Heath Ledger: a talented & wonderful actor gone too soon. A view into his art

Originally published on Humano, creativamente humano, May 2015


“I think in order to evolve as a person and as an actor, you need to be fearless somewhat. Push yourself and dare to be bad I guess. Don’t be afraid to fail and I’ve failed many times, but … failure teaches you how to succeed, I guess”, Heath Ledger Interview, Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica della Biennale di Venezia, Sept. 2007 (RTL TV Croatia)

I have to confess that I’ve only discovered Heath Ledger about three months ago. Since I apparently live most of the time in another century (with no TV, no mobile–iPhone–iPod and no car), the existence of the wonderful Heath Ledger passed by me unnoticed. How I discovered this amazing and talented actor was purely by chance. One afternoon I wanted to watch something funny and light with my older kids Yael and Itay. I downloaded 10 things I hate about you without really knowing what it’s about. After watching the movie (a teen-comedy, entertaining and surprisingly different) I was wondering who is this young and charismatic actor who plays Patrick Verona. Then I found out about Heath and read about his brilliant career and his tragic death. I was enchanted by him and bought all of his movies on amazon from 1999 until The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. I’ve seen them all (and most of them many times) on our cinema projector. Many of Heath’s portrayals are astonishing, brilliant, dark and profound. He has many faces and many voices. His most amazing and fun performances are, in my opinion, Jimmy (Two Hands), Patrick (10 things I hate about you), Ennis Del Mar (Brokeback Mountain), Casanova (Casanova), Dan (Candy), Robbie (I’m Not There) and the Joker (The Dark Knight). After 10 things I hate about you, Heath turned down a lot of offers of romantic teenager movies, escaping from his heartthrob image, and turned down blockbuster offers such as Spider-Man: “I started to feel like a bottle of Coke … And there was a whole marketing scheme to turn me into a very popular bottle. And, you know, Coke tastes like shit. But there’s posters everywhere so people will buy it. So I felt like I tasted like shit, and I was being bought for no reason”[1]. Heath always looked for challenging roles, took parts that would not bore him and showed us an incredible versatility reflected in his 16 movies: “I was boring myself before and the choices I was making were boring myself too, so I kind of wanted making it more interesting for myself too and more challenging and I wanted to learn more about life and myself”[2]. But it wasn’t only about getting bored; it was more about responsibility and freedom, that responsibility and freedom which Sartre, Frankl and other cool existentialists talk about: “I’d like to be responsible for my own actions. If you are going to paint a picture, you want to pick the colors yourself, and where and how they go”[3]. It was a matter of choosing, and not of being chosen.

Right after I discovered Heath, I remembered that back in 2006 one of my best friends (who happens to be gay) told me about Brokeback Mountain. For some reason I didn’t go to see the movie then. Now I am really sad, because otherwise I would have been able to follow Heath’s career when he was alive.

Heath was born in Perth, Australia, on April 4, 1979 (all his fans know that). Before his first big role for the big screen (Two Hands), Heath appeared in 1992 (at the age of 13) in the movie Clowning Around as an orphan clown (uncredited) and in 1993–1994 in 3 episodes of the TV series Ship to Shore as a cyclist (S1, Ep.12 & Ep.13) and as an actor (S2, Ep.1). In 1996 he appeared in 26 episodes of the TV series Sweat as Snowy Bowles, a gay cyclist (yes, gay!), and, in 1997, in 11 episodes of the TV series Home and Away as Scott Irwin. The same year, Heath took the leading role in the 13 episode TV series Roar (an American production shot in Australia) as Conor. Also in 1997, Heath had small roles in the drama Blackrock (as Toby) and in the family movie Paws (as Oberon).

Then, in 1999, Two Hands came (released in Australia on July 29), an “Australian gangster comedy” (as Heath describes it[4]). Heath plays Jimmy, a hot, tender and simple guy mixed up with the Sydney mafia. Heath describes Jimmy as “a young guy that … is growing up all his life in The Cross. His mum maybe was a prostitute … his father is dead maybe … basically he is in a world where he believes that this is his only path in life … he meets a lovely young lady, Alex, and she opens his eyes and let’s him see that there’s another light at the end of the tunnel”[5]. Two Hands, a film “alla Tarantino” and, for some moments, “alla Jim Jarmusch”, was the first movie filmed and based on Kings Cross (Sydney’s red-light district): “It’s something that we haven’t really seen in Australia … the gangster side of Sydney … we see it on the Godfather, we see them driving around in their Rolls-Royces, but we don’t see the Australian godfathers in their stubby shorts and singlets[6] drinking VBs[7]…”[8]. The film is funny, strong and cool (with the exception of the “zombie scenes”, which I didn’t like at all), and the director (Gregor Jordan) and cast surrounding Heath (Bryan Brown, David Field and Rose Byrne) are amazing. Heath got a Best Actor in a Leading Role nomination in the Australian Film Institute for portraying Jimmy.

