Ledger, Heath

Ledger, Heath
Apr. 4, 1979-Jan. 22, 2008
Australian actor


"I don't really like to do the same thing twice," Heath Ledger explained to Rachel Abramowitz for the Los Angeles Times (November 20, 2005). "I like to do something I fear. I like to set up obstacles and defeat them." After attracting attention as a young hunk in the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), the Australian actor resisted the attempts of Hollywood to capitalize on his youthful good looks by casting him in similar lighthearted fare; he passed up several scripts before taking a role in the grisly war drama The Patriot (2000), about the American Revolution. That high-profile film, and Ledger's subsequent leading role in A Knight's Tale (2001), propelled him into the spotlight; he appeared on the covers of glossy magazines and was named one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people of the year (2001). Uncomfortable with the limelight and afraid of being typecast, Ledger sought out what seemed to be unusual or challenging films; he took a supporting role in Monster's Ball (2001) and starred in The Four Feathers (2002), The Order (2003), and Ned Kelly (2003). With the exception of Monster's Ball, most of his films flopped. In an interview with Andy Dougan for the Glasgow Herald (December 24, 2005), Ledger explained, "In a way I was spoon-fed a career. It was fully manufactured by a studio that believed it could put me on their posters and turn me into a product… . I hadn't figured out properly how to act, and all of a sudden I was being thrown into these lead roles." In 2005 Ledger appeared in several films, including Lords of Dogtown, The Brothers Grimm, and Casanova—and though most of those fared little better than his previous films, Ledger again found himself the center of media attention, following his acclaimed performance in Brokeback Mountain, a drama about two cowboys who carry on a furtive homosexual relationship. Directed by Ang Lee and co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal, the film impressed critics and audiences alike, earning Ledger an Academy Award nomination for best actor. "I hope I will always be learning the craft," Ledger told Dougan, adding that until recently, "I felt that the choices were being made for me, so I feel this has been my time now to find the good stories and test myself… . It has been an interesting year, where I finally have a sense of accomplishment."

Heathcliff Andrew Ledger was born on April 4, 1979 to Sally Ledger, a French teacher, and Kim Ledger, an engineer. Named after the main characters of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Ledger and his older sister, Katherine, grew up in Perth, in Western Australia, where Ledger attended Guildford Grammar, a private boys' school. His parents divorced when their son was about 10 years old, and for the next few years he divided his time between them. (Both parents found new partners and each had another daughter.) At about the same time, at his sister's urging, Ledger joined a local theater company and appeared in a production of Peter Pan, which led to his being cast in children's television programs. Ledger appeared in the 1992 film Clowning Around and the 1993 TV series Ship to Shore before deciding to pursue acting as a profession. He had been involved in numerous sports and other activities: he was the state junior chess champion at age 10 and a junior go-kart racing champion, played hockey for the state team, and dabbled in cricket. However, when his hockey coach issued an ultimatum, forcing Ledger to choose between drama and hockey, he stuck with the former. "Heath is extremely dedicated and follows his passions," his father recalled to Maree Curtis for the Sydney Sunday Telegraph (June 11, 2000). "I picked him up late one night after a rehearsal. He was about 13, and we were lying on his bed looking at the stars [stuck] on his ceiling and he said, 'I'm going to have to get used to these late nights. I'm going to do really well in this industry. I love it.' I knew he meant it. If Heath said he was going to do something, we knew he would."

When he was 16 years old, Ledger drove across the Australian continent to Sydney, where he believed he would find more acting opportunities. He landed the role of a gay cyclist in the short-lived TV series Sweat (1996), found small parts in the films Paws and Blackrock (both 1997), and did a brief stint on the long-running soap opera Home and Away (1997). His largest role was that of Conor, a Celtic warrior, in the medieval fantasy TV series Roar (1997), but that project did not last long. "It was shot beautifully, and the script was half decent. But by the fifth episode the ratings weren't going well, and all of a sudden sea sprites in bikinis were popping up," Ledger explained to Jeff Giles and Suzanne Smalley for Newsweek (July 10, 2000). After the show was canceled, Ledger moved to Los Angeles, California. "I went over there with no expectations and all the confidence of youth," he told Curtis. "I never let anything faze me or anyone look down on me." His next film, Two Hands (1999), necessitated a brief return to Australia. Although the movie, in which he played an amiable but bumbling strip-club bouncer and aspiring gangster, received little exposure outside Australia, film-industry insiders took notice of his compelling performance when the movie was screened at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. The Australian Film Institute (AFI) nominated Ledger for a best-actor award.

