We tend to think of our lives in terms of ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’, don’t we? It’s just in our nature that when we lay down to go to sleep at the end of the day, we want to sum things up in a simplistic way, break our lives down into measurable units to which we can assign blanket labels like ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
But how often are things really that simple? Today seemed like it was going to be an all-around good day. I woke up excited to read about the Oscar nominations, went down the street to finally check out The Orphanage, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the theatre was empty. It was the perfect way to see this quietly unsettling little film, and I came home brimming with ideas for the column, ready to sit down and talk about Cloverfield‘s big opening, the sudden interest in faux-documentary, found-footage horror films, and riff a little bit on the Oscars.
Then I sat down at my computer, and the first thing I saw was the announcement that Heath Ledger had died, and a nice, simple, ‘good’ day has blurred into a solemn gray area, still fit for recognizing and celebrating the year’s great films, but also cause for contemplation, reflection, and sadness.I’m not going to lie. I had written Heath Ledger off after The Order, Lords of Dogtown, and The Brothers Grimm. He was fine in 10 Things I Hate About You and The Patriot, but I didn’t see much more than, maybe, the next Matthew McConaughey. Then, after the aforementioned string of flops, I didn’t even see that much work in his future.
Then came Brokeback Mountain, which, on its surface, seemed like exactly the kind of stunt actors use to try and revive their flagging careers (not unlike Patrick Swayze in To Wong Foo or Meg Ryan getting naked in In The Cut). And who knows, maybe that’s exactly why Ledger took the role. In reality, it doesn’t matter why he took it so much as what he did with it. He was nothing short of brilliant in the film.
Stephen Holden in the The New York Times writes of Ledger’s performance: “So taciturn and bottled up that he swallows his syllables as he pulls words out of his mouth in gruff, reluctant grunts… Mr. Ledger magically and mysteriously disappears beneath the skin of his lean, sinewy character. It is a great screen performance, as good as the best of Marlon Brando and Sean Penn.” Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, a critic not known for dispensing hyperbole in his reviews, says, “…the picture belongs to Ledger, whose downcast gaze and chewed-up words bear almost unbearable testimony to a heart under siege.” Variety‘s Todd McCarthy says, “Ledger is powerfully impressive as a frightened, limited man ill-equipped to deal with what life throws at him. Mumbling, looking down, internalizing everything, Ledger’s Ennis at times looks as though he’s going to explode from his inchoate feelings.”
It was a performance so good as to require a re-examination of his previous roles (Lords of Dogtown has benefited most from this), and got him cast as the Joker in the upcoming Batman sequel The Dark Knight. More academic critics like Lane are surely sharpening their critical barbs for the film, even in the wake of Ledger’s death. But comic book fans (and anyone who read Jim Starlin’s “Death in the Family” arc) know that The Joker is a villain that belongs alongside Darth Vader, Norman Bates, Nurse Ratched and Hannibal Lechter as the most complex pop culture has to offer.
Watch the trailer and tell me it doesn’t look like Ledger knocked it out of the park. There’s no trace of Jack Nicholson’s manic (if entertaining) mugging in Burton’s Batman. In his place is a tragically deranged genius who sees some of himself behind Batman’s mask, and he’s right. If director Chris Nolan, who wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, has done the character justice (and Batman Begins is cause for hope), I anticipate this film will serve as a reminder of the talent that was lost today.
I’m mixed about Ledger’s pre-Brokeback performances, but I feel quite strongly that his work as Ennis Del Mar is a gift to film lovers, something that will recall the same deep wells of emotion in twenty years or fifty or a hundred, and for that I say with the utmost sincerity and gratitude, rest in peace, Heath Ledger.
You know, it’s just too much of an emotional u-turn to get into Oscar nominations and box office results. I’ll post some thoughts on that stuff tomorrow. Instead, lets leave this one with thoughts and sympathies for Ledger’s family and friends, especially his two-year-old daughter, Matilda. Ledger was only 28.