Right after Two Hands, Heath was casted in 10 things I hate about you, a teen-comedy loosely based on the Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. The film was released four months before Two Hands, on March 31, 1999. Heath plays Patrick Verona, a charismatic, dark and tender teenager: “I loved The Taming of the Shrew and always wanted to play Petruchio, and this was the closest thing I could get”[9]. The film is funny and fresh, with a cool and angry Julia Stiles as Kat, Larisa Oleynik as Bianca, a funny David Krumholtz as Michael and a very young and a bit inexperienced Joseph-Gordon Levitt as Cameron.

In 2000, Heath portrayed Gabriel in the epic movie The Patriot, which premiered in the U.S. on June 27, 2000 and was released one day later. The movie is very patriotic and violent and really depicts life as black & white –a common American feature– (the “good” Americans versus the “bad” English). The whole American Revolution gets reduced to a fight between two men, which makes the movie a bit childish and not really convincing. Heath did all his own stunts and gave a beautiful performance.

A Knight’s Tale (premiered in the U.S. on March 8, 2001 and released on May 11, 2001) is a fun movie for teenagers or for watching with your kids. Our daughter Yael (who is 9 years old) and our son Itay (almost 7) really love it. Even our daughter Dalit (21 months) likes to watch it because of the horses. I must say that this is probably the weakest of Heath’s performances, but this is definitely due to the poor script. William’s personality is a bit dull, there are dialogues that sound ridiculous and the love story has no magic whatsoever (there is no chemistry at all between Heath and the female character, played by quite a bad actress). Probably the most interesting character in the movie is Count Adhemar, the “bad guy”, portrayed by Rufus Sewell. Nevertheless, just the action, the music (Queen and David Bowie) and Heath’s smile make the film highly entertaining.

The Four Feathers was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2002, it was premiered in the U.S. on September 17, 2002 and released three days later, on September 20, 2002 (9 months later than Monster’s Ball, but it was made before Monster’s Ball). Tired of his pretty boy image, Heath “took out the blond” and took the role of Harry (who appears bearded and dirty throughout a major part of the film). I don’t especially like movies about honor, war and battles, but the director (Shekhar Kapur) and cast (Heath, Djimon Hounsou and Wes Bentley) ofThe Four Feathers are excellent. The landscapes and views of the desert are spectacular (most of the film was shot in Morocco). The movie reminds us of the horrors of war and imperialism, and tells a beautiful, admirable and human story about friendship (between Harry –Heath– and Abou Fatma –Djimon Hounsou–) which transcends empires and religion. The love story is a bit dull, but the tenderness and charisma of Heath pulls it off. There is a scene of Heath jumping on a horse that is really spectacular. Heath was a great rider and did his own stunts, galloping on horses and camels.

Heath played a short but unforgettable role in Monster’s Ball. The movie was premiered at the AFI Film Festival in the U.S. on November 11, 2001 and was released in the U.S. on December 26, 2001. Wes Bentley supposed to play Sonny, but he pulled out at the last minute and offered the role to Heath (they were then shooting together The Four Feathers).Monster’s Ball is disturbing, depressing and a bit sick (father and son share the same prostitute), and it has lots of minutes of unnecessary porno scenes. In fact, I found by chance a porno website that has the “Monster’s Ball Sex Scenes Compilation”, a video that lasts 8’21”, with the scene with Sonny –Heath– and the prostitute that lasts only one minute and then the 7’21” boring minutes of sex between Leticia –Halle Berry– and the racist-asshole Hank –Billy Bob Thornton–. I personally think that it would have been much more interesting to explore a bit more the relationship between Hank and Sonny (father and son) rather than to see so much tit and ass. Roberts says about Monster’s Ball ironically: “Capital punishment, racism and graphic sex don’t make for cosy family viewing”[10]. The movie was filmed in a real prison (the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, known as “the Farm”) and the electric chair was real (although not in use any more) as well as the death row and cells. All the cast is amazing, but the performances of Heath, famous rapper Sean Combs –Puff Daddy– (Lawrence) and Peter Boyle (disgusting Buck) are especially impressive. Heath appears a total of only 13 minutes and 41 seconds on screen (I’ve timed it), but his painful portrayal of Sonny is really breathtaking. Until we see Sonny at the prison, he appears 4’43” on screen; his appearance in the execution sequence lasts 5’34”; the whole fight in the toilet lasts 1’36”, and the fight in the house and the tragic end, 1’48”. He did his work in two days.