Ledger's first American film was 10 Things I Hate About You, which Peter Ross described for Scotland's Sunday Herald (July 9, 2000) as "an above-par teen flick based on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew." A lightweight comedy, it won praise for its two leading actors, Ledger and Julia Stiles. In the Atlanta (Georgia) Journal-Constitution (October 14, 1999), Steve Murray called the pair "captivating," adding, "[Ledger is] equally comfortable playing a dangerous loner or doing a goofy song and dance to impress [Stiles's character]." Following the success of 10 Things I Hate About You, Ledger was offered numerous similar roles in the teen-heartthrob vein, but he turned them all down in an effort to avoid getting pigeonholed.

Nearly a year passed before Ledger found a script that appealed to him. During that period he was so poor that he was forced to borrow money from his agent, and often he could not afford to eat. "I was literally living off ramen noodles and water, because I was sticking to my guns," he told Rupert Mellor for the London Evening Standard (July 25, 2001). "I'm happy without money, I never did have it, so that was no big deal. And it was fun saying no - because they really don't like to hear that word in Hollywood." Eventually he earned an audition for The Patriot (2000), starring Mel Gibson and directed by Roland Emmerich. He prepared two scenes to perform for the filmmakers but flubbed the audition. "Halfway through the second scene, I stood up and left," he told Giles and Smalley. "I said, 'I'm awfully sorry and I'm awfully embarrassed, but I'm wasting your time. I'm going to get up right now, and I'm going to walk out that door. Thanks for your time, but I'm giving you a bad reading. Catch you later.'" Yet Ledger made an impression, for when his agent requested a second audition, the filmmakers agreed. That time, Ledger excelled and was promptly cast as the son of the character played by Gibson. Although the movie garnered mixed reviews (many found it overlong and historically inaccurate), the young actor received raves. "[Ledger] comes of age as an actor, smouldering on screen as Gibson's eldest son Gabriel who goes off to war against the wishes of his anxious parent," Peter Ross wrote. "Shame, pride, rage, courage, pain - he emotes up a storm."

Ledger, who found himself dubbed "the next Russell Crowe" (the Australian star of the 2000 blockbuster Gladiator), was tapped to star in A Knight's Tale, playing the part of a squire who disguises himself as a nobleman in order to joust. "[The film] imagines that the medieval tournament sport of jousting was the World Wrestling Federation of its day, where superheroes and supervillains faced off in arenas surrounded by fanatical supporters and intense hype," Kirk Honeycutt observed for the Hollywood Reporter (April 19, 2001, on-line). Directed by Brian Helgeland, the film debuted at the number-two spot on the box-office charts and spent five weeks in the top-10 list. Critics largely panned the film, though some praised it as playful and spirited. Despite the film's being "more or less a cartoon" and "too long," Nicholas Barber wrote for the London Independent on Sunday (September 2, 2001), "it's terrific, innocent, old-fashioned entertainment." "Ledger has a strong masculine screen presence that allows him to dive bravely into a scene's emotions," Honeycutt opined. Ledger, however, was uncomfortable with his emerging stardom. "When I saw the poster for the movie [which features a portrait of a resolute-looking Ledger], I was pretty freaked," he told Rupert Mellor. "The film is an ensemble piece, and there's just my great, big mug. I'm just doing what I've always done - being an actor. Now I'm being made into a 'star', a product, and it's out of my control."

Unsurprisingly, given his feelings, Ledger was very interested when a supporting role in Monster's Ball, a drama starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, became available. Ledger's part, that of the prison guard Sonny—the deeply troubled son of the character played by Thornton - was originally to be played by the actor Wes Bentley, who had appeared in American Beauty (1999); when Bentley had to pull out of the project, he reportedly asked Ledger, a friend, to take over for him so as to avoid delaying the production. That development proved to be serendipitous for Ledger, as the role displayed his talent as a serious actor capable of complexity. "A fable of absolution and redemption, Monster's Ball is a dauntingly ambitious work," Kevin Thomas wrote in a review for the Los Angeles Times (December 26, 2001). "Ledger expresses the torment of the conflicted Sonny perfectly; it was a smart move for an actor whose star is ascending so swiftly to commit to a supporting role in so venturesome a project as this."

