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January 29, 2008

Requiem for Heath: a promising career cut short

Brokeback Mountain premiered in Chicago on December 12, 2005, at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Of course, opening days are usually crowded, and Brokeback Mountain was no different—but at one o’clock in the afternoon? By the start of the show, the theater was packed to the rafters, and the excitement in the air was palpable. We, the audience, were dying to see a mainstream, big-budget love story where the main characters just happened to be gay. With any luck, we figured Brokeback Mountain might be our Gone with the Wind—hell, Brokeback Mountain could be our Romeo and Juliet.

It would be a lie to say that when the lights went up there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater. One row behind me, a group of guys commented, loudly and rudely, about how “hot” the (brief, tastefully filmed) sex scene was. But on one side of me, an elderly white woman was wiping tears from her eyes; on the other side, a young black man was doing the same. And that’s when I realized: This is it. Brokeback Mountain is a masterpiece. We finally have our timeless gay love story, and it’s all thanks to the director, Ang Lee, and two crazy guys named Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger.

Just one performance like Ledger’s in Brokeback Mountain would be enough to vault a career into legendary status. But there are plenty of more examples of Ledger defying expectations by turning in a nuanced, touchingly rendered portrayal of a character other actors would deem inscrutable. He makes the otherwise forgettable 2005 drama Lords of Dogtown memorable with his performance as Skip, the father figure to a ragtag posse of SoCal skaters. Ledger is unafraid to reveal Skip’s cruel side—and yet the specter of an aged and abandoned Skip, mumbling the words to Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and nursing a bottle of whiskey, is more than a little heartbreaking.

Even 2000’s 10 Things I Hate About You, a throwaway She’s All That retread with faux-Shakespearean pretensions, becomes briefly bearable thanks to Ledger. Running from the cops after a raucous schoolwide tribute to Julia Stiles, Ledger’s body becomes remarkably loose-limbed, his legs jutting up and down like those of a marionette. In the far more serious—and far more worthwhile—Monster’s Ball (2001), he lends a stunning authenticity to two acts that are difficult to portray convincingly on film: throwing up and committing suicide. (If the latter scene was tough to watch before, it’s going to be even tougher now.) And in Todd Haynes’ audacious I’m Not There (2006), Ledger takes a shop-worn cliché, that of the reluctant young star (a cliché he himself may have embodied), and somehow manages to make it relevant again.

But back to Brokeback Mountain. Before Gyllenhaal and Ledger made it impossible to imagine anyone else as Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, another rising young star had agreed to star in the romance (but was forced to move on when he couldn’t find an actor brave enough to co-star) [See correction below]. That would be Joaquin Phoenix, whose older brother, River, also died after a hard-earned Oscar nomination promised bigger and better things. The elder Phoenix, of course, starred in the great pre–Brokeback Mountain gay romance, 1991’s My Own Private Idaho. What is the meaning of all this? Not much, except that Billy Joel only had it half-right: Only the cool, straight-but-not-narrow guys die young.

In fact, it is difficult not to feel that the Phoenix, Ledger, and Gyllenhaal families share some kind of weird cosmic connection. Gus van Sant, who was once attached to direct Brokeback, gave River Phoenix his most enduring role in Idaho. In Ledger’s last completed film, this summer’s The Dark Knight, Ledger once again stars with a Gyllenhaal—Maggie, Jake’s sister. Perhaps the continued presence of Joaquin Phoenix and the Gyllenhaals on the young Hollywood scene can give us some comfort in the wake of Ledger’s death. It is sobering to think of all Ledger could have accomplished; he had already amassed an impressive body of work in his 28 years. The best we can do now is search for glimmers of his fearlessness in his contemporaries.

But like a showboating relative who crashes the funeral with his crocodile tears, here comes a stalwart of the Hollywood old guard eager to capitalize on the tragedy. Hey, Jack Nicholson? You say you warned Ledger about the excesses of Hollywood, but your advice reeks of self-aggrandizement. You didn’t even see Ledger’s acting triumph in Brokeback Mountain, and yet you smugly announced Crash as the Best Picture winner that regrettable Oscars night. Shut up, and let those of us who cared about him say honestly: Heath, we’ll miss you, mate.

Correction:

The January 29 voices article "Requiem for Heath: a promising career cut short" incorrectly stated that Jake Gyllenhaal's character in Brokeback Mountain was Jack Swift. Gyllenhaal played the character Jack Twist in the film.