The Sin Eater (released in Canada and the U.S. on September 5, 2003) –better known as The Order– started filming before Ned Kelly, but was released 6 months after Ned Kelly. It reunited Heath with director Brian Helgeland and actors Shannyn Sossamon and Mark Addy from A Knight’s Tale. I am zero attracted to horror-thriller-cult movies. A long time ago I made the big mistake of watching Angel Heart (just because of Robert De Niro) and I had nightmares for a year. So, horror and thriller are not my favourite genres. I finally decided to watch The Sin Eater because I thought that it would make no sense to leave it out. Before watching it, I read some reviews that described the movie as boring and bad. What can I say after watching the movie? Well, I’ve never seen such a sexy priest, that’s for sure, and Heath’s sentences in Latin are definitely cute. But for an atheist like me and furthermore not a big fan at all of the Catholic religion and even less of the Catholic church, the whole Jesus–Christ–Virgin–Mary–Satan–Sin stuff feels boring and ridiculous. I had a hard time understanding the plot and, if not for Heath (the scene towards the end where he cries with pain is really touching), I would have stopped watching the movie.

Heath went to Australia to shoot Ned Kelly (which was released on March 22, 2003) and he reunited with director Gregor Jordan (Two Hands). Due to their friendship and the generous personality of Heath, Heath agreed to get paid only $ 60.000 for leading the movie (an absurd sum of money compared with the $ 1 million that he got paid for A Knight’s Tale and the $ 2 million that he got paid for The Four Feathers) –as a reference, for 10 things I hate about you, when he was completely unknown in the US, he got paid $ 100.000, much more than for Ned Kelly–. The movie has very nice cinematography (Oliver Stapleton) and beautiful shots of animals and trees, but is overly sentimental. The movie was very successful in Australia, where the legend of Ned Kelly is very much alive.

I didn’t quite get The Brothers Grimm (shot in 2003 but released in Canada and the U.S. on August 26, 2005), a movie which I found far too scary for children and too childish for adults, but the character of Jacob (portrayed by Heath) is funny and really nice to watch. At first Terry Gilliam gave the part of Wilhelm (Will) to Heath and that of Jacob (Jake) to Matt Damon, but both actors agreed that they preferred to reverse the characters. So, Heath ended up playing Jacob and Damon, Wilhelm. Actors Peter Stormare and Jonathan Pryce are brilliant and hilarious. Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini worked with Heath in The Sin Eater and told Gilliam on the phone: “This kid I’m working with, he’s great! He’s really good!”[11]. Heath always had admired Gilliam’s work (he loved Monty Python) and was thrilled to work with him.

Lords of Dogtown started filming on April 6, 2004 and was released on June 3, 2005. The film is based on the revolutionary skateboard legends called the Z-Boys and it was written by Stacey Peralta (a Z-Boy himself). Heath’s portrayal of Skip Engblom is funny, flamboyant and really close to the true character. Engblom (who after seeing The Patriot absolutely wanted Heath to play his part) said that his own wife thought that Heath’s portrayal of her husband was astonishingly accurate. This was great for Engblom’s marriage as he claims that after the movie his wife had the feeling that she was sleeping with Heath. Heath used a wig and fake teeth to portray Engblom. All the actors had to learn to skate, which was kind of crazy, and Heath’s passion for surfing and skating helped his character a lot. I got a bit bored watching the movie, since I found that the values and dreams of the young skaters were a bit superficial. Maybe it’s a good movie for teenagers, I don’t know. There is, by the way, a much better story about the Z-Boys. It’s a documentary directed by Peralta himself and narrated by Sean Penn called Dogtown and the Z-Boys (2001). The problem is, of course, that it’s without Heath. About the non commercial success of Lords of Dogtown Heath said: “I’d rather take the risk of making a movie that’s not going to be commercially successful and may not be good but may be brilliant, I’d rather take those risks”[12]. In the cool interview where Heath is peeling an orange, the interviewer asks him about “the Heath flip”, a skate move that nobody knew, and Heath explains: “The ‘Heath flip’ was the first trick I learned on the skateboard … I thought everyone knew how to do it and apparently no one had heard of it before. They called it ‘the Heath flip’”[13].

