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Heath Ledger Getty 1.jpg

The Enduring Legacy of Heath Ledger

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | April 4, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | April 4, 2023 |


Heath Ledger Getty 1.jpg

I remember, with astonishing clarity, the night that Heath Ledger died. As a 17-year-old with a Brokeback Mountain poster on my bedroom wall, the shocking news on his passing hit me like a ton of bricks, as it did for many of my friends and classmates. I recall, the morning after the announcement, watching the scene from 10 Things I Hate About You where he dances to ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ on the library computer. Ledger’s death was the first time I was truly devastated by the passing of a celebrity, and the core memory it created has lingered with me well into adulthood. Heath Ledger’s legacy continues to cast a vast shadow over the industry, one far larger than many had predicted it would when he died at the tender age of 27. The entertainment world is dishearteningly littered with examples of promising talent dying before their time, becoming enshrined in amber as deified cautionary tales, forever defined by their lost potential. With Ledger, those qualities remain as a large part of our memories of him, but his influence on the generations that followed him is undeniable. On the day that would have been his 44th birthday, it only seems right to look back on his legacy.

Ledger was a teen heartthrob cutie with a sharp streak. His turn as Patrick Verona in the rad Shakespeare retelling 10 Things I Hate About You, the ‘bad boy’ with a heart of gold, was the platonic ideal of the high school hottie for girls like me. When he joined the cast of Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s tender romantic drama about cowboys who must hide their love for decades, I remember the surprise and scepticism surrounding it. It seemed like a major risk and a total 180 for what he was best known for with excitable adolescents like me. You couldn’t escape the barely veiled homophobia of the reporting around this film, with journalists outright asking Ledger and co-star Jake Gyllenhaal if they were afraid to kiss on-screen, or smugly declaring them ‘brave’ for doing so. It was 2005, a ‘different time’ and all that, but certainly one that did not see actors like Ledger as primed for such a change. He proved them wrong.



There’s a stunning world of difference between 10 Things Ledger and Brokeback Mountain Ledger. With the latter, he earned lofty but justified comparisons to the likes of Brando, so immersed in the troubled stoicism of Ennis del Mar that he seemed primed to burst. He found the raw, fractured honesty of a man who had never been allowed to feel like himself except during those ‘fishing trips’ with Jack f**king Twist. Ledger was already a star but Brokeback Mountain kicked open the doors to a world of seemingly limitless potential.



And then, of course, there’s the Joker. Again, Ledger’s casting announcement for The Dark Knight inspired furore, albeit with a new edge of geek outrage that is now the default mode of the genre. Ledger became one of a mere handful of people to posthumously win an Oscar, and deservedly so. The influence his portrayal of the Joker has had on the past 15 years of superhero cinema is tough to overstate. This take on Batman’s most infamous nemesis has its fingerprints all over the expanded universe franchise age it helped to birth. Yet many of the wannabes (and much of the films around them, let’s be honest) fail to capture what made Ledger’s work so forceful.

Ledger’s Joker is an agent of chaos, of course, but he’s also genuinely funny. His jokes are good. He dresses like a nurse from Animaniacs but keeps his make-up to meet up with Harvey Dent in hospital. There’s a genuine unpredictability to his Joker, a man of no name or background whose origin story is multiple choice. Ledger doesn’t walk so much as he slinks, a mockery of the figures of Gotham’s elite who he targets with such giddiness. He’s physically overwhelmed by Christian Bale’s Batman but you never doubt that they’re equally matched as nemeses. There’s a visceral, truly no-f*cks-given quality to his Joker, so commanding and utterly unconcerned with the so-called rules. Everyone tried to copy Ledger. Every superhero movie since has tried to create a villain with that vast a cultural footprint. Few have succeeded, even as they try to copy the worst parts of the Ledger Joker lore.



It’s tough to talk about Ledger’s life and death without getting into the weeds of the oft-repeated claims of his ‘dark method acting’ that supposedly drove him to madness. His name appears frequently on listicles of actors who ‘went too far’ and is the unfortunate foundation of a portentous myth about the dangers of playing the clown prince of crime. The accepted narrative, alas, is that Ledger was so committed to playing this villainous character, so smothered by their cruelty and chaos, that he couldn’t escape it once the cameras stopped rolling. None of this was true, of course. We know that Ledger had fun making The Dark Knight, with actors sharing stories of him cracking jokes and skateboarding on-set. We know that many of his colleagues had wonderful experiences working with Ledger, which they are vocally positive about. The idea of unbearable trauma, of art and artist being inextricably entangled to the point of death, has held far too great a thrall on our collective culture. It’s not the legacy that Ledger deserves, and it’s certainly not something that should be giddily replicated by others in the hope of capturing some of that spark (looking at you, Jared Leto.)

The work remains, as do the memories of Ledger’s family, friends, and colleagues, who have maintained his legacy well into the 2020s. His two most famous performances still feel remarkably fresh, even after all the parodies and imitations. He will forever be considered another notch on the bedpost of Hollywood’s tragic losses, more story than man, because this is unfortunately an industry driven by exploitation and spinning such sadness into further content (frankly, it’s kind-of a miracle that nobody has tried to make a Ledger biopic yet, and let’s keep it that way, OK?) The best way to honour those who are gone is to pay devotion to their talents, their humanity. That’s what will always live on about Heath Ledger.