Tuesday, January 22, 2013

I Miss Heath Ledger

I'd heard of Heath Ledger but I hadn't seen him onscreen until I had to see The Patriot, a 2000 film starring Mel Gibson.  I was the movie critic on the ABC News weekday magazine show, Lifetime Live, every Friday.  That ABC News production aired on Lifetime TV.  The Patriot put Mel Gibson in colonial drag.  We go back to the days of the American Revolution.  He's a peaceful family man forced to fight the British.  As I said on the show, I thought two things as I sat through the movie:  1. "Why is it taking Mel Gibson nearly three hour to play a Minute Man?" and  2. "That Heath Ledger is really good."
Heath played Gabriel, the good son who joins his father in fighting for America's freedom.
Heath was just a fraction or two off from having the "hottie" looks to make him a movie heartthrob and be thrown like a javelin into romantic comedies and syrupy love stories aimed at the hearts and wallets of young female moviegoers.  He wasn't a Josh Hartnett, Channing Tatum or Gerard Butler.  Hollywood tried to put him over in "teen hunk" roles but Heath Ledger was more substantial than that.  And he wasn't a handsome off-screen bad boy like Colin Farrell.  He was a disciplined young performer.  Had he lived, he'd have matured into a Robert Duvall, Meryl Streep quality of character actor.  He showed that kind of versatility and commitment to his craft in his all-too-brief years.  After The Patriot, I started checking out of his other films.  I attended a critics' preview of the big screen 2002 remake of The Four Feathers.  The previous version had been one of those many fine films released in Hollywood's legendary golden year of 1939.
Ledger co-starred with Wes Bentley (who was the neighbor in American Beauty)....
...and Kate Hudson in this epic tale of British friendship, love and desert war.
Again, Ledger did fine work.  It was his supporting role as the son and grandson of white Southern racists in Monster's Ball that really wowed me.  The role of Sonny had been slated for Wes Bentley.  Bentley had to drop out.  Ledger replaced him and that small role changed his career in a very big way.  Sonny wants to escape from the racial bigotry that's been taught by the men in his family.  He does not hate black people.  Sonny works in the prison system.  It's been a family occupation.  He's kind to a black Death Row inmate (played by music star Sean "P Puff Diddy Daddy" Combs).
Sonny's soul is in prison because of the culture of hate in his family.  This 2001 film brought a historic Best Actress Academy Award to Halle Berry.  Billy Bob Thornton co-starred.  Ledger disappears into that troubled Louisiana character.  He's excellent.  Your heart aches for Sonny.  Yes, Hollywood, Heath Ledger was more than a "teen hunk."
Another indie movie gave me the feeling Heath Ledger was on his way to becoming a male Meryl Streep.  The Australian actor totally nailed the Southern California body rhythm, personality vibe and accent of a dude by the beach in the 1970s.  I grew up in Los Angeles.  I can confirm that Heath nailed it.  The movie is Lords of Dogtown.
Southern California is known for Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.  Back in the 1960s and '70s, during my childhood, there was also Pacific Ocean Park -- more commonly known as P.O.P.  This amusement park was popular with the Venice crowd.  P.O.P. was sort of the Coney Island of the Southland.  In that Venice, California crowd were The Z-Boys.  In the '70s, they revived the fading skateboard fad, jazzed it up and made it a sport with their mad skills.  True story.  Catherine Hardwicke directed a sharp, smart, raw movie about these teen celebs in a low-rent section of Southern California.
They're tough.  They're talented.  They really have no patience for scholastic duties.  They love to hang out in a surf shop run by Skip. He loves the surf.
Skip always hooks them up with new gear at the shop.  This sly movie is about sudden celebrityhood and marketing.  The boys aren't as smart as they think they are.  Skip is a surfer dude but he's not an idiot.  Ledger shines in 2005's Lords of Dogtown.
Then came...the now-iconic Brokeback Mountain.  This heartbreaking tale of emotional deprivation cast Heath Ledger as ranch hand Ennis Del Mar.  He's conflicted.  The big love of his life is another man -- cowboy and former co-worker Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Ledger got this part because of his strong showing as Sonny in Monster's Ball.  Ledger's dramatic work here won him international acclaim.
It was another brilliant inner and outer transformation.  Ennis walked in a certain way.  He seemed always to squint as if he had trouble with light.  His voice was low and had a twang.  He was no stranger to fist fights.  He's a tough country man of few words.  Ledger created a memorable screen character for this 2005 Oscar nominee for Best Picture.  Ennis seems only to be at peace with the world during his clandestine times with Jack.
If Philip Seymour Hoffman had not won the Oscar -- and just about every other entertainment prize short of the Soul Train Music Award -- for his performance as Capote, the Best Actor Oscar should've gone to fellow nominee Ledger for Brokeback Mountain.
For a deep impression of his versality, watch this movie right after watching Lords of Dogtown or his Medieval History-meets-MTV comedy adventure, A Knight's Tale.  He has a hard day being a knight.  There's a bad guy to fight (played by Rufus Sewell)...
....there's a fair maiden to love (played by Shannyn Sossamon)...
...and there's a couple of Medieval Bros who've got his back.  (They're played by Alan Tudyk, now a regular on ABC's Suburgatory, and bearded Brit bear Mark Addy).
Start with the Middle Ages and then go to Brokeback Mountain.  You will be stunned at Heath Ledger's acting skills.  He released another film the same year as Brokeback Mountain that also proved his range.  As Ennis, he's an emotionally repressed, introverted, masculine ranch hand.  He's has a wife and kids.  He's afraid of living his true self openly, afraid of anyone discovering his intimate feelings for another man.
As Casanova, he wears the kind of puffy shirt they talked about on Seinfeld.  He wears wigs, fancy jackets, he's chatty -- and he can't keep his hands off the ladies.
This was not a widely-seen movie.  I paid to see it and laughed a lot.  Ledger also had definite comedy chops.  He's so animated, so much fun as the fabled babe-chaser.
The best scenes in Casanova are those he has with Oliver Platt.  Platt was a hoot as a lovable fop. What a shame they could not have done another comedy together.
Heath Ledger did give an Oscar-winning performance.  Like Peter Finch for Network, he won his Academy Award posthumously.  If any critics wondered how he could match the excellence of his performance in Brokeback Mountain, they got their answer when they saw him as The Joker in The Dark Knight.  He was frightening and funny and unpredictable as Batman's psychotic nemesis. As a criminal, he stole the movie.
He burned up the screen with that 2008 supporting role performance.
The Joker is part master-mind, part dangerous canine on the loose.  Watch how he holds his head out of the car window like a dog.  Such creative acting.  Ledger died in New York City on this day in 2008.  He has two Academy Award nominations to his history.
He could've gone so far had he lived.  But...in his short time...he did the work, he was serious about his craft, he took risks.  His main objective was not getting on the Red Carpet, making a fabulous fashion statement and going to the party.  He did his homework.  He got two Oscar nominations and leaves behind more than two exceptional performances for us to appreciate.  He was 28.  Heath Ledger was a damn good actor.

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