It’s River Phoenix all over again. Don’t recognize the name? No need to worry. He’s definitely related to Joaquin (look it up). Many in the current pop culture demo were teething when the unlikely Hollywood hunk, a combination of staggering talent and blond boy good looks was found dead from a drug induced heart attack. It was 1993. Phoenix was only 23. And now he has a slightly older companion with a similar star power spiral in the late Heath Ledger. When the tab-net tragedy went wildfire on 21 January, the assumption divvied into two distinct camps - pissed it away and impossible to believe. As the pundits began the piling on, and the speculation went seismic, other questions came up. Not surprisingly, very few have easy, understandable answers.
Here’s what we do know - Heath Ledger, a rising A-list member of the Tinsel Town elite, accidental gay cowboy extraordinaire and Australian son, was found dead in a New York apartment sometime on Tuesday afternoon. He left behind a daughter (with ex-partner - and co-star of Brokeback Mountain - Michelle Williams) and a devastated core of family and friends. He had just begun work on the Terry Gilliam fantasy The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, leaving the state of that project (and its seemingly cursed director) in temporary limbo. More importantly, he had beaten out several big name actors to be Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the Joker in said filmmaker’s continued reimagining of the Batman character. The Dark Knight, as the summer spectacle is called, was already one of 2008’s most anticipated films. Now, its name is nuclear.
And it’s just starting. The concern over the need for Ledger’s participation in post-production on said film drove Harry Knowles and the gang over at Ain’t It Cool News to go a little pre grave digging and contact the studio. Nerd nation was assured that the actor had completed his commitment to the project. The clown face was 100%. It was part of the deal to do the Gilliam movie. So the Caped Crusader saga remains intact. It will also probably be the last time Ledger is seen on the big screen. His turn as the early ‘70s Bob Dylan archetype in Todd Haynes I’m Not There and as a drug casualty in Candy now stand as his last stints as a serious dramatic type. While his super hero villainy promises to be terrifying (the trailer hints at delightfully twisted horrors), it’s the more streamlined leading man form that audiences will remember.
Ledger began acting the year before Phoenix’s senseless self-destruction. He had a small part in the Aussie film Clowning Around, as well as more unusual Downunder efforts like Blackrock. He came to our shores to co-star in 10 Things I Hate About You, and found some fleeting small screen fame in the Shaun Cassidy created sword and sandal series Roar. Yet it was working alongside another of Australia’s favored sons, Mel Gibson, that brought Ledger to the big time. With the one-two punch of revolutionary war actioner The Patriot, and the modern rock meets medieval jousting of A Knight’s Tale, he finally arrived. From then on, his choices seemed random, and in a couple of cases, very brave.
He was one of the Brothers Grimm in the Gilliam flop for Miramax. He was Billy Bob Thorton’s embittered son in Monster’s Ball. Between the period piece pomp of Four Feathers and Casanova, to the lesser outings in genre jokes like The Order, he seemed like a star being poised and prepped for a massive mainstream breakout. That came with his turn as tortured Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. He earned one of the film’s two male acting honors (he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy) and saw his status rise. Where once he appeared unlikely to be a popcorn hero, he did look ready to balance both aspects of his craft with occasionally bouts with box office clout.
It was a path followed rather closely by Phoenix. He too was a young man playing in an aggressive adult’s world, a critically acclaimed effigy that seemed to suggest great things over a long, successful time. Sure, there also were undercurrents of trouble and tragedy, a soul too old for the teenage body of a boy to contain, but in the dead-eyed ‘80s where everyone was coked and cooked from greed and gumption, such a dark side was dead sexy. Phoenix took the first part of that flimsy phraseology to heart, even after landing one of the most important parts of his young career - the original young Indiana Jones in Last Crusade. Of course, he rejected the recognition and crawled back into his Indie skin, leaving behind remarkable performances in My Own Private Idaho and Dogfight.
There is a difference, however. Phoenix’s appetite for destruction - and drugs - was all too deliberate, that stereotyped cry for help from someone who many felt was beyond the basic psychological needs of the common man. From all initial reports, Ledger’s pharmaceutical finale may have been accidental, spur of the moment, or just plain inconsequential. While his closest relatives regale the media, and anyone else willing to sacrifice etiquette and listen, with tales of his giving spirit, easy going nature and love for his two year old, the celebrity chumsuckers are already smelling buckets of ratings blood. They’re circling the story, and its 24 news cycle ocean, ready to pick apart the bones of any snippet of sensationalism with their own brand of self-serving guesswork.
Was an Olson twin involved? Maybe, and then a definite ‘No’. Did the recent break-up with Williams (and resulting party animalism) plant a suicidal seed, or did he simply mix too many sleeping pills with a case of exhaustion, pneumonia and/or some other fatalistic catalyst? Who saw him last? Who has insight into what he was thinking before, during, and after the act? Sign them up, champion their appearance and indirect information, and let the ethically inert yakking begin. As the Gilliam camp regroups, as Nolan eventually releases a statement in support and suffering for his lost collaborator, as mothers weep, fangals gawk and fanboys fidget (no Joker in Part 3, huh?), the tragedy of a human life lost will be swept up in yet another wave of that grand old Day of the Locust legend of young prominence poisoned and fading into myth.
You’ll hear the names of other Hall of Flame-Out members mentioned, nods to everyone from James Dean to Kurt Cobain. Even when his death is ruled something other than a purposeful attack on everything he achieved, his acting skill and the resulting acclaim will play Devil’s advocate to the continuing disbelief. Poems will attempt to explain his allure, songs will be sung trying to make sense of potential snuffed out, the standard siren’s lament to all fallen figureheads. While it may sound resoundingly callous, we’ll get over this death. We’ll mourn the fallen, place him in perspective, line up for Dark Knight come July, and indulge in the months of unfathomable pre-release publicity. It will all be so careful, so cautious, so…cash flowing.
Ironically enough, the tagline for Nolan’s blockbuster in the making is a snide little comment from Ledger’s Joker - “Why So Serious?” The answer, sadly, is succinct. It’s because you left us too soon, Heath. We thought we knew you, and now we never will. You leave behind a body of work for future generations to judge. They’ll have the much better perspective. For now, we’ll have to suffer the whirlwind of conjecture and gossip. It will be funny sad, Mr. Joker, not funny ha-ha. No one feels much like laughing now, and you really can’t blame them. After all, 15 years ago we went through something very similar to this. It was, like this, horrible and unexplainable. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much a guarantee we’ll go through it again sometime in the future.