Ledger's next part was in the much-anticipated 2002 film The Four Feathers (the fifth version of A. E. W. Mason's 1902 novel), in which he played a conflicted Victorian-era British soldier who resigns from the army as it prepares to do battle in the Sudan. The film, directed by Shekhar Kapur (who had earned high praise for his 1998 film Elizabeth), disappointed the critics. Although Ledger "broods prettily and holds your attention during the crowd scenes," the film as a whole "is still as moth-eaten as a Bengal tiger rug on the floor of a London men's club," Ty Burr wrote for the Boston Globe (September 20, 2002). Ledger's subsequent films - Ned Kelly, in which he starred as a legendary Irish-Australian outlaw, and The Order, a religious thriller - were trounced by critics and generally ignored by moviegoers.

In 2005 Ledger appeared in Lords of Dogtown, a dramatization of the story of the Zephyr Team (also known as Z-Boys), a group of talented skateboarders living in and around Venice, California, in the 1970s. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, the film was based on a script by Stacy Peralta, who had covered the same material in the noted documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, which had premiered in 2001. In Hardwicke's telling, Ledger played Skip Engblom, a surf-shop owner who serves as an unlikely mentor to the pioneering teens. "Engblom is crass, excessive, decadent and a control freak. But he is fun," Regina Campbell wrote for the Daily Yomiuri (December 8, 2005), a Japanese newspaper. "Ledger dominates the screen in each of his scenes, and through his take on the well-meaning but rough-and-ready character, the audience comes to understand that Engblom may be tough, but he cares." "Played by Heath Ledger in what seems to be a demented tribute to Val Kilmer's performance in The Doors, Skip is always volatile, frequently drunk and consistently the most entertaining figure in this movie," A. O. Scott wrote for the New York Times (June 3, 2005). "Which is saying something, since Lords of Dogtown, from start to finish, is pretty much a blast."

In The Brothers Grimm (2005), Ledger starred alongside Matt Damon in a fictional portrayal of the German folktale writers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Directed by Terry Gilliam, the film reimagines the brothers as a pair of con men who stage hauntings, then pretend to vanquish the other-worldly creatures - for a fee. Complications arise when the brothers are called upon to solve the disappearance of a village's children, leading them on a quest involving an enchanted forest and an evil queen. The big-budget film generally failed to impress. "Despite a few early sparks of promise," Manohla Dargis wrote for the New York Times (August 26, 2005) in a representative review, "The Brothers Grimm sputters and coughs along like an unoiled machine, grinding gears and nerves in equal measure." The lead actors, however, earned a degree of praise. "Damon and Ledger give game and wry performances," Michael Phillips wrote for the Chicago Tribune (August 26, 2005), "Ledger twitching his way through the twittier role with a touch of wit." Likewise, a review in the U.K. paper the Express (November 4, 2005) applauded the "real charm and energy in the performances of Matt Damon and Heath Ledger who both display a fine talent for comedy."

Brokeback Mountain was released in December 2005. The movie follows the difficult lives of two young ranch hands, Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal), who meet in Wyoming in 1963; looking for work, they are assigned to spend the summer together in an isolated mountain range, keeping watch over sheep. Del Mar is tight-lipped and emotionally reserved; Twist is talkative and outgoing. As the days go by they come to enjoy each other's company, until one night, huddling for warmth in a tent, they succumb to an unexpected mutual attraction and fall in love. When their jobs end abruptly, they are forced to move on with their lives; they marry women and become fathers, but they cannot forget about their time together. Four years later they meet again, and their passion is reignited, but Del Mar is haunted by an incident from his past that prevents him from accepting his relationship with Twist.

Based on a 1997 short story by E. Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain was a project that remained in limbo for years; the homosexual love story was deemed commercially risky, and the making of the film was repeatedly postponed until Ang Lee signed on to direct. Impressed by Ledger's performance in Monster's Ball, Lee offered him the part of Del Mar. "When I met [Ledger], the moment I saw him, that was it," Lee told Rachel Abramowitz. "He's the person that's the best to carry that western brooding mood - elegiac and fearful and violent, all the complexities, all the poetic qualities." But the actor was initially unsure about the project. "There was this kind of industry-manufactured fear and risk factor that was surrounding the script," Ledger told Steven Rea for Knight Ridder, as reprinted in the Bradenton (Florida) Herald (January 8, 2006). He had read Proulx's story and the screenplay adaptation, by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, and found both deeply moving. "I truly had a lump in my throat, but … these manufactured fears started to bleed into my response to the script - 'Oh, this is risky,' that sort of thing," he explained. "But then that just started to fade away and I thought … 'What exactly am I risking?' I didn't feel like I had a career to risk, and I'm a little ruthless about it anyway. If it went away based upon a creative choice I made, then it's not really an industry I want to be in."

