The shocking death of Heath Ledger stopped all the usual yammering here at the Sundance Film Festival. It was a day that started with the Oscar nominations and news of the big sale of Hamlet 2 to Focus Features–the Sundance jackpot at last. And yet this afternoon, just after I finished interviewing Josh Peck and Olivia Thirlby, the gifted young stars of The Wackness, one of the hot films in competition, the news of Ledger’s death in his apartment in Manhattan hit us like a cold slap. Thirlby sat quietly by herself collecting her thoughts. This was a huge day for the young actress, her film Juno in which she played the pregnant teen’s bff, had just been announced as one of the five contenders for the Best Picture Oscar. Both Thirlby and Peck had just talked about where they’d like to be as actors ten years from now. Peck saying that he’d hoped to keep challenging himself to reveal something about the human condition, that acting if it was honest and fearless united us somehow as human beings.
His remarks reminded me of my first meeting with Ledger seven years ago when A Knight’s Tale put him on the Hollywood map. He and his blond ringlets became prettyboy poster art and he damn near choked on it. Not the movie, just the image branding. Like Peck and Thirlby, Ledger thought of acting as something deeper, a striving toward goal he’d probably never reach. Ledger told me then that if his only offers were for movie-star posing he’d bag the whole thing. Instead, he went on to capture the loneliness of the guarded heart as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, as a heroin junkie in Candy, and as a fame-resistant Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.
The last time I saw Ledger, just before he started on the role of the Joker in this summer’s The Dark Knight, he wore the same crooked grin, the same drop-the-bullshit attitude. He knew acting as an adventure couldn’t match being a father to his daughter Matilda Rose.
As movie enthusiasts, we will all miss seeing Ledger push against the barriers in roles he’ll never play. But the end of his life at twenty eight is the real tragedy. Here at Sundance, in the swirl of deals and Oscar buzz, priorities–at least for the moment–were set straight.