A few hours ago, Heath Ledger was found dead at his home in New York City, possibly from an overdose of sleeping pills. He was 28.
I’m not a fan of Brokeback Mountain, but the film, though only a couple of years old, has undeniably become one of cinema’s cultural landmarks. In large part, the tragic love story turned into a worldwide sensation because of Ledger’s performance as the uptight Ennis Del Mar, a gay ranch hand who lets life pass him by without ever daring to live it.
Among Ledger’s other films are Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot (2000), with Mel Gibson; Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball (2001), in which he is quite effective as Billy Bob Thornton’s suicidal son; Shekhar Kapur’s The Four Feathers (2002); and Gregor Jordan’s Australian-made Ned Kelly (2003), in which Ledger plays the legendary Australian outlaw.
Also, Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm (2005), opposite Matt Damon; Lasse Hallström’s Casanova (2005), in the title role; Neil Armfield’s Australian drug-addiction drama Candy (2006), for which Ledger received a best actor nomination from the Australian Film Institute; and Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007), as one of the many incarnations of Bob Dylan.
Ledger won several awards for Brokeback Mountain, including best actor mentions from the New York and the San Francisco critics, in addition to numerous nominations including those from the Screen Actors Guild, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the British Film Academy.
At the time of his death, he was working in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the tale of an unusual traveling theater company. The fate of that film is unclear at this point.
The Perth-born (on April 4, 1979) Ledger met Michelle Williams (above) during the Brokeback Mountain shoot. The couple had a daughter in 2005, but were separated last year.
There have been very few show business deaths that shook me up. Ledger’s is one of them. Part of the reason is that it was so unexpected. But mainly, it had to do with a memory. What immediately came to mind when I learned of his death was the last scene in Brokeback Mountain, when Ennis looks back at the life he chose not to live, and almost inaudibly mutters, “Jack, I swear.” That moment still haunts me.