Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Passings: Heath Ledger, Actor

On an elemental level, I'm pretty ill-equipped to comment on the life of Heath Ledger, the highly-regarded Australian actor found dead on January 22 at at the tragically-young age of 28. Up until a week before he died, I'd never even seen one of his movies.

Being a good pop culture/media sponge, though, I'd followed the man's career from afar for quite a few years. I'd avoided his early breakout movies Ten Things I Hate About You and A Knight's Tale due to my utter lack of fondness for the genres they represented (synthetic nineties teen comedy and willfully anachronistic MTV-ized period piece respectively). Never got around to seeing any of his other movies, either (though five of 'em, ironically, have been on my Netflix cue for a long time, periodically supplanted by my spur-of-the-moment fetishes for blaxploitation flicks, old-school Japanese horror movies, etc).

All along, though, I'd continue to read interviews with Ledger or see him on some frothy entertainment program, and my respect for him cemented. He always came off as a quiet and intelligent artist, a guy with minimal patience for the trappings of fame and stardom, but a genuine commitment to his craft. When Rita and I met him at the 2006 DGA's (see previous entry) he may have (as I noted rather cavalierly in my blog) looked like a serial killer, but he was courteous, quiet and accommodating, thanking me for asking for his autograph after I thanked him for giving it. He was, all told, pretty cool.

Ledger passed on plenty of high-profile career-stoking projects over the years in favor of stranger, more challenging roles. And when he got the Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain, it seemed like nothing could stop him. Sadly, fate dictated otherwise. Ironically, I finally got around to seeing one of those quirky-but-entertaining projects just days before he passed away.

Lasse Hallstrom's period comedy Casanova was on one of the Encore Movie Channels, and Rita and I enjoyed the two-thirds or so we saw of it. Hallstrom's trademark synthesis of silliness and coming-of-age/transitional melancholy surfaces winningly, and the movie's chock-full of great character turns (my favorites being Oliver Platt's sublimely buffoonish Paprizzio and Jeremy Iron's tastily over-the-top religious fanatic/resident heavy). But Ledger's performance kept sticking with me.

He underplayed the role of the world's most famous lover, treating the man's propensity for serial seductions like the addiction that it was without descending into method-y moping or camp. In the grand tradition of a lot of great comic/romantic leads, Ledger coaxed laughs, and still conveyed the self-delusion that fuels habitual Lotharios, without seeming like he was trying too hard. And his baritone voice--almost incongruously rich and mature emerging from his slender, boyish exterior--sealed the deal.

A lot of heartfelt testimonies have emerged from various corners of the entertainment industry, none more eloquent than this short-but-very-sweet Newsweek account by Christopher Nolan, the man who directed Ledger's work as the Joker in the forthcoming Batman epic, The Dark Knight (thank you, George Tramountanas, for the link). I'm sad that the role of the Joker will likely be Heath Ledger's last thespian hurrah, but sadder still that the creative, curious, gifted, and all-around fascinating spirit represented by Nolan's words has been extinguished forever.

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