Brokeback Mountain star Heath Ledger dies at 28

In a Hollywood career that lasted less than a decade, Heath Ledger took challenging roles in controversial movies winning an Oscar nomination two years ago for his performance as a gay cowboy in the modern western Brokeback Mountain and providing one of the incarnations of Bob Dylan in the recent I’m Not There.

Initially dismissed as another hunky blonde Aussie pin-up boy, Ledger worked tirelessly to prove his detractors wrong by taking on increasingly complex and darkened meaty roles that will doubtless draw comparisons with James Dean and River Phoenix, both of whom took on conflicted  characters and died in their twenties - leaving behind a sense of loss and waste.

Ledger was found dead in his New York apartment on Jan. 22. There were prescription drugs found in the apartment including sleeping pills, but no apparent signs of a suicide. At press time, the autopsy was inconclusive. Representatives of the ultra-conservative church led by Fred Phelps protested Ledger's funeral with signs that read "Heath is in Hell" for his participation in Brokeback Mountain.

Adding to the list of darkly complex characters, Ledger had recently taken the role of The Joker in the new Batman movie The Dark Knight, which is due out in July. Early shots from the film show his face covered in white paint, his eyes ringed in black, red lipstick smeared carelessly across his mouth, as he submerged himself in yet another character that pushed his monumental acting chops.

With the Joker, Ledger was taking on a role that Jack Nicholson had rendered indelibly in 1989's Batman. But Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan said the actor had more than measured up to Nicholson calling what he was doing with the character “indescribable” to a crowd at an August comic book convention in Chicago.

While not a marquee movie star, Ledger was an award-winning actor who chose his roles carefully rather than cashing in on big-money parts. During filming of Brokeback Mountain he met Michelle Williams who played his wife. The two had a daughter, two-year-old Matilda, and lived together in Brooklyn until they split up last year. On location in Sweden when news reached her of Ledger’s untimely death, Williams was said to be devastated.

Many questions still remain about the untimely death of the much-admired Ledger, but there are few who will dispute his influence on pop culture through the long list of multi-layered personae he took on throughout his short career. From his understated performance in Monsters Ball to his quietly powerful delivery of Ennis in Brokeback Mountain to his most recent explorations of iconic figures Bob Dylan and The Joker, Ledger never became pigeonholed or typecast and left a legacy of great roles in his wake.

Heath Ledger will be greatly missed and in the words of Ennis Del Mar “If ya can’t fix it, Jack, you stand it.”

Heath Ledger
1979 - 2008  

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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