Come on moviegoers, you know the stuff opening this weekend is drool: Over Her Dead Body with Eva Longoria Parker and The Eye with Jessica Alba? Puhleese! Plus, Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus in a 3D concert is not my idea of the best of both worlds.
So out of respect for Heath Ledger, why not spend time with a few of his best and most surprising films. Look, Ledger made some crap. You try watching The Order or Four Feathers. But he always provided something fascinating to watch, something extra. While the tabloids dish about how many drugs he did or didn’t abuse, let’s concentrate on what’s essential about a exceptional actor who died too soon at twenty eight. His mistakes didn’t make Heath Ledger unique, his talent did. And through his movies that talent lives on. Here are a few Ledger films you need to know, in the order of their release:
A Knight’s Tale — 2001
Ledger told me how much he hated the poster for this tale of a knight wannabe. Can’t blame him. The studio was selling his blonde hair and ringlets. He’d already done two movies, 1999’s Ten Things I Hate About You with Julia Stiles and 2000’s The Patriot with Mel Gibson, that traded on his looks. Ledger wanted to trade up into acting. And he acts with scrappy, subversive skill in A Knight’s Tale. Director Brian Helgeland, who wrote the terrific scripts for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, is messing with medieval history here. You don’t see many movies about jousting with a Queen soundtrack. Helgeland surrounded Ledger with good actors, such as Rufus Sewell, Mark Addy and Paul Bettany, who does a fun spin on Chaucer. And Ledger laces his knight with teasing wit. He will, he will rock you.
Monster’s Ball 2001
Most people remember this film for Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning turn as the child-abusing widow of a death-row inmate, played by P. Diddy. But Ledger, in the supporting role of a prison guard following in the dogged footsteps of his dad (Billy Bob Thornton), works small miracles. His character has no stomach for the job and his cowardice shames his father. No less an actor than Daniel Day-Lewis has commented on Ledger’s brilliance in this role. “You want to go where he goes, to know what’s he’s thinking,” said Day-Lewis. His performance is a shocker. If you haven’t seen it yet, do it now.
Brokeback Mountain 2005
I know people who are still spitting mad that Ledger lost the Best Actor Oscar to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. But Ledger wasn’t about awards or showing off. Here as Ennis Del Mar, a married cowboy who finds himself in love with a man (Jake Gyllenhaal), he has no dialogue to express what he’s feeling. Director Ang Lee relentlessly focuses his camera on Ledger’s eyes, his posture, every subtle detail through which Ennis manages to reveal himself. Near the end, when Ennis is alone in the room of the man he loved, touching his shirts, drawing in the essence of something ineffable, Ledger achieves a quality most actors, even the great ones, rarely get near: transcendence. James Dean in East of Eden and River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho didn’t win Oscars either for showing the torment of lost love. But you can’t forget them. And you won’t forget Ledger.
Lords of Dogtown 2005
The Venice, California skateboard culture of the 1970s lands Ledger the role of Skip Engblom, the aging surfer dude owner of the store where the borders congregate. Ledger, then twenty five, is playing much older. Booze and drugs have cost Skip his edge but not his wildness. Skip is still one of the Zephyrs skateboarders at heart. Working from a script by Zephyr Stacy Peralta, the movie gets fanciful in ways Peralta’s 2002 documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, did not. But Ledger digs deep and stays true. Watching the movie again, after Ledger’s death, uncovers emotions that can rub you raw.
I’m Not There 2007
Todd Haynes’ phantasmagoria of a Bob Dylan biopic is still in theaters. You ought to catch it for many reasons. Cate Blanchett’s flashy take on the electric Dylan won most of the attention, but Ledger’s artful portrayal has a special resonance. His character, called Robbie, is an actor who played a Dylan-like megastar in a movie and whose relationship to a painter (Charlotte Gainsbourg) mirrors Dylan’s marriage to Sarah Lownds. Seen now, Ledger seems to be representing any artitst trapped by fame. Ledger makes you feel his struggle. And, in turn, we can’t help feeling for Ledger, who was chased by similar demons. In the upcoming and unseen Batman epic, The Dark Knight, Ledger’s Joker is himself a demon. There’s no way this performance, like Ledger’s best, won’t be be electrifying.