Died on this day: Heath Ledger. Ledger if featured in the book Tragic Hollywood Beautiful Glamorous and Dead. The following is a chapter from that book, available by clicking the SHOP NOW button on the right side of the cover photo.
“I wish I could quit you.”
Heath Ledger spoke this iconic line to Jake Gyllenhaal in the critically acclaimed 2005 film about bisexual cowboys, Brokeback Mountain. Just three years later, as he stood on the precipice of superstardom, he would be found dead in the middle of the afternoon, in his New York apartment. What could have gone so terribly wrong for this young man who seemed to have it all: youth, looks, charisma, and serious talent?
Heath was a shy, sometimes withdrawn individual who turned to acting as a way of allowing his hidden personality to shine. He was born in Australia in 1979 and reportedly named after the character Heathcliff in the Emily Bronte novel, Wuthering Heights. He developed an early aptitude for playing chess, winning Australia’s junior chess championship at the age of 10. His first foray into acting was in his grammar school’s production of Peter Pan that same year.
When he was just 16, he struck out on his own and moved to Sydney with his best friend, Trevor Di Carlo. After struggling in small roles, he was cast in the hit series Roar, an adventure drama set in Ireland in 400AD, and backed by the Fox network in the US. Fox executives quickly realized Heath’s potential and urged him to make the move across the pond to Hollywood.
His first major role was opposite Mel Gibson in the big-budget period piece The Patriot. He followed this with a juicy part playing the son of Billy Bob Thornton in the critic’s darling film, Monsters Ball. He moved from supporting actor to lead actor in a succession of modestly successful films, such as A Knights Tale, The Brothers Grimm and Casanova. In 2001 he was named one of People Magazine’s 50 most beautiful people but Heath, by all accounts, was more embarrassed by his good looks than proud.
From 2001 until 2005 Heath stayed out of the limelight and concentrated on independent, rather than mainstream films. Its unclear what led him to make this decision. He appeared to be on the verge of serious commercial success. Possibly he did not like the direction his career was taking, the type of press he was receiving and the roles he was being offered by the studios. He was determined from the beginning of his career to be taken seriously as an actor and not be known only for his last commercially successful film or his pretty face.
Four years later, in 2005, one of the independent films he was working on would thrust Heath back into the spotlight and advance his image from edgy supporting actor to full-fledged star. The film was Brokeback Mountain and in it, Heath played against type, as the doomed bisexual cowboy, Ennis Del Mar, who falls in love with fellow cowboy Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.
This was a daring role for Heath to tackle, as his image as a heterosexual romantic lead could be tarnished. Heath cared more about acting than he did his image, however, putting his all into the role. It showed. Critics and audiences alike were stunned at the realism and subtle nature of his performance. Rolling Stone Magazine’s film critic, Peter Travers wrote, “Ledger’s magnificent performance is an acting miracle.
He seems to tear it from his insides. Ledger doesn’t just know how Ennis moves, speaks, listens, he knows how he breathes. To see him inhale the scent of a shirt hanging in Jacks’s closet is to take the measure of the pain of love lost.” For this performance, Heath won the New York Critic’s Choice award as well as the San Francisco Critic’s Circle. He received a nomination for best actor from The Golden Globes and The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Science but was passed over for both. Heath didn’t care. He knew winning awards was not what it was about.
He followed Brokeback Mountain with another amazing and very un-mainstream performance as a young Bob Dylan in the quirky, semi-autobiographical independent film, I’m Not There. Yet again, Heath did not rest on his laurels. He said in an interview in 2007, “The day I say it’s good is the day I should start doing something else.”
By this time Heath had begun a relationship with one of the co-stars of Brokeback Mountain, a young actress named Michelle Williams. They had a child together in October of 2005 and had set up house in Brooklyn. Heath had had several run-ins with the Australian paparazzi, whom he felt did not respect his privacy, which prompted him to move to the US, and in with Williams.
When Health was cast in Christopher Nolan’s elaborate Batman film, The Dark Knight, he began suffering from severe insomnia. The role as the maniacal Joker proved to be emotionally and physically draining, leaving him teetering on the edge of a nervous collapse. He told reporters he barely slept an average of two hours a night while playing the psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy. “I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted but my mind was still going.” The film also took a toll on his relationship with Michelle and they broke up shortly after filming wrapped.
Early peeks at Heath’s Joker created a serious pre-release buzz as the date for the film’s release drew closer. The word was that this was the film that was going to make Heath a major star and a performer who belonged solidly amongst the ranks of Brando and Penn as one of the greatest actors of all time. Sadly, this promise would only be fulfilled within the confines of this one performance, like six months before The Dark Knight was released, Heath ledger died.
On January 22, 2008, at approximately 2:45 PM, a housekeeper and his masseuse, Diana Wolozin, found Heath unconscious in his bed. Scattered on a nearby nightstand were several sleep medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Oddly, instead of notifying authorities immediately, Wolozin used Heath’s own cell phone to call Mary-Kate Olsen, a good friend of Heath’s, for advice. It was unclear what Olsen told her, but Wolozin ended up calling Olsen a second time, several minutes later, this time expressing her fears that Heath was dead. It is highly likely that she placed a third call to Olsen as well. 45 minutes passed between the time Heath was discovered and the time the paramedics were finally called. Really? Though it probably wouldn’t have made a difference if they had been called immediately, we will never really know.
Rumors of suicide were immediate and relentless, but the coroner’s report, released 2 weeks later, stated the cause of death as an accidental overdose of the combined drugs Oxycodone, Hydrocodone (Vicodin) Diazepam, Temazepam, Alprazolam, and Doxylamine. Vicodin and Oxycodone alone would have done it.
Heath’s death was another sad example of the problem of prescription drug abuse that has plagued the celebrity community since the days of silent movies.
People were shocked and saddened. When the world finally got a look at Heath’s final performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, a role that possibly contributed to the conditions that led to his death, his loss was all the more keenly felt.
The snarling, grinning, evil monster who finds joy in death and destruction will go down in history as one of the best villain performances ever filmed. Tim Teeman wrote, “With his face a peeling façade of clown paint and his mouth a blurred slash, the joker is the embodiment of anarchy and anti-order. Ledger is so terrifying and unpredictable that his very presence on screen makes you horribly nervous.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, agreed. “I can only speak superlatives of Ledger, who is mad crazy blazing brilliant as the joker.” Total Film wrote, “Dig out the thesaurus and run through the superlatives; chilling, gleeful, genius. It’s a masterpiece of a performance… This is the definitive joker.”
The posthumous awards flowed in; two People’s Choice Awards, The Golden Globe Award and finally the Academy Award for best-supporting actor. Audiences flocked to see the film and Heath’s defining performance in it, making The Dark Knight the fourteenth highest-grossing film of all time. It is still considered the best film in its genre ever made.
Heath saw none of this, of course. His daughter will grow up without ever having known her father, and his potential as a brilliant actor will never be realized. His legacy is undeniable, though, and rests with two performances that are not easily forgotten, even by the fickle standards of Hollywood. Good night, sweet prince. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
He died on this day in 2008. He was 28.