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Heath Ledger, You Got Us Good

As excitement mounts for The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger as the Joker, we take a look back at Ledger's towering performance as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain.
heathIt’s been only six months since the rising star Heath Ledger died of an accidental and toxic mix of prescription pills in New York City. He was 28 years old. What a difference half a year makes. From his death on January 22nd, 2008 to the opening of his last completed film, The Dark Knight, on July 18th he’s been transformed in the media from promising young actor to everyone’s favorite young actor. He’s now unarguably the doomed icon of this generation.


Ledger has been frequently eulogized in the past six months but he’s been oddly present, too; it’s as if he’s been watching the chaos of public mourning and contributing to it with intermittent peeks at his anarchic performance as “The Joker”. This odd double exposure of canonized and living actor didn’t happen through exploitative Hollywood maneuvering but simple economics. How do you stop a moving train? Tent pole scheduling is serious business and Knight was already well en route to its July berth when tragedy stuck. Ledger, too, was already earmarked—or grin-marked if you will—as that film’s principal visual marketing hook.


For all the current hoopla surrounding his intense take on a classic character, when the smoke clears, the Joker won't be the definitive Heath Ledger performance, the one that people remember him for in years to come. His astonishing creation of Ennis Del Mar is the one. His complete immersion into that self-loathing cowboy forever lost on Brokeback Mountain would have ensured his place in film history even if he had lived a long uneventful life as a working actor afterwards. The actor’s tragic demise only sped his classic work to its natural destination.

Brokeback Mountain, widely considered an instant classic upon its release in December 2005, keeps on improving with repeat viewings. Three years after its debut it’s more moving than ever, like some perfectly made objet d’art that feels more classic the more familiar it becomes. Ang Lee, a gifted auteur, deserves the lion’s share of praise for shaping the already heartbreaking short story by Annie Proulx, but he was blessed with the perfect cast in transitioning it to the screen. At first, the central roles of ranch hand lovers Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist were difficult to cast. The promise of working with Lee meant that Young Hollywood was interested but the sexuality of the material frightened some “name” actors away.


History was made once Ledger and his screen partner Jake Gyllenhaal were on board.  Romantic dramas live or die by their acting duets and Brokeback Mountain had it. Ledger’s painfully coiled star turn, while owning the film, owes a great deal to the eager sensitivity of Gyllenhaal’s work and vice versa. The contrast between their character temperaments and star personas only heightens the passion and the tragedy. Maybe Ennis and Jack could have saved each other.  If only…


heathConsider for a moment how vastly different they just stand and see their worlds. When we get our first look at Ennis Del Mar he’s leaning against a wall, smoking. He rarely lifts his head, staring only at his boots. Even before his sexual collision with Jack and resultant turmoil, Ledger has handed us a snapshot of man trapped inside himself. Jack Twist, on the other hand, moves like he’s a part of the larger world rather than a sole inhabitant. Even in repose, leaning against his truck while giving Ennis that first once over, he’s aggressively carnal. Ennis barely allows himself a glance but Jack isn’t at all shy about staring. Gyllenhaal makes deft use of his huge expressive eyes—they never stop looking at Ennis. Even as the romance progresses, Jack's desire for friendship, camaraderie even, never abates, remaining clear in his every expression, every flicker of his blue, blue eyes.


Actors are often lauded for physical transformations but the crystalline precision of Ledger’s star turn in Brokeback Mountain is that the physicality of Ennis is only a manifestation of the internal. The performance is as specific as any dutiful biopic recreation but it’s causal, lived in, rather than imitative. Ledger understands and telegraphs that Ennis’s discomfort is not physical but psychic. Ennis’s clenched physicality, his inconsistently tactile responses to his lover, the famous way he swallows his dialogue—these are merely his insides turned out. He can’t live with himself. He can’t live with or without Jack. This man can’t truly live.


Ennis may have lived a miserable half-life, but Ledger’s performance ironically delivers a full, radiant life. When people talk about "promising" actors it means they’ve generally been impressed but they’re still waiting for one great performance or signature role to come. Ledger’s death came far too early; there’s no disputing that. But promising isn’t the right word for his gifts. His breakthrough performance was not a promise made but a promise fulfilled. Ledger’s death and this towering performance have placed us in the awkward position of Jack Twist himself.  We’re still staring greedily at Heath Ledger, asking in vain for more. With Ennis Del Mar, the young actor delivered a performance so stunning and true that we’ll never be able to quit him.


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