The film solicited widespread praise from critics. "An achingly sad tale of two damaged souls whose intimate connection across many years cannot ever be resolved, this ostensible gay Western is marked by a heightened degree of sensitivity and tact, as well as an outstanding performance from Heath Ledger," Todd McCarthy wrote for Variety (September 3, 2005, on-line). "As Del Mar, Ledger emits the kind of loneliness that seeps into your bones like the dampness of a bad winter cold," Rachel Abramowitz wrote. "He's unvarnished, understated and stoic, fiercely determined to keep his longing and fury and grief pent up for the rest of his life." Proulx herself concurred, telling Howard Feinstein for the London Guardian (January 6, 2006): "Ledger erased the image I had when I wrote [the story]. He was so visceral. How did this actor get inside my head so well? He understood more about the character than I did." "Heath is very meticulous," Lee explained to Feinstein. "I don't advise actors to come to the monitor to watch themselves, but he's the only exception I made. He gets better as he gets more self-conscious. He sets himself in a zone and believes in it and keeps refining it. Jake [Gyllenhaal] sets himself this way and that way, he tries everything, like [Robert] De Niro. Heath is not like that. He has a specific target within him."

Ledger was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for best actor, and the film won Golden Globes for best dramatic picture, best director, best screenplay, and best original song. The film led the Academy Awards with eight nominations, of which it won three, for best director, best adapted screenplay, and best score. (Ledger was also nominated for an Oscar for best actor; the award went to Philip Seymour Hoffman for his role in Capote.) The film performed well at the box office, though some religious groups urged a boycott due to the homosexual content. "I think people should see it before they make any judgment on it," Ledger told Des Partridge for the Queensland, Australia, Courier Mail (January 14, 2006). "It seems a shame they put so much energy into expressing their disgust and their negative views about it when it is a story about people who love each other." He continued, "They may not agree with the subject matter, but there are worse things in life than love. They should demonstrate about the amount of anger and violence [in films] perhaps."

Casanova, in which Ledger played the title character, was also released in late 2005. A comedic love story directed by Lasse Hallstrom, it garnered mostly derisory reviews, although Ledger was again singled out for praise. "I admit that the picture is handsomely designed in gold and pale blue, but none of the tumult and pomp have any dramatic, comic, or erotic effect whatsoever," David Denby commented in the New Yorker (January 9, 2006). "Yet there is humor in Heath Ledger's performance. After his powerful work in Brokeback Mountain, in which he plays a man all tied up inside himself, it was fun to see him leaping out of bedroom windows and prancing around, sword in hand. His Casanova is seductive yet reserved, and Ledger's extraordinary baritone voice, which registers clearly at the lowest volume, may be the best asset any actor has had in years." In the Baltimore Sun (January 6, 2006), Michael Sragow described the picture as "refreshingly uninhibited" and full of subplots "like sumptuous chutes and ladders that turn the canalworks of Venice into a romantic slip'n'slide." Sragow concluded, "Ledger has never been so charming."

In 2006 Ledger appeared with Abby Cornish and Geoffrey Rush in the Australian film Candy, directed by Neil Armfield, about a poet who falls in love with an artist and, at her insistence, introduces her to heroin, to which he has become addicted. "Heath has this incredible ability to maintain a sort of guileless charm, despite the fact [that] this character is ultimately selfish and makes so many mistakes," Armfield, who is among his nation's preeminent theater directors, told Clint Morris for webwombat.com in early 2006. "He just has this beautifully focused concentration." Ledger's upcoming projects include the film I'm Not There, scheduled for release in 2007, in which he will portray the singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, and the next Batman film, The Dark Knight, expected to premiere in 2008, in which he will appear in the role of the Joker.

Ledger found real-life romance on the set of Brokeback Mountain with Michelle Williams, who played his on-screen wife, Alma, and also has a role in I'm Not There. The two are engaged and in 2005 became the parents of a child, named Matilda Rose. The family live in a brownstone in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. "That's where Michelle is happiest, and I think it's important that we rear our daughter … where the mother is happiest," Ledger told Partridge.

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