I’ve got a couple blog pieces that have been percolating for a few days now that were put on a temporary hold. In part because of a nasty bug that’s apparently afflicted half of LA (it seemed to have arrived with our Monsoon Season) that had rendered me a coughing, shivering mess. This is now the third time since Labor day I’ve battled flu like symptoms, something I was especially gifted at staving off when I was in high school and college. I can only attribute this to my work habits and diet because who wants to consider the alternative.
Of course the other reason was me still stumbling towards some form of perspective on the sudden death of Heath Ledger. I’m not the type of person who goes weak in the knees over the death of a celebrity; I think the closest I’ve ever come was when Mark Sandman, lead singer of the rock band Morphine, dropped dead on stage, but that was a case where I’d actually met the guy. But this undeniably feels different. There’s a universal hurt going around as everyone tries to make sense of something that’s truly senseless to its core. This was the sort of “event” (if one could call it that) that you felt the need to share with as many people as you could as quickly as possible. This was a death that text messaging was invented for.
I feel ill-suited to eulogize the man, who at 28, was eerily close to my own age forcing an unwanted reality check upon me. I was never the champion of Brokeback Mountain that most were, and I recognize that that’s were the majority of the anguish people are feeling is coming from (it’s a glib analogy but remove that one title from the resume and the gulf between Ledger and the equally tragic and dead Brad Renfro is a lot smaller). Still, I had enormous respect for the actor whose attachment to a film guaranteed a performance that would jut out into unexpected angles. He turned a perfunctory supporting part in the largely irrelevant Lords of Dogtown into an unexplained Val Kilmer impersonation, investing every line with a flat So Cal divinity. He was like Spicoli without the quotation marks.
The first hints of what was to come were no doubt found in Monster’s Ball, a role that seemed like an aberration at the time but would lay the groundwork for the tormented outsiders the actor was drawn to over the next seven years. Ledger could have been a matinée idol on the basis of his looks, but like Leo DiCaprio, he went out of his way to distance himself from the Teen People crowd. Working with A-list directors like Ang Lee, Chris Nolan, Todd Haynes and Terry Gilliam, the latter with whom he was shooting a film at the time of his death, making it simply the latest in a long line of “cursed” projects for the filmmaker.
His last completed role is ultimately the one that would have garnered him the most attention on a global level, the coveted role of The Joker in Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Night. Upon learning of Ledger’s casting in the film there was a universal sigh of relief, as though it signaled that the franchise hadn’t suddenly lost its way by relying upon stunt casting. The film, which is due in July, was arguably the most anticipated film of the year before Ledger’s death; it will no doubt attain the extra level of infamy. I take it as a sign of personal growth on my part that upon learning of Heath’s passing my first thought was not to wonder about the status of the film, but rather to think of the actor’s young daughter,
In closing, I’m reprinting a tribute written by Sean Burns posted on his Myspace. Ordinarily I’d just hyperlink to it but I know a lot of people don’t have Myspace and it would be a shame if that limited anyone from reading it. Burns is a master at these things; it’s an uncanny gift calling upon a skill that’s not usually rewarded. No one does the poetic and the profane better. This will no doubt come across as more morbid than intended, but I’d be honored to get a send-up like this some day.
Here’s the man’s words:
"It’s A Goddamned Shame...
So I've been in a weird, melancholy funk ever since I heard about Heath Ledger yesterday afternoon.
I've always found it strange and borderline inappropriate, having feelings like this when a celebrity dies – I mean, it's not like we were friends or anything. Lord knows I had a grand old time mocking the world's comically hysterical outpouring of grief over The Crocodile Hunter, only to turn around and do pretty much the same thing myself a few weeks later when Robert Altman died. (I know this means I'm hypocrite, but it also means I have good taste.)
The most maddening thing here is that Ledger was just, in the past couple years, really starting to come into his own as an actor, maybe a potential giant -- taking fascinating risks with his performances and choosing chancy projects. He seemed to have his head screwed on straight, at least career-wise, and I was already looking forward to seeing what he'd pull out for those upcoming Malick and Gilliam movies. (We won't even get into the pants-pissing squeals of fanboy delight that blurt out involuntarily every time I watch that fucking awesome DARK KNIGHT trailer.)
But at least we'll always have Ennis Del Mar. Although I've never been naïve enough to think that a movie can change the world, I still do believe that certain characters find their way into our hearts, and because of this special kind of empathy sometimes folks just might leave the theater looking at things a little bit differently.
Working at a cinema that showed BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN for months on end, I amassed tons of anecdotal evidence – guys joking uncomfortably on their way in, coming to see "the faggot cowboy movie," only to find themselves unexpectedly, profoundly, moved.
It's Ledger who made that happen -- communicating the exquisite, agonizing torment of a man who cannot allow himself to be who he really is, inarticulate and clenched, his few, carefully chosen words escaping in almost glottal burps.
It's a towering, anguished performance --one of this decade's finest by any yardstick-- and during the film's lengthy run I must admit I watched that closing scene at least two dozen times. Ennis' reaction to his daughter's engagement is fraught with unspoken sentiments and hidden communications. Upon each and every viewing I was captivated all over again by Ledger's careful use of his body language -- the roughneck, kutzy character's belated, strangely delicate ascension, at long last, into some sort of elusive peace.
It's a goddamned shame we've just been robbed of any more moments like that one. What a fucking waste."
Alright, I got that out of my system. Back to being petty.