Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Heath Ledger (1979-2008)

The news hit like a punch to the solar plexus, or, more to the point, straight to the heart. Heathcliff Andrew Ledger, one of the most powerful and promising actors of his generation, was found dead Tuesday at his apartment in lower Manhattan. He was 28 years young.

The particulars are the stuff of the police blotter. According to New York City police, and a story in today's New York Times, a housekeeper had arrived about 12:30 p.m. to do household chores, and entered the bedroom to change a light bulb in the adjacent bathroom, and found Ledger face down on the bed, with a sheet pulled to his shoulders, and reportedly snoring. A masseuse arrived about 2:45 p.m. to give the actor a massage, and when he did not emerge by 3 p.m., called his cellphone and received no answer. The masseuse entered the bedroom, began to set up the massage table, and tried to awaken the unresponsive Ledger. Other phone calls ensued, including one to 911. Paramedics tried to revive him, but couldn't.

"The police conducted tests on a rolled-up $20 bill found in Mr. Ledger’s apartment, but found no evidence that the bill had been used for anything improper," The Times reported today. "No illegal narcotics or alcohol was found in the apartment. Prescription sleeping pills were found near the body, but it is not known if the medication played a role in his death."

The blogosphere is already aflame with various scenarios as to what happened, from cardiac arrest to sleep apnea, from an accidental misuse of prescription drugs to the fruition of a misspent life debauched by drugs. What's undeniable is the loss of a major talent in the ascendancy.

In relatively few films, Heath Ledger established himself as one to watch. With performances as varied as Ennis Del Mar in his breakthrough "Brokeback Mountain" to his affecting role as Mel Gibson's son in "The Patriot," from teen heartthrob confections like "10 Things I Hate About You" to his portrayal of a scruffy veteran of the Venice Beach surf scene in "Lords of Dogtown," from the title role in a dashingly romantic biopic "Casanova" to his upcoming role as the Joker in "The Dark Knight," Ledger deployed a vision and breadth of talent not unlike that of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sean Penn, Dustin Hoffman or Kevin Spacey -- the ability to lose oneself in a role, to make moviegoers forget, however briefly, that there's an actor in a performance on the screen in front of them.

Writing in today's New York Times on Ledger's stunning turn in "Brokeback," A.O. Scott got it pitch-perfect: "What made the performance so remarkable was that Mr. Ledger, without betraying Ennis’s dignity or his reserve, was nonetheless able to convey that truth to the audience. This kind of sensitivity — the ability to signal an inner emotional state without overtly showing it — is what distinguishes great screen acting from movie-star posing. And while Mr. Ledger was handsome enough, and famous enough, to be called a movie star, he was serious enough, and smart enough, to be suspicious of deploying his charisma too easily or cheaply."

Our tendency to scold and second-guess will find ample outlet until the full investigation is completed, and no doubt after that. But it says so much more that such a strong and diverse body of work could come from an actor this young. "Mr. Ledger’s work will outlast the frenzy," Scott writes today. "But there should have been more."

Once more the lights go down on a life too soon. Once again we're forced to contemplate, if not say out loud, the four saddest words in the language of our lives: What might have been ...
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Image credit: Ledger as Ennis Del Mar in "Brokeback Mountain" ©2005 Focus Features

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