Then Brokeback Mountain came, which started filming on May 23, 2004 and was premiered at the Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica della Biennale di Venezia on September 2, 2005 and released in the U.S. on December 9, 2005. What else can I say about this wonderful and poetic movie and Heath’s superb portrayal of a tormented gay cowboy that has not been already said? Director Ang Lee is amazing, the music (Gustavo Santaolalla) is touching and beautiful, the cinematography (Rodrigo Pietro) is exquisite and the performances of Heath (Ennis Del Mar) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack Twist) are really stunning. Anne Hathaway is quite good and poor unfriendly Ms. Williams couldn’t even get the accent right. Although the movie was banned in China and got protests from stupid-right-wing-Republicans in America, the world, especially Europe, loved it. Brokeback Mountain was very important for the gay movement, but the point is that it is a love story, not a gay love story: “It transcends a label. It’s a story of two human beings who are in love; get over the fact that it’s two men –that’s the point”[14]. The film is based on a short story written by Annie Proulx (originally published in The New Yorker on October 13, 1997). The script was written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. It was Ossana who was fascinated with Heath, when she saw him in Monster’s Ball. MacMurtry says: “Diana [Ossana] asked that I watch the first 20 minutes of Monster’s Ball to see Heath´s performance (…) After seeing him in that role, I felt that he had what it would take to play Ennis Del Mar –he was that powerful”[15]. About kissing another man (a stupid sexist question that many interviewers asked Heath), Heath said: “My biggest anxiety wasn’t having to kiss Jake (…) It was a perfect script and Ang Lee was the perfect director. So the anxiety for me was – I didn’t want to be the one to fuck it up”[16]. Heath describes Ennis Del Mar as “[an] homophobic male in love with another man”[17]. It is known that Heath got an Oscar nomination (Best Performance as an Actor in a Leading Role) and that, unfairly, he didn’t get the award. Even though all the Brokeback Mountain and Heath fans were probably very disappointed, it’s very probable that Heath didn’t care since he didn’t believe at all in awards.

Casanova started filming on August 17, 2004, was premiered at theMostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica della Biennale di Veneziaon September 3, 2005 and released in the U.S. on December 25, 2005. It’s a funny, tender, poetic & beautiful film about love, passion, changes and fighting for one’s love. Heath is absolutely brilliant, sexy, exciting and wonderful in his role of Casanova. Jeremy Irons, Oliver Platt and Onid Djalili are also great. Director Lasse Hallström shows us, once again, his sensibility for describing tenderness, friendship and love. Casanova has beautiful music by Rameau, Vivaldi, Albinoni and other Baroque masters as well as exquisite costumes. The whole movie was shot in Venice, which gives the film a lot of beauty and splendor. Heath took the movie as a vacation. After Brokeback Mountain and before Candy, Casanova was a break from anxiety and drama: “[Shooting Casanova] ended up being a four-and-a-half-month guided tour. Every day we ended up being taken to the most beautiful parts of Venice to shoot. Brokeback Mountain andCasanova complemented each other. Making Brokeback [Mountain] was excruciating and Casanova was drinking wine and eating pasta, it was like a holiday”[18]. This shows how amazing an actor Heath really was. His portrayal of Casanova is fresh, funny and marvelous, and could have taken millions of hours of preparation, drama studies and a lot of anxiety to any actor, but, for Heath, it was just natural and easy, because he was incredibly talented.

Then we have Candy, my favorite Heath movie. A masterpiece about love and addiction. It started filming on January 27, 2005 and was released on February 15, 2006. Candy is 1.000 times better than Trainspotting (andTrainspotting was really good) and 1.000 times less known thanTrainspotting. Candy is a touching and strong love story full of despair, hope, regrets, dreams & failures. The story does not try to judge, punish or teach. There are no good and bad guys. Candy is a human and honest portrayal of the hell of heroine, a story about real love and a movie that will break your heart into a million pieces. Heath describes the movie like “a film of love (…) not a story about heroine”[19]. Heath explains: “Heroine is involved but I think that the beauty of this film [is that] it’s not exploding heroine or glorifying it in any way (…) It’s a tragic story of love”[20]. Director Neil Armfield was a bit hesitant about using Heath as Dan, since he thought that Heath had a natural energy that was heroic, and Dan was grubby and edgy. But, again, it was Heath’s performance in Monter’s Ballthat “got him” the role. Luke Davies (the writer of the book upon which the movie is based and screenwriter of the movie, together with director Neil Armfield) wrote a beautiful and touching article about Heath after Heath’s death; he describes Heath as a talented, generous, kind and sincere human being, and says: “It was Monster’s Ball that convinced Neil Armfield that Ledger was the one for Candy[21]. What attracted Heath to the project was the novel, which he describes like a “tragic love affair with both the drug and each other”[22], the screenplay and the fact of being allowed to use his own accent, which he didn’t do since Two Hands and10 things I hate about you: “shooting a film using my own accent was attractive … I haven’t done that for 8 years. I was looking forward to feeling liberated from … having to perform with an accent … It was a sense of freedom. I was able to mumble in my own accent, to breath in my own accent, to improvise freely”[23]. Abbie Cornish gives a breathtaking performance. Heath says about Abbie: “… she’s incredibly talented … She relies a lot upon … instinct and the magic of the scene, and she keeps it real and she’s a very grounded human being, very talented obviously, very beautiful… I could not have asked for a better Candy”[24]. I must say that Abbie is the strongest and most brilliant female character of all of Heath’s movies. I’d go further and say that two of the most beautifully portrayed love stories in cinema history are the ones of Ennis and Jack, and Candy and Dan. Candy is a real jewel. Director Armfield is awesome and the cast (Heath, Abbie and Geoffrey Rush) is superb.

