Entertainment Weekly Tribute for Heath Ledger

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Entertainment Weekly Tribute for Heath Ledger

Post  Admin on Sat Mar 08, 2008 7:23 pm




In the spring of 2001, Heath Ledger sat at the bar in New York City's Regency Hotel, perched on the precipice of a kind of fame he wasn't sure he wanted. The 22-year-old Australian actor was about to appear in his first leading role in a Hollywood summer tentpole, a splashy rock & roll jousting movie called A Knight's Tale, and the newfound attention seemed to make him uncomfortable. As he spoke with a reporter for this magazine, he chain-smoked Camel Lights, fidgeted, and doodled with crayons on cocktail napkins, pressing so hard that the paper ripped. He said that the first time he'd seen his image on the movie's poster, wearing full medieval armor and a hard stare, he felt so nervous he shook. Out in Hollywood, many were busily mapping out his future for him: big-dollar paydays, hordes of screaming fans trailing his every move, spandex-clad-superhero roles. In fact, he had already been offered the starring role in the newly launched Spider-Man franchise and turned it down. (''I just don't care for comics,'' he said matter-of-factly. ''It would have been stealing someone else's dream.'') In the face of all of Hollywood's promises and pressures, Ledger seemed to have his eyes on something more ethereal and indefinable. ''I'm on a f---ing journey,'' he said. ''I'm on a walkabout. A lot of people think ambition or success, and they think dollars.... My success is getting underneath that. At the f---ing end of the day, that's the only thing you're going to carry with you when you die.''

Tragically, that journey ended on the afternoon of Jan. 22, when the actor was found dead at age 28 in his rented apartment in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. Ledger was discovered naked in his bed by a housekeeper and a masseuse who had arrived for a regular appointment, a package of ''prescription-type'' sleeping pills nearby. (In a New York Times interview last November, Ledger had complained of having difficulty sleeping due to stress, to the point where a double dose of Ambien would only buy him an hour of rest.) There were no illegal drugs in the apartment, chief police spokesman Paul J. Browne reported, no evidence of foul play, and no initial indication of suicide. Pending an autopsy, it was unclear at press time what caused his death and whether prescription medications played a role.

The tragedy struck in the midst of an already hectic day in the entertainment industry, as Hollywood reacted to the morning's announcement of the Oscar nominations and the latest buzz emanating from Sundance. But word spread with lightning speed via cell phones and BlackBerries, and in nearly every case was met with disbelief. One high-ranking studio exec, after receiving an e-mail stating that Ledger was dead, quickly wrote back: ''What you mean his career?'' Charlize Theron learned the news while walking a red carpet at Sundance. Josh Hartnett was blindsided at a Sundance Q&A by a question about Ledger's death; he struggled to answer even as the crowd jeered the man who had asked it. The passing of an actor in his prime he earned his first Oscar nomination at age 26 for Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and was just months away from reinventing the Joker in the highly anticipated Batman Begins sequel, The Dark Knight seemed too shocking to absorb at first, while at the same time painfully familiar. Within minutes of the story breaking, some 300 entertainment reporters, cameramen, photographers, and fans began to descend on Ledger's building, creating a tableau that resembled a grisly perversion of a movie premiere. Bystanders snapped photos on cellphones and paparazzi climbed the fire escape of the building across the street hoping for shots into Ledger's fourth-floor loft. ''It's crazy he was so young,'' said one stunned observer.

The tributes came quickly and from the heart. ''I had such great hope for him. He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss,'' Mel Gibson, who costarred with Ledger in The Patriot, said in a statement. ''This is an unimaginable tragedy,'' echoed director Todd Haynes, who cast Ledger as one of many Bob Dylans in last year's idiosyncratic biopic I'm Not There. ''Heath was a true artist, a deeply sensitive man, an explorer, gifted and wise beyond his years.'' At press time, there was no comment from actress Michelle Williams, who met Ledger on the set of Brokeback Mountain, gave birth to the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Matilda, and shared a Brooklyn brownstone with the actor until they split up last September. Ledger's family, however, released a statement confirming his ''very tragic, untimely and accidental passing.... Heath has touched so many people on so many different levels during his short life but few had the pleasure of truly knowing him.''

All this made for an unlikely end for a star deliberately removed from the Hollywood maelstrom that seemed to consume the likes of River Phoenix and, more recently, Brad Renfro. At once baby-faced and grizzled, with a low, gravelly voice and a smile that could be alternately impish and melancholy, Ledger moved easily between roles and genres and wove an unpredictable course through Hollywood, constantly pivoting from romantic comedies (10 Things I Hate About You, Casanova) to period epics (The Patriot, The Four Feathers), and from action films (A Knight's Tale) to dramas (Monster's Ball, I'm Not There). His biggest fear, it seemed, was to be pinned down. ''I have no plan of attack,'' he told EW in 2006. ''I like for it to fall from the sky and land in my lap.''

