Heath Ledger is to movies what Kurt Cobain is to music. Gone too soon, both of these creative forces have left their mark on their respective industries with a legacy of inspired work in their wake. Flying too close to the sun, their tragic endings continue to haunt us as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of celebrity and the lofty heights they explored in their creative genius.
Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight won him an Oscar posthumously, honouring his outstanding interpretation and underscoring the sense that he was only starting to unlock his true potential as an actor. While his untimely death has swathed the actor’s talents in enigma on the precipice of completing The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, it’s worth revisiting three of his most iconic performances 15 years down the line.
The Dark Knight
Jack Nicholson’s warning of going off the deep end with The Joker have a much more haunting quality in light of Heath Ledger’s death. While a possible factor, having mined the darkness for one of the greatest villain performances in cinema history, it’s one of those mysteries that will continue to fuel the aura around Ledger’s tour-de-force performance in The Dark Knight.
A complete transformation that’s terrifying as it is mesmerizing, Ledger lost weight and bleached his hair to craft the Joker’s unique look. The actor also tapped into a vocal range that makes his character threatening and unnervingly playful, channeling much of the eerie nuance that underscores coulrophobia (fear of clowns). Unpredictable to the core, Ledger contorts his body with facial twitches to create a volley of volatile mannerisms to keep audiences off-balance. In terms of performance, Ledger managed to access a depth and substance that sets his turn as The Joker head-and-shoulders above the rest. Christopher Nolan’s dark, oppressive and monumental take on Batman helps Ledger supplant a supporting performance of great complexity, overpowering the comic book character’s superficial charms and makeup to offer a more realistic depiction.
Ang Lee’s romance drama Brokeback Mountain caused quite a stir in its time, a high profile gay drama set against a western backdrop co-starring two Hollywood heartthrobs in Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Ledger plays Ennis Del Mar, a closeted gay cowboy who falls in love with co-worker Jack Twist as the two meet on a typical work expedition only to share a passionate yet forbidden love affair. A portrayal of a man struggling with his sexuality and place in the world, Ledger’s turn is heartbreakingly understated and memorable in the way he captures the complex and intense nature of his character’s emotions.
Testament to his honest and nuanced performance, Ledger was nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor. Having directed Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, you could say Ang Lee is accustomed to subtext and the minutia of dialogue as transposed through performance. This makes Brokeback Mountain an understated drama, filled with joy, longing, fear and regret and powerfully conveyed by through Ledger’s eyes, body language and mannerisms.
A Knight’s Tale
While Heath Ledger became best known for his dramatic performances in the latter part of his film career, his earlier performances prove the actor’s versatility. Having had a breakthrough performance in 10 Things I Hate About You, the teen adaptation of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, he was initially earmarked as a hunk thanks to his good looks and husky voice. Playing a charming rogue opposite Julia Stiles in the classic romcom must have opened the barn door to his leading role in A Knight’s Tale.
A rousing action adventure comedy, Ledger plays William Thatcher, a peasant who pretends to be a knight in order to enter jousting tournaments. The movie used Queen’s epic music in its soundtrack to offer a modern take on its medieval tale about an underdog hero’s fake-it-till-you-make-it quest. While this element added to the occasion of the film, it’s Ledger’s charismatic and energetic star-making performance that made A Knight’s Tale so fun and enjoyable. Mastering the physical aspects of the role while remaining relatable and heroic, Ledger signaled his arrival as a headline act. A showcase for the actor when it comes to action, comedy and even sports (if you think about it), Ledger demonstrated his comic timing, knack for funny and top draw chemistry alongside his supporting cast.