I’m Not There started filming on July 30, 2006 and was premiered at theMostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica della Biennale di Veneziaon September 3, 2007 and released in U.S. on November 21, 2007. “I’m Not There” is a 1967 Bob Dylan song from The Basement Tapes Raw: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11. This absolutely brilliant movie, directed by Todd Haynes, is poetic, artistic and has a touch of Fellini’s Otto e mezzo. Heath, Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere and Ben Whishaw are all portraying Dylan. Colin Farrell, who supposed to play Robbie (Heath’s character), pulled out at the last minute, and Heath offered to play the part. Heath’s reasons for doing the movie, in his own words, were: “Firstly I greatly admired Bob Dylan for years and so to be someone connected to his story was enticing; and secondly the fact that Todd had written this incredibly dense hugely ambitious script which I found extraordinary beautiful, daring and I’ve seen his films and I’ve been [a] fan of his movies and I really thought that he was like the only one courageous and intelligent enough to pull it off”[25]. Robbie’s wife is Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who gives a great performance. There is a lot of chemistry between Heath and Charlotte and the story feels very real. I must say that in all 16 movies that Heath made, there are very few actors playing the role of Heath’s couple or love that manage to both give a brilliant performance and create a real romantic feeling; these very few actors are Rose Byrne, Julia Stiles, Jake Gyllenhaal, Abbie Cornish and Charlotte Gainsbourg. About if the movie I’m Not There gives you a better knowledge of Dylan, Heath says: “I don’t know anything more about him than you do after doing this movie … he’s still happily a mystery to me”[26]. Dylan and Heath had a lot in common. Two true artists who don’t compromise their art: they draw their art by what they believe is good and important, and not by what the public believes is good and important: “I really appreciate the fact that Dylan was fearless in terms of not … conforming to a public demand or a commercial expectation … reinventing himself”[27]. Heath saw in Dylan a really fearless artist. In a beautiful interview, four months before his death, Heath talks about the importance of not being afraid to fail and what failure teaches us: “I think in order to evolve as a person and as an actor, you need to be fearless somewhat. Push yourself and dare to be bad I guess. Don’t be afraid to fail and I’ve failed many times, but … failure teaches you how to succeed, I guess”[28]. Terry Gilliam described Heath as wonderful and fearless; fearless with capital letters[29]. Even being such a great artist, Heath thought that it was obnoxious calling acting art. About his role in I’m Not There, he says that Robbie is in “a moment in time in which he’s dealing with these two worlds: his professional life and his family life and [tries] to balance love and art, if you can call acting art, which I think is obnoxious”[30].

