Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Only the Good Die Young: Heath Ledger Found Dead at 28

Photo Credit: Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Heath Ledger, the Australian-born actor best known for his Oscar-nominated work in the seminal film "Brokeback Mountain," was found dead in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 28. As Mike Bruno of As Entertainment Weekly reports, "The New York Times, CNN, and Reuters initially reported that Ledger's body was found with pills scattered around him. Police are reportedly investigating a possible drug overdose, though no cause of death has been determined."

Photo credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times

But even as gossip reporter Courtney Hazlett tastelessly comments on MSNBC that Ledger's death "In a lot of ways...this reminds me -- we've almost had a dress rehearsal for this with Owen Wilson," a report from TMZ.com reports, Ledger was ill with pneumonia at the time of his death, and the cops told Ledger's family his death was accidental and there was no evidence to support the allegation that he may have committed suicide.

The Associated Press' Tom Hays notes, "While not a marquee movie star, Ledger was a respected, award-winning actor who chose his roles carefully rather than cashing in on his heartthrob looks. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain," where he met Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film. The two had a daughter, Matilda, and lived together in Brooklyn until they split up last year."

Photo credit: Jurgen Vollmer/20th Century Fox

More recently, Ledger appeared in Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There" as one of the many incarnations of Bob Dylan and finished filming his role as the Joker in "The Dark Knight," a sequel to 2005's "Batman Begins." In addition to starring roles in such films as "10 Things I Hate About You, " "A Knight's Tale," "The Brothers' Grimm: and "The Patriot," he played Billy Bob Thornton's suicidal son in the 2002 film, "Monster's Ball."

Perhpas the best perspective on Ledger's untimely death comes from Danny Zucker in the Huffington Post:

"According to one online source, he prepared for his role in Christopher Nolan's new film by isolating himself for a month and filling a journal with his own Joker-inspired thoughts. I'd never heard of such dedication before, and I loved him for it. To me, Ledger was still fresh, still new and appealing, still without a devastating scandal, a young, extremely talented artist with a doubtless-amazing future.

Upon hearing the devastating news, I wished that I could give back that moment to the universe, the moment Heath Ledger died under still-unknown circumstances, or at least the point at which I heard about it. He'd been an inspiration to me for his commitment to his craft, his seeming avoidance of the many pitfalls of celebrity, and to hear of him dying too far before his time shook me with a draining sadness I cannot fully describe.

As I aged, however, and learned more about the "darker" side of fame and Hollywood that has become something of a mainstay in today's headlines, I began to doubt that to which I had aspired as a pre-teen; Simpson, Blake and Spector were likely murderers, Hilton and Lohan alcoholic party animals, and scores of other famous faces struggling drug users. I began to wonder whether celebrity had something to do with it all. Perhaps it was a newfound ease at obtaining drugs or public sympathy, an arrogant feeling of entitlement, or simply an overwhelming exhaustion from years of fleeing the paparazzi. Maybe these are merely commonplace tragedies that happen to have occurred in the public eye. I cannot say for sure.

These things frightened me away from pursuing celebrity, but cemented my faith in artists that work for creativity's sake, for the sake of the craft. The incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis falls under this category, for example, and I believe that Heath Ledger does, as well. It is important to note that I do not intend to sully Ledger's reputation, nor to imply that he had become something of a degenerate. One cannot explain his tragic passing at the age of 28, in my opinion. Nor should it become a topic of public scrutiny; but Heath Ledger wore a public face. He surely felt some of the difficult strains of standing in the limelight, and he will be talked about.
This event has spurred another topic in my mind, the odd truth that though we come to know these people by name and appearance, they are not our neighbors, nor our friends. Surely we can admire, support and mourn for those we never meet, but many of us do not know the inner personalities or insecurities of the celebrities we enjoy. Their publicity makes them ours to discuss, criticize and love, but the masses are not necessarily welcome in the hearts of Heath Ledger and his peers. Our love is not requited. So it strikes me as a little weird to feel a sense of loss for a person I've only come to know through the cinema. And yet, I still mourn him, and I still appreciate him.

For us, life continues, but knowledge of its fragility is ever more present with each passing. One's art may never leave one's bedroom, but its meaning transcends public opinion; we do not have to know about it to feel its effect, and we do not have to be famous to have something relevant to say.

Photo credit: Kimberly French/Focus Features

As I write this, actor Brad Refero (The Client), who had a historical pattern of substance abuse, was laid to rest this past weekend in his native Tennessee after being found dead from a drug overdose at age 25. We bore witness to the publicized meltdowns of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan -- both by-products of dysfunctional families, as well as the ongoing substance abuse problems of pop singer Amy Winehouse. There is this morbid fascination with watching celebrities so caught up in the fast lane that it's a matter of time before they crash and burn under the weight of their own personal hubris.

What makes Ledger's untimely passing all the more tragic is the sense of losing a talent that still had potential to grow, and his astute role selection made it clear he's not cashing in on his looks. He took his craft seriously, and his dedication translates into substantial achievement on the screen. That was makes his passing so damned painful to hear on the evening news.

Rest in peace, Heath. You deserved far, far better than this.

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