action flick impressed the art crowd with its noirish overtones, while still serving as a major draw for younger action fans. Pre-release publicity spurred interest in how the youthful Ledger's portrayal of the Joker would measure up to the character's flamboyant rendition by Jack Nicholson in the 1989 Batman film.

Undoubtedly, his sudden, drug-related death added to the curiosity factor. Yet the real joke may well be on the motion picture industry. After denying Best Picture and Best Actor to Ledger's more important work in Brokeback Mountain, Hollywood witnessed The DarkKnight's ticket sales soar to half a billion dollars in a few months, making it the second highest grossing film of all time. While true that the movie was bound to succeed at the box office no matter what, and ecstatic reviews hailed The Dark Knight as a new dimension in superhero fiction, none of the previous Batman films had ever approached these numbers.

Was this all because of Heath Ledger?

A Rising Talent

Before Brokeback, it wasn't apparent that a gawky, sheepishly self-conscious Australian actor-marginally competent in a series of mediocre movies such as The Patriot and A Knight's Tale-would ever approach the instinctual, micro-refined artistry characterizing the early performances of Marlon Brando, James Dean or Montgomery Clift. No one anticipated that Ledger's remarkable, subtly parsed performance as a laconic but strong-minded cowboy trapped between a conventional life and his love for another man would reach such heights of sullen grandeur. TheNew York Review of Books even compared the film to a Greek tragedy.

Ledger never fakes his presentation as a gay man; instead, he uses his natural masculinity to dispel stereotyping, adding a stabilizing gravitas to the role of a tough married man who loves his wife and children. His imploding emotions were carefully banked. As Anthony Lane wrote in TheNew Yorker, "This slow and stoic movie feels neither gay nor especially Western; it is a study of love under siege." Roger Ebert proclaimed it a great film reminiscent of the best of Ingmar Bergman. The discriminating New York Film Critics Circle Award gave top honors both to Ledger's performance and the film. Britain's Sight & Sound magazine devoted a special issue to Brokeback Mountain as one of the decade's most significant films.

The Dark Knightwas another matter. Bound to succeed after rave reviews about Hollywood's successful attempt to beef up a comic-book franchise with a sophisticated and more mature, indie-spirited revamping, audiences flocked to see it. Yet Ledger's mysteriously unaffected nature-still seeming at odds with the unexpected depth of his newly established and still growing prestige as a major talent-became the point of interest as The Dark Knight's grosses pushed skyward.

Was he too young to do full justice to the Joker? There had always been something subtly out of reach in the seriousness of his performances, an offhand intensity finally more apparent in Brokeback. The acclaim for his Joker was instant and universal-the most compelling high point in an otherwise somewhat laborious movie. The cast was fine, but as David Denby so aptly put it, Christian Bale's Batman-unfortunately-is "upstaged by the great Ledger." The great Ledger?

What one sees on screen is an unsettling, disturbing oddity of a villain with a high-pitched voice, greasy hair, a bad make-up job and a knife he gleefully brandishes to explain his distorted smile. He is completely frightening and dangerous, yet this soft-spoken, wounded creature delights in his distorted moral ambiguity. He will have fun watching people grapple with the destructive impulses he relishes setting in motion. Other cast members, who don't seem to know what to make of him, never match Ledger's artistry. Yet he appears to deliberately avoid scene stealing, always keeping his performance at bay.

As a result, the Joker's inverted, poignantly dissonant sense of humanity dominates the proceedings. We don't like to see him hurt or mistreated (shades of Brokeback). When he tells Batman that they will not kill each other because they are having too much fun, we breathe a sigh of relief, just as Heath Ledger, before his untimely death, breathed new life into an overworked series with a raw-boned, off-beat, underscored sensitivity that may yet win him an Oscar, even though his brand of subtlety seems sadly out of reach for the recent crop of young performers.


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