The Dark Knight was released on July 14, 2008, almost 6 months after Heath’s death. The film started filming on April 2, 2007 and finished filming on October 19, 2007. I personally found the plot weak and the casting (besides Heath, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman) not quite convincing. The love story between Rachel and the other guy (I forgot his name, since his character is so easy to forget) has neither magic nor depth. I think it could have been much more interesting to explore the relationships between the characters and to tell much more of the Joker’s story instead of so many explosions, fights and guns. Nevertheless, it’s a good movie for teenagers (although very violent) and for people who love comic-book heroes. The special effects are spectacular, and the Joker and the music (Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard) are definitely the best of the film. Heath’s portrayal of the Joker is so good that when he is not on screen the movie really goes down, and when he appears, onecannot take the eyes off of him. The Joker is so cool and brilliant that one really wants him to win the battle. Although not a fan of comic books[31], Heath said that “the character of the Joker was too good to turn down”[32]. Heath wasn’t a fan of blockbuster movies neither, but the character was too attractive: “in this monster machine of a movie, popcorn movie … it was purely a character choice, I can honestly say that”[33]. He thought that Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker was perfect (“To touch what Jack Nicholson did in Tim Burton’s world would be a crime”[34]), and he never compared himself to Nicholson because he really believed that the worlds of Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan are completely different, and therefore, uncomparable: “It was an opportunity for a new version of the Joker”[35]. Although Heath knew immediately after being asked to play the Joker how he wanted to do it (“I knew 5 seconds later exactly how to play it”[36]), he locked himself up in a hotel room in London for 6 weeks in order to prepare his character, looking for the Joker’s voice and looking for his laugh: “I locked myself away for 6 weeks in a room and I kind of came up with this creep”[37]. He wrote a diary about the Joker he was going to portray with notes, drawings and photos of old Batman Comics, hyenas and A Clockwork Orange. His father shows the diary in the great German TV series-Documentary Too Young to Die: Heath Ledger (S1, Ep. 3, July 28, 2012). I bought the Documentary in English from the producers of the show and I can say that it is the best documentary about Heath that I’ve seen. Kim Ledger says, showing “the Joker” diary: “He galvanized the upcoming character in his own mind. That was typical of Heath … this was just on a whole new level”[38]. The diary ends with the words “Bye, bye”, which are, after Heath’s death, very painful. There are many stupid speculations about how portraying the Joker led Heath to exhaustion and death, but the truth is that, although the character required a high level of energy, “it was incredibly enjoyable”[39]. Heath said in many interviews that he had a lot of fun playing the Joker: “The Joker was … the most fun I ever had … probably ever will have playing a character”[40]. He described the Joker as a “dark, very nasty … psychopath, sociopath, mass-murdering clown”[41]. The Joker was not only evil but something else: “He’s not just gonna be scary … there are [a] few surprises, I think”[42]. Sadly, Heath didn’t see any takes or parts of the film, because the producers were very secretive about it: “I think the movie is going to be awesome. I’m very excited for it. I haven’t seen anything. Nothing. They really don’t want anyone to see anything. It’s very secretive. But just from what I’ve seen first hand and just from what I’ve heard, I think it’s going to be good”[43]. The movie is “In memory of our friends Heath Ledger and Conway Wickliffe”. Wickliffe (1966–2007) was killed on set while filming a test run.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the opus magnum of Terry Gilliam and, tragically, the last performance of Heath. It started filming on December 8, 2007. On January 23, 2008, one day after Heath’s death, the production stopped until February 17. Everybody wanted to finish the movie, to show Heath’s last creation, so on February 18 filming begun again, and Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law came along to finish Heath’s performance (later they donated all their salary –$ 20 million– to Heath’s daughter Matilda). In the movie there are two worlds: the real world and the imaginary world. Fortunately, all the scenes of the real world (which were shot in London) were already finished when Heath died. The scenes in the imaginary world were going to be shot in Vancouver. So, Tony, Heath’s character, appears different every time he enters in the Imaginarium. Depp, Law and Farrell, apart from having some physical resemblance to Heath in the movie (same hair, same moustache, same goatee, same make-up), copied Heath’s mimics in the movie, and the film does not get affected by the fact that there are “4 Tonys”. The sad thing is that Heath does not appear much. Heath wears blue contact lenses in the movie, to “hide” the truth about Tony. At a certain moment during the movie, his lenses were supposed to fall out and show us the “real” Tony with his real eyes. That scene was never shot. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a magical, poetic and beautiful movie, with an incredible art direction (Caroline Smith), beautiful cinematography (Nicola Pecorini), brilliant costumes (Monique Prudhomme), an extremely poetic and marvelous music (Jeff & Mychael Danna) and an amazing cast (Heath –who improvised half of his dialog–, a superb Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole, Verne Troyer, Depp, Law and Farrell, and Tom Waits shining in his amazing and funny portrayal of the Devil). Although I find the movie very beautiful, watching The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is painful, because it feels like both the real and artistic proof of Heath’s death. When Johnny Depp appears instead of Heath we really feel Heath’s loss. At the end of the movie, instead of writing “A film by Terry Gilliam”, Gilliam wrote in the credits: “A movie from Heath & friends”. According to Gilliam, that was what the movie was. The film is in memory of Heath and of producer William Vince, who died 5 months after Heath.

Heath always pushed himself to his limits, acting-wise. He always wanted to surprise himself. Just like River Phoenix and Johnny Depp, he worked very hard to erase his pretty boy image and preferred looking for very different and challenging roles, where he could grow as an actor and as a person: “I always look for things that challenge me and … teach me to be a more understanding, accepting human being and actor”[44].

Everyone who knew Heath talks about how amazing he was as a person and as an actor. In his interviews, Heath appears to be a really nice and down-to-earth guy: humble, bright and interesting: “He was a star … who tried to preserve his naturalness in the spotlight (…) [he] was just totally transparent in his vulnerability”[45]. And, then, he would transform in front of the camera.

Heath was very artistic in many fields. He was a great photographer and loved to take pictures and to film everything he could: “He was never without a camera, from when he was very young”[46]. His father shows some of his artistic photos in Too Young to Die: Heath Ledger. Heath was a master in chess (he was state junior champion in Australia at age ten, and later in New York he used to play chess in Washington Square Park) and played poker really well: “He was good at everything he did”, said Ellen DeGeneres[47]. Heath was very athletic (played cricket and hockey for years, was a great swimmer, surfer, skater and rider). He was fascinated by Nick Drake whom also died at a very young age (26), in 1974, and thought about doing a movie about him. In addition, Heath created a music label called Masses Music Co. (known as The Masses) and directed several music videos, including “Cause An Effect” and “Seduction is Evil (She’s Hot)”, songs by Heath’s childhood friend, rapper No Fixed Abode, known as N’fa; “Morning Yearning”, song by Ben Harper; “Black Eyed Dog”, song by Nick Drake; and “King Rat”, song by Modest Mouse (the video was unfinished when Heath died, but was completed by members of The Masses –Auber, Houk, Taglioli and Cline– and released on August 4, 2009): “I do have some wonderful distractions … I have a music label and I direct music videos and so I immerse myself in a different industry which kind of keeps acting really fresh for me”[48].

