I was going to blog about the Oscar nods and snubs today, but I’m feeling too bummed out by the death of Heath Ledger. Unless you’ve managed to pull off that whole living under a rock thing, you know by now that the actor’s body was found in a Manhattan apartment on Tuesday in that classic celebrity death tableau, naked and surrounded by pills. (I don’t mean that unkindly, just that it is what it is, and it’s so sad.)
I loved Heath Ledger for two reasons: His boho/hipster chic domestic bliss with Michelle Williams and “Brokeback Mountain.” When it came to him and his longtime significant other and their baby girl, Matilda Rose, I was filled with a mix of envy and delight. I know I’m not the only twenty/thirtysomething lady who longed to be Michelle, living in a groovy Brooklyn brownstone with a famous-but-not-too-famous (yet very attractive) film actor, eating organic fruit and produce from the local farmers market and taking yoga. (Sarah Horne wrote brilliantly about the Heath/Michelle phenomenon – and the shock that followed their break up – in Radar magazine not too long ago.) So I’ll remember Heath Ledger for that.
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But, perhaps most of all, I’ll remember Heath Ledger for his performance in “Brokeback Mountain.” In my opinion, Ledger didn’t really make any other movies besides “Brokeback Mountain” although logically I know that’s not true. Yes, he made many films, and many of them were quite good and well-received, but when I think about him, all I can think about is “Brokeback Mountain.” (Even though I’ve seen it a million times on cable, I didn’t even realize until some news commentator mentioned it that he’d been the dude in 1999’s fairly intelligent teen comedy, “10 Things I Hate About You.”)
As a doomed Ennis Del Mar in “Brokeback,” Ledger turned in the performance of a lifetime that, even now, as I type this, makes me tear up a little. Sure, the movie got all the trumpets and whistles for being the “gay cowboy movie with the gay sex scene,” and yes, it was a movie about gay men. And yes, for taking on the groundbreaking role, Ledger deserved all the praise he got. But to me, “Brokeback Mountain” was about so much more.
I remember going to see it alone on a rainy Monday afternoon a while after it had come out. When Ennis uttered the last line of the film, as he touches his and Jack’s shirts and straightens out a picture postcard, I crumpled up into a little ball in the River Oaks Theatre on West Gray and sobbed, filled with emptiness of unrequited dreams we all share. Ledger played the role so well that when my mother dragged my conservative and slightly homophobic dad to see the film, my father later said to me, “You know, that movie was about love, and it was about not getting to live the life you wanted to lead.” Ledger’s performance did that. It was a character of few critical words and a million small facial expressions, and it broke our fucking hearts.
I’m not an actor, but I guess if an actor is lucky, he or she will have one role that will stand the test of time. It’s so shitty that he’s dead, but I’m glad Heath Ledger knew the love of a steady partner, the devotion of a baby girl, and the glory of a great part before he had to leave us. – Jennifer Mathieu