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Heath Ledger
Australian-born actor Heath Ledger, 28, was found dead Tuesday, Jan. 22, in a Manhattan residence. (Globe Photo / Scott Lewis)
Wesley Morris

Heath Ledger left an intense legacy

Email|Print| Text size + By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger, one of the most exciting actors of this or any generation, was found dead in a New York residence. When Mr. Ledger was at his best, which he often was, the intensity of his performances were what left you worried, not his off-screen life. The public had been keeping its eye on other, more trifling troubled stars and this truly talented one rarely made a blip on that radar. His death is something of a shock. He was 28.

In his brief career, Mr. Ledger favored unstable characters – outcasts, junkies, philanders, men who were happiest unhappy, lost in their own dysfunction. The Australian didn’t have a conventional movie star’s carriage – he had a long, ropy body that was more lead singer than leading man. It was a body for trouble. Those shadows were there even in his first Hollywood movie, "10 Things I Hate About You," a teen-comedy remake of "Taming of the Shrew" from 1998 with him as the high-school bad-boy who falls for smug Julia Stiles. Imagine James Dean in one of those 1950s beach movies. But when it was time to go the prom, Mr. Ledger put on his jacket and danced.

Before that he was carrying Fox’s historical-action show, "Roar." He played a cute, speech-giving prince trying to lead his kingdom to freedom. The show was part of that cheesy fantasy trend that "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Hercules" helped spawn. It barely lasted the summer of 1997.

Eventually, Mr. Ledger gave his first smoldering performance as Mel Gibson’s soldier son in 2000’s "The Patriot." After that, he found himself in the position of being a rising star in a search of an appropriate universe to shine. He was being called "hunk" and "heartthrob" and was cast in movies that tried to maximize his appeal to young girls. In "A Knight’s Tale," his dirty blond hair was full and yellow. He did more dancing. In "Four Feathers," he was still adorable but slightly more serious playing a British officer who goes to fight in the Sudan in the 1890s. Other starring roles came – a priest in "The Order," a throwaway thriller; a would-be attention-getting role as the Australian folk hero Ned Kelly in an eponymous epic – but the audiences never did.

In 2005, Mr. Ledger turned a major corner. He became a father with the actor Michelle Williams. And he had a supporting part as a burnt-out surfer in "Lords of Dogtown," a movie that he walked off with. It was the first truly funny thing he’d ever done. But it was just funny. It was Jeff Spicoli with a soul. That same year Mr. Ledger played the closeted gay ranch hand Ennis del Mar in Ang Lee’s "Brokeback Mountain," for which eventually a handful of critics’ awards and an Oscar nomination.

His tightly coiled, devastatingly emotional performance was heroic. More than one critic called it the stuff of legend. His achievement in that film was to find a way to dramatize the personal terror of feeling something you don’t understand. Loneliness radiated from him like heat. He gave us the torture of self-loathing, but he never took the part over the top. It was the wordless humanity he gave the Ennis that makes the performance great, the struggle to feel normal, whatever that meant.

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