Heath had a raw and huge talent for acting and a terrible taste in women. Interesting and brilliant as he was, it’s weird that he didn’t date exciting and intelligent artists but kept dating superficial and quite tacky models and actresses who became more famous for dating Heath than for their creative work. Heath said that he was in love with love, and appears to have had a tremendous need for being loved: “He was embarrassingly romantic, each time he fell in love”, remembers Davies[49].

Many people close to him said that he was an incredibly generous person. He was highly admired and loved by other actors: Matt Damon said that Heath was the best actor he ever worked with[50] and Daniel Day-Lewis dedicated to Heath his SAG Award (Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role) in a beautiful and touching speech 5 days after Heath’s death[51]. The cinema directors with whom he worked (Jordan, Kapur, Lee, Gilliam, Nolan…) all adored him and became good friends of his. Heath had a talent for developing strong friendships with the people he worked with. He wanted to enjoy his art, learn every day a bit more and work with brilliant and nice people: “I just wanna enjoy myself. I wanna learn more, I wanna work with good people, creatively and as people, really just good people”[52]. He cared very much about the human part of all human beings. He appreciated genius but, above all, he appreciated nice human beings. When he was working with Gilliam he said: “I think Terry Gilliam is brilliant and he’s such a nice guy. I’m not interested in working with genius bastards”[53].

Heath wasn’t a celebrity campaigning loud for causes and charities, but he did contribute to nature, charity and peace. The music video “King Rat” is an artistic protest against the illegal whale hunts off the coast of Australia. Heath used to visit kids with cancer at the hospital where he was born, and donated money for several charities. In 2003 he opposed the entry of Australia in the Oil-for-Bush-Iraq war and called the Prime Minister of Australia John Howard “a dick”[54] during a TV interview.

Heath died at the age of 28 (two months and a half before his 29th birthday) due to an accidental overdose of prescription pills –a combination of 6 different painkillers, sleeping pills and anti-anxiety pills (oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam –Valium–, temapezan, alprazolam –Xanax– and doxylamine). A real lethal cocktail indeed. This year he would have been 36 years old. To the general view that he may have been depressed or sad, people that were close to him state the contrary: “He was in good spirits and having a wonderful time on this Terry Gilliam movie”[55]. Heath appears in his last movie much thinner, but Gilliam and Heath’s co-stars in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus denied that Heath was down and they were, like everybody else, surprised and crushed by his death. They talked about Heath’s vitality, energy and strength. Gilliam said that, as soon as he would say “Cut!”, Heath was making jokes and being friendly to everybody: “He kept everybody going … He would lift everybody”[56]. Gilliam joked that he was co-directing the movie with Heath, and Cole and Garfield agreed that he really did. Heath was always improvising and changing scenes, and this energy pushed everybody else: “Every take he would come back with something different and surprising, which makes the whole process of making a film much more fun”[57]. “He was always … energetic and generous”[58], said Cole. And Garfield added: “[He was] extraordinary. Full of life, a love for life, an energy which was contagious … inspiring to everyone”[59]. Nevertheless, when Heath came back to New York, he commented to Chopra that “he was a little depressed about not having seen his daughter”[60]. Gilliam said after Heath’s death: “Maybe life leaves it’s scars, but I didn’t see that many bad scars in his life”[61].

Although his life wasn’t easy by the time of his death, Heath had a strong love for life and was full of projects (screenwriter Allan Scott was working with Heath on making a movie about a chess prodigy, based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit, directed and starred by Heath and the amazing Ellen Page). His father shows in Too Young to Die:Heath Ledger several scrips of projects that Heath kept for maybe doing in the future. The day after he died he was supposed to meet director Shekhar Kapur to discuss several projects. Heath and Kapur spoke on the telephone on Monday January 21. Kapur said: “I last spoke to him the night before he died … He said he could not see me that night but really wanted to meet me the next day … He made me promise that I would call him in the morning and wake him up. I tried…”[62]. Heath suffered from insomnia. In addition, he had a strong backache and a chest infection the days prior to his death that didn’t allow him to sleep. Heath had several types of pills prescribed by doctors from different countries. Although no pill taken on its own was extremely dangerous, the combination of all together proved to be lethal. He took 6 pills (which is a lot), but he didn’t take 30, which is common in suicides. His death was purely accidental. Heath died probably without suffering. In a program that discussed Heath’s death, it was said that “he just stopped breathing”[63]. His father became one month ago the patron of Scriptwise[64], a non-profit foundation set up to educate people about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs.

