It might seem a tad presumptuous to write a tribute to Heath Ledger, who passed away this morning Australian time, given that I had never met the man, or even thought too much about him while he was alive. Funny how you don’t miss something until it’s gone, eh? I checked out Wikipedia to update myself with his body of work, some of which I will admit I never saw. While brief, in the scale of things it still manages to be impressive. To go from virtual nobody to a major Hollywood star within ten years, starring in a total of 14 major films, is a magnificent achievment for a lad from Perth. The fact that he never took hold of the Hollywood glamour lifestyle to which he could have easily slipped into, was a testament to his character as much as to his belief that he was an artist, not a fortune hunter. After checking out his CV, it became clear to me just what a talent we have lost.
Of course, today and over the course of the next week or so, tributes will flow, words will be said (as they have already so much this day) by those who knew him, and those who didn’t. Describing the impact he had on their lives, either professionally or as a fan, will no doubt help to resolve the feeling of helpless loss we are all experiencing at this time.
From his first major screen role in Gregor Jordan’s Two Hands, to his most recent outing as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, Legder’s body of work was as solid as the man himself. His portrayal of the Joker in the upcoming The Dark Knight, the sequel to Batman Begins, was touted by some as his coming of age performance. One television commentator postulated that this time next year, Ledgers performance in that film could result in a posthumous Oscar. Wild speculation such as this, at this time, is to be expected. In the heat of the moment, humans have been known to make some pretty outlandish claims. It is our effort to hold our idols up above denigration: how he lived his life was not as important as the work he did for our entertainment. All people we admire, when taken from us in a sudden or unexpected way, are often touted as heroes, above ridicule or condemnation. Peter Brock, killed in a rally crash, became Australian motorsport’s equivalent of Phar Lap. When his estranged wife went on TV and spewed forth the notion that he wasn’t as saintly as many would have us believe, we became angry at her. She might have been telling the truth, but in our hearts she was trying to tear down somebody we had communally raised up as somebody special, worthy of our praise.
Steve Irwin, ridiculed and patronized by his countrymen in life, became an iconic part of our landscape in death, which I found particularly hard to swallow. While some despised the methods he employed with animals on screen, it was hard to knock the dedication with which he had served wildlife and the preservation of endangered species. His memorial service, beamed live across the planet from the Crocoseum in Australia Zoo, culminated in John Williamson singing True Blue as Irwins ute drove out of the arena. At that point, the nation collectively sobbed. I know I did. Prior to his death, he was our national laughing stock.
Does Ledger deserve iconic status? Only time and history will tell. Personally, I don’t think he deserved it, and I doubt he would have wanted it. All the interviews I’ve seen and heard today bear testament to the lack if interest in his “fame”. It would be uncouth to his memory to turn him into another River Phoenix-styled film icon.
But the fact remains, in the same way other young stars have been taken from us early, Ledger will now forever be part of the Hollywood Legendarium, absorbed into the mythological ether of the silver screen, and will forever remain young to those who adored and admired him.
In a sense, Australia now has their own James Dean.
Vale, Heath Ledger. By your family, your friends, and by lovers of film, you will be missed.