On the afternoon of Jan. 22, 2008, Hollywood was shocked to learn of the death of Academy Award-nominated actor Heath Ledger. Ledger was found naked, lying face down in the bed of his fourth floor apartment in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City. Teresa Solomon, Ledger’s housekeeper, discovered the 28 year-old actor at 1 p.m. in his bed snoring. At 3 p.m., masseuse Diana Wolozin, who arrived at 2:45 p.m. for a massage appointment, attempted to rouse Ledger, who was unresponsive.
After phone calls were placed to Mary-Kate Olsen, Wolozin called emergency services that arrived at approximately 3:30 p.m. After attempting to resuscitate Ledger through CPR, Ledger was pronounced dead at 3:36 p.m.
What then occurred was a media circus, as both fans and paparazzi arrived to witness the removal of Ledger’s body. Speculation soon began to mount as word spread that prescription sleeping pills were found near his bedside. Was it suicide or an accident? This question has loomed for the past week and a half.
An initial autopsy of Ledger’s body was inconclusive in determining the cause of the actor’s death, so there will be no quick answers to the question. But where will Ledger’s image stand in the gambit of young Hollywood taken in their prime? Will he be remembered in the same light as James Dean? Or will he be forgotten? These are questions that also remain unanswered.
Born Heathcliff Andrew Ledger, he was named after one of the main characters in Emily Bronte’s book “Wuthering Heights.” He became a well-known actor in his native Australia with such films as “Blackrock.”
Ledger was introduced to the United States in the modernization of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”; he played Patrick Verona in “10 Things I Hate About You.” Ledger then starred opposite Mel Gibson in “The Patriot” and played the lead in the medieval film “A Knight’s Tale.”
It was, however, in low-key films in which Ledger shined. His performance in “Monster’s Ball” as Billy Bob Thorton’s son was what got Ledger noticed as more than just a teen heartthrob. Later, he would display this powerful demeanor when he took on the role of Ennis Del Mar in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.” Ledger became the youngest person ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
At the time of his death, Ledger had just completed the role which would have propelled him into the Hollywood mainstream. Already a bankable and well-respected actor, Ledger had avoided big-budget Hollywood fair, preferring to act in roles that allowed him to showcase the breadth of his acting. Notably, he turned down the chance to play the lead role in the “Spider-Man” films. In such films as “Monster’s Ball” and “Brokeback Mountain,” Ledger showed that he was more than a one-note actor. These films allowed Ledger to create deep, haunting characters.
Ledger’s casting as the Joker in the sequel to 2005’s “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight,” was a departure from Ledger’s normal fare, for it is a big-budget film poised to be one of, if not the, top-grossing films of 2008. His casting was polarizing to say the least. Many fans had embraced the performance given by Jack Nicholson in 1989’s “Batman.”
However, Ledger promised to show a different side of the character. To research the role, Ledger locked himself in a hotel room and formed the character’s mannerisms. He also kept a diary of the Joker’s thoughts which has been described as “morbid” by members of the film’s cast.
Batman fans, however, were still unsure, even when the first images of Ledger as the Joker surfaced on the Internet. It was not until the first trailer was released with “I Am Legend” that people began to accept Ledger as the Joker. Tragically, this will be his final performance. It may also have led to his death. Ledger said in interviews that he was having trouble sleeping, only getting one or two hours a night, due to the darkness of the character and had turned to Ambien, a prescription sleeping medication.
He leaves behind a two year-old daughter, Matilda Rose, who he had with “Brokeback Mountain” co-star Michelle Williams. Williams was quoted as being “devastated” by the news of Ledger’s death. The same can be said for all of Hollywood, as Daniel Day-Lewis dedicated his Screen Actor’s Guild award for Best Actor in a Leading Role to Ledger.
“How will Ledger be remembered?” is the ultimate question. Throughout Hollywood’s history, there have been several high-profile actors who died in their prime. A week before Ledger’s death, Brad Renfro, star of such films as “Apt. Pupil” and “Bully,” passed away, but his death went mostly unnoticed. Ledger will most likely be remembered in the same light as James Dean. However, unlike Dean, Ledger had already made an impact on Hollywood.
With the release of “The Dark Knight” less than six months away, it will be interesting to see how Warner Bros. alters the marketing campaign for the film, which had been centered on the Joker. Needless to say, Ledger will be missed, by fans, family, and the entire Hollywood community. He was an actor who embodied every role he was given and immersed himself in the part. His canon speaks for itself and his final performance as the Joker should be one that all see.
Chris Bashore is a fourth-year student majoring in political science. He can be reached at CB588901@wcupa.edu.