Saturday, January 26, 2008

Stolen Gift

A young man sits in a horse-drawn buggy, lit by a brilliant midday sun. He is dressed in the unpretentious garb worn by 18th Century Americans. Just before the buggy pulls away, the young man stands, turns to bid the young lady he loves farewell, and smiles. Though his teeth are stained black (thanks to an innocent prank played on him the night before), his face beams as radiantly as the sun shining overhead. This scene from The Patriot has a special place in my heart, not because it is a tender moment in a violent war movie, but because it was responsible for my introduction to a gifted young actor named Heath Ledger. It is a simple, wordless moment that speaks a treasured message that few scenes do: "a star is born".

When I saw the film, I knew little about this charming, robust lad. He had made quite a sensation with 10 Things I Hate About You the year before, he was from Australia, and judging from the self-proclaimed arbiter of taste that is "Entertainment Tonight", this young Turk was the Next Big Thing. Usually, I cringe at such assertions. Long ago, I caught on to the garbage-in-garbage-out cycle that Hollywood follows whenever it discovers their new pretty face to market and sell ad nauseam...only to be replaced by another vacant matinee idol a few years later. (Should you disagree with this statement, just watch the final shot of All About Eve.) Star cycles grow shorter as time goes on, and the relationship between surface appeal and genuine talent is, at best, inversely proportional.

There was something different about Heath. He wasn't just another pretty face. He was a presence -- and an unforgettable one, at that. Granted, there were times when he had difficulty harnessing his boundless vigor, but this is hardly a quibble. Young actors live to play those coveted scenes that grant them the luxury of emotinal climaxes, marked by tearful confessions and racking sobs of pain; scenes leading up to those golden moments of truth have a way of confining a young thespian like a racehorse whose gate won't open. Heath was no exception to this rule, yet he was a star pupil. His earliest roles, like those of De Niro, Nicholson, Pacino, and Newman, now seem like veritable Polaroid pictures with glimpses of inspiration waiting to be cultivated. Even when required to speak the most vapid dialogue in forgettable movies, he dedicated himself to these tooth-cutting roles in such a way that made his own work rise above the embarrassing quality offered him by the script. Perhaps this staggeringly uncommon effort reflected a blind faith that a casting director might see something in him, and that better work would follow.

Then in 2004, Heath accepted the role that rocketed him to screen immortality: Ennis Del Mar, the lovelorn cattle rancher in Brokeback Mountain. Only 25 years old when the picture was made, Heath painted a nuanced master work of muted enthusiasm, festering resentment, tight-fisted pride, and shattering anguish. Considering that Heath didn't have as much experience from which to draw as an actor in his 40s would, the effort is all the more astonishing. His Ennis is an inspired physicalization of a character supplied to him only in the form of Annie Proulx's short story. Any actor would feel daunted by the overwhelming challenge of converting a simple marriage of ink and paper into a fully fleshed-out human being. (a greater challenge could be to create a fresh interpretation of a role already played by at least one other actor -- Hamlet comes immediately to mind -- but that discussion does not bear mentioning here) His command of wordless gestures (a clenched fist, an adjustment of his hat, the fumbling with a cigarette lighter) is a shining example of metamorphosis acting in the same league as Olivier.

Critics were unanimous in their praise of his performance. When the nominations for the 78th Academy Awards were announced, Heath found himself in the running for the Best Actor award. Though he lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman (nominated that year for Capote), his nomination cemented his place in the pantheon of our generation's acting talent. The morning after the ceremony, a dear friend of mine lamented, "But I wanted him to win!"

"Don't worry," I assured him. "He'll be back."

His next roles were as the heroin-addicted poet in Candy and one of the six soulful incarnations of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. Both were solid performances, and gave him a chance to sharpen his tools in preparation for his next big turn. His most eagerly anticipated appearance was as The Joker in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's follow-up to Batman Begins. The trailers painted a distinctly different portrait of the character than Jack Nicholson's comic book hamfest in Tim Burton's 1989 summer blockbuster. Heath Ledger's Joker is a demented serial killer that chills you just to look at him. The advance buzz on the movie was white hot going into the New Year, and the July 18th release date seemed like ages away.

Then last Tuesday, the terrible news broke: "Heath Ledger Found Dead". The mere thought seems unreal. The loss of Brad Renfro, who died at the age of 25 in his Los Angeles apartment only weeks earlier, was smaller and to be expected. Unlike Heath, Renfro had a history of drug abuse and never gave a breakthrough performance that solidified his reputation as a serious actor. Heath had everything going for him: a successful career, a beautiful daughter, and the respect of his friends and colleagues. The initial thought that raced through my mind was suicide, a speculation tempered by police confirmation that no illegal drugs were found in his apartment. All suppositions aside, I kept wanting the news to be some sick prank concocted by some dissolute gossip journal, immediately followed by an official press release from Heath's agent that he is alive and well. But alas, such reassurance never came.

As it is when any talent leaves us too soon, the question of what said person would have gone on to do had they lived naturally arises. With regard to Heath, one can only wonder. His best work was, without a doubt, ahead of him. Like Paul Newman before him, Heath would have gone on to enjoy a distinguished career whose orbit is marked by important transitions and incredible versatility. Perhaps he would have reunited with his good friend and Brokeback Mountain co-star Jake Gyllenhaal in a film totally unlike their first and only collaboration. Perhaps he would have crossed over from leading man to supporting player once he reached his senior years. Perhaps he would have tried his hand behind the camera. There was at least one Oscar in his future. That's for sure.

At least we have the luxury of knowing that his performance in The Dark Knight is completed. His work in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, however, is unfinished and, according to the latest press stories, Johnny Depp is rumored to pick up the role where Heath left off. Whatever happens, I just hope that the studio doesn't do to this movie what Columbia Pictures did to Game of Death after Bruce Lee died.

In one of his last interviews with The Daily Ledger, Heath was quoted as saying, "I'm not good at future planning. I don't plan at all. I don't know what I'm doing tomorrow. I don't have a day planner and I don't have a diary. I live completely in the now, not in the past, not in the future." In spite of any and all evidence to the contrary, this reader refuses to interpret the man's words in a destructive light. Rather, they reflect the dynamic spontaneity of the artist's life. Perhaps that's what made his every moment on screen so magnetic. In every role he played, both on screen and in real life, no matter how comic or serious, he was always -- as they say at The Actors Studio -- in the moment. And that is how I shall always remember him.

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