That unconventional streak made Ledger irresistible to many of Hollywood's most adventurous filmmakers, including Brokeback director Lee, The Brothers Grimm's Terry Gilliam (with whom he was midway through shooting what would be his final project, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), and Christopher Nolan, who completed principal photography on The Dark Knight last summer. ''I met with Heath a couple of times over the years, but nothing really panned out until The Dark Knight,'' Nolan told EW on the Chicago set last year. ''The first time I met him, I remember him explaining to me that he wanted to take his time as a young actor. He didn't want to be thrust center stage before he achieved what he wanted to achieve. To be perfectly honest, that's a line I've heard from a lot of young actors. But he's the only one that I then paid 10 dollars to go see do something really extraordinary which was Brokeback Mountain. That was an incredible performance such lack of vanity, such immersion. As an actor, Heath is fearless.''

Occasionally, that fearlessness bordered on recklessness. During the filming of 2002's The Four Feathers, one scene called for Ledger's character, a British officer in 19th-century Sudan, to jump on a galloping horse amidst a stampede of 100 horses. Over the stunt coordinator's objections, Ledger insisted on doing the stunt himself. ''Heath came to me and said, 'I think I'm going to jump,' '' director Shekhar Kapur said at the time. ''I said, 'Heath, you could die.' We had just done the scene the day before in which another character says, 'I will die if it's God's will.' So Heath said to me, 'Shekhar, I will die if it's God's will.'''

From the beginning, Ledger demonstrated an unusually high tolerance for risk. Born in 1979 in the Western Australian city of Perth to a mining engineer father and a French-teacher mother, he left home at 16 on a 2,700-mile trip to Sydney with virtually no money and a vague notion of breaking into acting. Following several roles in Australian TV shows and indie films, Ledger landed a role on the Fox series Roar, a sort of teen-hunk version of Braveheart, with Ledger as a young warrior. ''Heath was a complete unknown, but everybody fell in love with him,'' remembers Tom Thayer, former president of Universal Television. ''He was very green, but he had raw energy and this incredible charm.'' The show was soon canceled, but it helped propel Ledger, who moved to L.A. at 19, to his first major Hollywood film, playing opposite Julia Stiles in the 1999 high school romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You.

Predictably, offers for similar locker-pinup roles began pouring in. Ledger, however, chose more eclectic projects, such as the big-budget Revolutionary War epic The Patriot, the brooding indie Monster's Ball, and the Australian period drama Ned Kelly. In his own mind, and perhaps in the minds of many in Hollywood, his career wasn't quite cohering, but in 2005, with Gilliam's messy fairy tale The Brothers Grimm, he felt things click into place. ''Up to that point I'd been in a really self-destructive mode with my career quite intentionally, actually,'' he told EW. ''I wasn't doing anything that was testing me. I was just on the ride I'd been put on and I got bored, quite frankly. Terry was the first director who saw me for what I could do. He challenged me and I was ready to earn my career and start over, essentially.''

Later that year, Ledger's performance in Brokeback Mountain would redefine his career beyond anyone's imagining. As Ennis Del Mar, a laconic cowboy who begins an impassioned and ultimately tragic love affair with the more gregarious Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), Ledger delivered a performance that shattered stereotypes many moviegoers might have had about homosexuality and helped propel the film from a potentially niche-market ''gay cowboy movie'' to an $83 million-grossing cultural phenomenon. In the process, Ledger changed not only the industry's sense of his abilities but his own sense of himself. ''After Brokeback I feel like I can take on anything,'' he said. ''What could be more challenging or scary? Nothing scares me now.''

Emboldened by Brokeback, last year Ledger took on the further challenges of playing a heroin-addicted poet in the indie Candy and the hallowed icon Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. With his role as the psychopathic, murderous Joker in The Dark Knight, however, he faced down the thing he'd seemed intent on avoiding in his earlier years: a starring role in a massive Hollywood franchise. Having tasted the bitter side of celebrity the incessant prying into his offscreen relationships with actresses Heather Graham, Naomi Watts, and Williams Ledger must have found the prospect of playing a leading role in such a high-profile enterprise daunting.

For Warner Bros., which plans to release The Dark Knight this summer, Ledger's death will create awkward marketing challenges. The studio has not yet announced any intention to alter its plans for the film, which is in postproduction, and issued a statement that it was ''stunned and devastated by this tragic news.'' Nor is it clear what will become of Gilliam's Imaginarium, which had wrapped one stage of filming in England but was set to resume shortly in Vancouver. What seems certain, however, is that, for most moviegoers, The Dark Knight will stand as the final complete performance of Ledger's career. And, sadly or, perhaps, fittingly, for an actor who seemed so intent on remaining elusive despite his growing fame his face will be obscured by makeup as thick as a mask.

_________________
Rest In Peace Heath Ledger
1979-2008
You will be Never forgotten

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