Heath received more than 30 posthumous awards (including the SAG Award, the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) for his amazing portrayal of the Joker. Many people think that he won all these awards due to his unexpected death, but they forget that James Dean was also posthumously nominated for 2 Oscars for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1955 (East of Eden) –the first posthumous acting nomination in Academy Awards history– and in 1956 (Giant), and he didn’t win neither. In any case, Heath didn’t care so much about awards and he always compared the cinema awards with a competition that would involve different sports: “Who is the winner? It’s such a surreal kind of concept to be competing … whatever you are acting or directing … everyone is kind of playing different sports and you start from different lines and you’re finishing at a different spot”[65].

Heath is survived by his parents, his three sisters and his daughter Matilda (who is now 9 and a half years old and was two years and three months when Heath died). Heath’s friend tattooist Scott Campbell spoke of how Heath would get really excited when talking about his daughter: “‘Heath would get all excited … and that excitement was so contagious’ … ‘All the things he would do with her as she grew up. Like buying a garage in Brooklyn and setting up a big screen on the back wall, so he and Matilda could pull the car up into it and have their own private drive-in theatre’”[66]. Heath loved being surrounded by friends: “There were always people coming and going at Mr. Ledger’s place, drinking tea, using the computer and gathering around for dinner. Mr. Ledger was always manning the barbecue grill or making espresso. ‘If he could cook at his house with an ocean of people laying on the living room floor watching movies, that was his heaven’, Mr. Campbell said. ‘That and his daughter, Matilda ­–she was everything to him’”[67]. Two months before Heath’s death he explained in a touching interview how having a child changed his view on death: “You also look at death differently … It’s like a Catch-22, like I feel good about dying now because I feel like I’m alive in her but at the same hand you don’t wanna die because you wanna be around for the rest of her life. It’s … [an] interesting kind of set-up”[68].

His last interview (Art Radio), December 3, 2007 (one and a half months before his death) is painful to hear, because Heath said, when the interviewer told him that Brokeback Mountain was Heath’s peak: “I’d like not to think about it as a peak [laughs], ’cause I’m only 28 and I’ve got [a] few more years”[69]. When talking about his coming projects, Heath talked about reuniting with Terry Gilliam and also starring in The Tree of Life (2011) of Terrence Malick “and then I’ll drop to the ground, dead, for a year”[70]. About losing such a star and gifted artist, Rob Reiner said: “It’s really tragic when somebody who’s as gifted and talented is cut down at their early part of their career because we always think about what more they could have offered”[71]. And Gilliam said: “I think that we all thought that this was somebody, without a doubt, who was going to be the greatest actor of his generation”[72]. Heath lived his life to the maximum. Davies wrote: “The sense of loss many have experienced since [Heath’s] death is not just for what has gone, but for what would have been (…) he left not just traces but great swathes of himself. He was extravagant, in gesture and in action, in intimacy and on screen. But his friend the New York tattooist Scott Campbell … says it was Ledger’s kindness and sincerity, above all else, that came through at close quarters”[73].

Heath was never satisfied with anything he did professionally speaking, and he said that he would do everything different, but he didn’t feel any regrets because he found regrets, as Spinoza, to be a big waste of time: “I don’t regret anything, because regrets I find them to be a waste of time because there is nothing you can really do about anything in life you regret, so, I appreciate everything big and small that I’ve been a part of”[74]. About success, something that many actors and artists wrongly seek, Heath said: “What is success? … For me, what a success is … the only time that I’m alive and living and expressing and feeling and relating is when I’m on set and that time between action and cut and so that’s the only thing that’s important: how this experience is and how this experience will affect my life … And everything that happens after that is just irrelevant”[75]. To be honest with your art and to grow with your art, as an artist and as a person, isn’t that the real success?

Heath’s art made him immortal and his tragic death made him forever young. The world lost a huge talented actor on January 22, 2008. We’re left with his 16 movies, most of them really great and all of them with an incredibly sensitive and charismatic touch: the wonderful art of the unforgettable Heath Ledger.

yael-antonia-1-B-N Antonia Tejeda Barros, Madrid, April 30, 2015


Two Hands, 10 things I hate about you, The Patriot, A Knight’s Tale, The Four Feathers, Monster’s Ball, The Sin Eater & Ned Kelly / Photo by Yael Streett Tejeda, Madrid, 2015


The Brothers Grimm, Lords of Dogtown, Brokeback Mountain, Casanova, Candy, I’m Not There, The Dark Knight & The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus / Photo by Itay Streett Tejeda, Madrid, 2015


Heath’s art / Photo by Itay Streett Tejeda, Madrid, 2015


Reading about Heath / Photo by Yael Streett Tejeda, Madrid, 2015


Watching Two Hands with our cinema projector / Antonia Tejeda Barros, Madrid, 2015


Watching Brokeback Mountain with our cinema projector / Antonia Tejeda Barros, Madrid, 2015