Going through the life and times of Hollywood’s quintessential Joker on his death anniversary
He wasn’t the first Australian actor to make it big in Hollywood, nor was he the first person to portray the super-villain Joker on screen. But whatever Heath Ledger did, he did as if it was being done for the first time. Heath Ledger: Hollywood’s Dark Star takes a look at the Hollywood legend’s life and times, and there is no better time to take a trip down memory lane, than on his death anniversary, 22nd January.
Written by Brian J. Robb, this book was one of the first biographies published after Heath Ledger’s death in 2008. Unlike other books which spoke about his partying, his relationships, and eventually his sudden death, this one takes a look at his career, beginning with his life before he entered showbiz, and discusses the reasons that made him switch to acting. Not many know that acting wasn’t his first choice for a career,
as he wanted to be a field hockey player. But since it wasn’t as financially viable, he chose the option that was second on his list and made Australia proud.
Laced with iconic photographs from his earlier days as an actor, the book also discusses the actor’s parents and their impact on his life. Although they had separated when he was young, they remained an integral part of his life, especially his father Kim, and were instrumental in his decision to become an actor. Unlike the parents of the era, they wanted him to follow his dreams and told him that they would still be proud of him if he didn’t make it to the next level.
And it did take him a lot of time to reach the ‘next level’, something this book explains really well. In the chapters where his early TV career is discussed, the writer mentions a couple of projects including Roar that helped Heath Ledger establish himself as a future prospect. It then moves on towards his film career – first Down Under and later Hollywood – and how each and every hit or flop project helped him become a better actor than before.
Be it playing Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot (2000), or Billy Bob Thornton’s son in Monster’s Ball (2001), carrying A Knight’s Tale (2001), on his shoulders or learning the craft from Shekhar Kapur in The Four Feathers (2002), Heath Ledger continued to grow in stature. As per this book, he didn’t care if the film flopped or succeeded, he was happy as long as the script and the team were good. That’s cited as the reason why he chose The Order (2003), despite becoming a force to reckon with in Hollywood, or going back to Australia to do Ned Kelly the same year. And then there were his three biggest flicks in 2005 – Casanova, The Brothers Grimm, and Lords of Dogtown – which were as interesting on screen as their behind the scene stories.
Would you believe it if you were told that Matt Damon and Heath Ledger switched roles after they were offered to play the other brother by director Terry Gilliam? Or that Heath Ledger chose to do Casanova mainly because of the beautiful Venice than for the countless leading ladies? This book brings out such details about the actor and his projects, and how going back to his roots and working with Terry Gilliam helped him become a better actor. It also talks about the change these films brought in Ledger’s approach to acting, and how they helped him become a much-improved actor when he went for Brokeback Mountain, the Western about gay cowboys that earned him an Oscar nomination.
Talking about Ned Kelly brings the book to the ‘other’ side of Heath Ledger, the romantic one. The film co-starred another Australian, Naomi Watts, with whom he had his first major relationship. Sadly, despite the two actor’s very public display of affection, Naomi Watts and Heath Ledger couldn’t become the ‘it’ couple they hoped to be. According to the author, that had more to do with Watt’s advancing age and Ledger’s inability to take responsibility at that time, and thus they went their separate ways.
The readers also get to know about his other flings with other actresses including his most stable partner and Brokeback Mountain actress, Michelle Williams, who became the mother of his daughter Matilda but left him because of his dependency on drugs. There were others before Naomi Watts and after Michelle Williams, and this book discusses them all, including Lisa Zane, Heather Graham, Helena Christensen, and Mary-Kate Olsen.
Finally, the book moves to the one phase of his life that is the most talked about part of his career – his untimely death. It brings forward both sides of the story while talking about Heath Ledger’s sudden death at the age of 28, and makes the readers wonder whether he would have achieved greatness, had he stayed alive. Was he really turning into an addict, did drugs ruin his life, was breaking up with the mother of his child the final straw? This book answers it all! In fact, the way the author takes the readers along while writing about the final days of the Hollywood actor shows how much research he must have done in order to come up with this balanced version.
Last but not the least, Heath Ledger’s greatest performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight gets a special mention in the book although it ends soon after. The readers get to know why he wanted his Joker to be different, and what steps did he take to give his everything to the character. It sort of hints that his split with Michelle Williams was one of the reasons why Joker was so dark, but despite being immersed in the character, he still had the presence of mind to save his friend Jake Gyllenhaal’s sister Maggie who might have been injured on the sets had it not been for Ledger’s presence of mind.
This biography paints a memorable portrait of a compelling and intense young actor whose absence is still being felt after 14 years. He was not just a charismatic actor of his generation, but one who migrated from teen idol roles to a character actor with potential. He was a method actor who wanted to prove his supremacy with his performances, and would have achieved greater heights had he not passed away so suddenly, so tragically. His quotes from different interviews, what his co-stars said about him, and how loneliness pushed him over the edge are what makes this biography something to be read, and something from which others can take lessons from.