In an ideal world, Australian actor Heath Ledger would have been celebrating his thirty-third birthday today. Heartbreakingly, he isn’t here for it: the actor passed away from an accidental prescription drugs overdose just over four years ago, on January 22, 2008. At the time, the actor was shooting Terry Gilliam‘s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” and the director managed to finish the film with Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law paying tribute to the late actor by joining the production.
Ledger had a rare talent that seemingly wowed everyone he would work with — Matt Damon, who appeared with the actor in Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm,” recently called him “the best actor I ever worked with” — and it’s hard not to be distraught at the thought of the performances we’ll never get to see. But even so, Ledger left behind an enormously impressive body of work for one so young, and in celebration of what would have been his birthday, we’ve picked out five of our favorite of his turns. There’s a number of others that could easily have been included — his take on Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes‘ “I’m Not There” is one of the best in the film, for instance, and only just missed this list. But these are the five that we’ll always remember him for. Weigh in with your own favorites below.
“Monster’s Ball” (2001)
Ledger is not in “Monster’s Ball” very much. As Sonny, the belittled son of misanthropic prison guard Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), he mainly serves to set up exactly how unpleasant his father is, before, shockingly, committing suicide in front of him. But it’s notable as the point where everyone sat up and realized that perhaps Ledger wasn’t simply some prominently cheekboned teen heartthrob. The actor broke through in 1999’s strong teen comedy “10 Things I Hate About You” with rugged charm, before playing Mel Gibson‘s son in “The Patriot,” and, earlier in the same year as “Monster’s Ball,” headlining minor hit “A Knight’s Tale.” He clearly had chops, but his performance as the sensitive Sonny, desperate for love from his father, and taking the bloody way out rather than risk turning into him, made it clear that Ledger had much more to give.
“Lords of Dogtown” (2005)
For a while, Ledger was struggling to match his early heat: “The Four Feathers,” “The Order,” “Ned Kelly,” “Casanova” and “The Brothers Grimm” all came and went (although Ledger is good in both of the latter two, particularly the Gilliam film). But Catherine Hardwicke‘s “Lords of Dogtown” marked something of a turning point. Ledger plays Skip Engblom, the mentor of the young skaters (who include Emile Hirsch and Michael Angarano among their ranks), a boozy, explosive jester-cum-Obi-Wan figure, and it was easily the best performance of his career to that point — the film noticeably dips in energy every time he comes off screen. Some snarkily put the turn down as an impression of Val Kilmer, and while Ledger is undoubtedly reminiscent of the actor in “The Doors,” anyone who saw “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” the documentary on which the film is based, knows how close Ledger comes to the real Engblom. But it’s no mere mimicry: journalist Joe Donnelly, a friend of Engblom, wrote after Ledger’s death, “He’s almost eerie in how precisely he nailed not only the mannerisms, cadence and physical presence of Skip, but also how he raises Skip’s spirit.”
“Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
And soon after ‘Dogtown,’ Ledger’s position as a potential titan of the future was confirmed, thanks to his lead in Ang Lee‘s multiple-award-winning drama about the decades-long, tragic love affair between two ranchers. As Ennis, the more stoic of the central two, Ledger begins with a Brando-like inarticulacy that was much parodied at the time, something that doesn’t change how entirely effective it is at portraying a man of enormous feeling, who wouldn’t know how to express what he has inside even if society would let him. As he creeps into middle age (effortlessly and entirely convincingly pulled off by Ledger), his self-loathing at what he’s done turns into self-loathing at what he didn’t do, and it’s totally heartbreaking to watch. Ledger never makes Ennis into a martyr: he’s quiet, brusque, sometimes even cruel. But it’s a testament to his finest performance that you feel so much for him by the end.
Certainly the most underrated performance of the later stage of Ledger’s career, the actor returned to Australia for Neil Armfield‘s lyrical, if over-familiar, addiction drama. As Dan, the boyfriend of the titular Candy (Abbie Cornish), the actor looks like the Platonic ideal of the bohemian poet, who drags his artist girlfriend into the mire of heroin addiction, aided and abetted by their mentor (Geoffrey Rush, excellent as always). The two young stars have palpable chemistry together, and Ledger brings a charm and fierce intelligence that’s a million miles away from Ennis Del Mar. But he’s also typically free of vanity: Dan does, and instigates, terrible things in the name of love (love of heroin, that is), and the actor never sugarcoats them. It’s a testimony to the alchemy of his performance that you only realize the extent of his toxicity to Candy as the film wraps up.
“The Dark Knight” (2008)
Taking on one of the most iconic screen villains was always going to be a challenge, given that Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson had already delivered fairly definitive takes. No one expected Ledger to be the man chosen to don the make up, and certainly no one could have predicted his fierce, anarchic version of the character. And that’s the key to his titanic performance: every tic, gesture, line-reading is unpredictable, making the character into a destructive force of nature that feels genuinely dangerous. The actor understands that the Joker shouldn’t be funny to anyone but himself, and his skewed sense of humor is one of the most distinctive variations on the performance: despite attempts by the media to bring Ledger’s commitment to the part into the narrative of his death, he told an interviewer while on the “I’m Not There” press tour that it was “the most fun I’ve had playing a character, hands down.” And it shows. Even if Ledger had lived to see it, his Joker was always going to stand in the top tier of screen villains, and define the character for generations to come.