“The Dark Knight” is likely to make Heath Ledger a bigger star than he ever was in life.
The ingredients are there: the iconic role, the tragic death and that most essential component, the touch of genius.
It’s why James Dean, the actor to whom Ledger, in death, has been compared, still adorns posters in teenagers’ rooms. And why the music of Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur, even at its most nihilistic, tugs at the heartstrings of Gen X’ers.
Ledger’s performance as The Joker will take its place in the annals of posthumous fame in record time, thanks to our age of viral videos and message-board hypothesizing. The performance already has been deemed legendary, based only on the movie’s online trailers and buzz from early screenings.
Director Christopher Nolan’s sequel to his accomplished 2005 film “Batman Begins” was among the most-anticipated films of the year before Ledger died in January. The pairing of Ledger and “Dark Knight” star Christian Bale, two intensely talented actors who seem more at ease in independent films than Hollywood blockbusters, was intriguing from the start.
But it’s curiosity about Ledger’s performance that has sparked such fervent interest in “The Dark Knight” in the weeks leading up to its release. More people will see “The Dark Knight” during its opening weekend than saw “Brokeback Mountain,” Ledger’s breakthrough film, during its entire theatrical run.
For fans of Ledger, or at least this one, the certain popularity of “The Dark Knight” elicits a fear that The Joker, a soulless villain, might serve as the legacy of an actor whose defining trait was emotional authenticity.
The teenagers flocking to “Dark Knight” probably haven’t seen most of Ledger’s other work. Neither have their parents, frankly. Before “Brokeback Mountain,” Ledger’s films rarely made an impact. Unlike Dean, who burst onto the scene in “East of Eden” and had two big films ready for release when he died in a car crash in 1955, Ledger started out modestly.
Timing is part of it. Dean entered the movie business when producers were adapting novels by John Steinbeck and Edna Ferber into prestigious films. The Australian-born Ledger, by contrast, came to Hollywood when filmmakers were turning Shakespeare and Jane Austen into teen comedies. This period is otherwise known as the Freddie Prinze Jr. Era.
Ledger stood out in “Ten Things I Hate About You,” a middling 1999 retelling of “The Taming of the Shrew,” as the anti-Prinze, a rangy, long-haired rebel in black. He delivered the film’s one truly noteworthy moment when his character serenaded Julia Stiles’ with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” while dancing in the stands of the high school football stadium.
To put it simply, Ledger had something. And Hollywood, as it is prone to do, showed the ability to recognize that something, along with an inability to showcase it properly. In roles subsequent to “Ten Things,” Ledger displayed charisma without the distinguishing traits that mark a true star.
He was solid in the 2000 film “The Patriot,” as the son of a Revolutionary War objector (Mel Gibson) who signs on to fight anyway. But that was Gibson’s movie, and Gibson getting the close-ups. “A Knight’s Tale” gave Ledger, then 22, his first starring role in a Hollywood film, but the film’s mix of medieval jousting and modern-era rock never jelled.
For a time, it appeared as if Ledger would be grouped with Josh Hartnett and James Franco as young, handsome actors given plum Hollywood roles without achieving stardom. Yet there were signs of brilliance as early as 2001, in Ledger’s wrenching performance as Billy Bob Thornton’s prison-guard son in “Monster’s Ball.” He would tap the same capacity for anguish in “Brokeback Mountain,” as a Wyoming sheepherder in turmoil because of his love for a man. But this time to a degree so profound that it was as if 20 years had passed between the two films, instead of just four.
In the meantime, Ledger was discovering his creative voice in character roles and in lead roles that played like character roles. As legendary Irish-Australian outlaw Ned Kelly in the 2003 film of the same name, Ledger was alternately forceful and vulnerable, showing the origin of Kelly’s sensitivity to the injustices around him. And unlike most of his contemporaries, including “Kelly” co-star Orlando Bloom, Ledger seemed like a grown man.
Ledger’s scaredy-cat mannerisms in Terry Gilliam’s 2005 film “The Brothers Grimm” were oddly mesmerizing, as was his teeth-first performance as a hard-drinking skateboard-team mentor in “Lords of Dogtown,” released the same year. Though the “Dogtown” performance was overly stylized, it still was important, in that it put his creative growth process on display. Inherent to the performance was a promise that every role to come, good or bad, at least would be interesting.
He was like Johnny Depp in that way. And in other ways, as a gentle spirit averse to the spotlight but well-liked by Hollywood and beloved by fans. But Depp didn’t become a big movie star until he was nearly 40. Ledger was just 28 when he died.
I keep returning to age because it still astounds me that Ledger so believably portrayed middle-aged regret in “Brokeback Mountain.” His decades-spanning performance as Ennis Del Mar, sure to be counted as one of the great performances in film history, also marks one of the few instances in which Ledger’s work paralleled Dean’s.
As Dean once had as oil man Jett Rink in “Giant,” Ledger embodied a character far older than his actual age - one of the tougher things to do as an actor. In both instances, knowing the actor would never reach his character’s age adds a poignant postscript to the performance.
But Ledger didn’t need to play older to astound with his understanding of a character’s complexity. In “Candy,” a 2006 Australian drama, Ledger and Abbie Cornish portrayed a young couple united by romance and heroin. Ledger was a wonder in this film, disrupting his character’s hedonism with flares of conscience and remaining sympathetic while doing heinous things.
The idea of watching Ledger, who died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, play an addict might seem troubling. But Ledger so fully inhabited his character (much the way he did in “Brokeback”) that within a few minutes into the film, any link between his art and life vanishes.
But hardly anyone has seen “Candy,” or “Lords of Dogtown,” for that matter. They will, however, see “The Dark Knight,” and perhaps be inspired to seek out Ledger’s other performances. Because knowing there’s a library of films showing this brilliant actor’s trajectory helps cushion the knowledge that it ended too soon.