Australian politics, society & culture

Heath Ledger, 1979–2008

Heath Ledger © Howie_Berlin / Flickr
Heath Ledger © Howie_Berlin / Flickr

Luke Davies

Medium length read3400 words
 

Tucked away in the final vignette of the gag reel from Lords of Dogtown - Catherine Hardwicke's 2005 dramatisation of the skate-punk phenomenon that burst to life in California around 1975 and has deeply influenced fashion, youth culture and the sneaker-marketing wars ever since - is a surreal and strangely prescient moment. The actor Michael Angarano, who plays one of the teen skaters in the film, has dressed up as the character Heath Ledger plays: Skip Engblom, the messy, eccentric mentor figure who gathered a motley bunch of teen misfits around him and turned them into both alternative-culture superstars and cash cows. Angarano wears the full Engblom costume, the flared jeans, the flowery open shirt, the dishevelled blond surfie wig. At first glance you assume it is Ledger having fun in an outtake. But it is Angarano mimicking Ledger mimicking Engblom, the drunken performance getting more over the top as he moves towards us, the extras laughing nervously because they know it is not real and yet the camera is rolling. At the last moment Angarano comes as close to the camera as he can and says, dropping suddenly out of the Ledger character and looking straight down the barrel, "Hey Heath, we're gonna miss you man, yeah." The gag reel fades to black.

Cover: November 2007
November 2007
Michelle Griffin
Janette Turner Hospital
Kerryn Goldsworthy
Malcolm Knox
Clive James
Clare Barker
Freedom, order and The Golden Bead Material: a parent’s dilemma
Amanda Lohrey
A Te Aroha cowboy and his secret part in training the 1985 Melbourne Cup winner
Craig Sherborne

It is clearly a mischievous, in-joke cast-and-crew moment, something personal for Ledger. Perhaps it was his last day of shooting. But given his tragic death in January, aged 28, the moment has a haunted quality about it: one of Ledger's own characters saying goodbye to him. We're gonna miss you man, indeed.

Early in the film, Skip is lecturing his young protégés, in what's meant to be a parody of one of those inspirational-coach-inspires-the-team moments. It comes out, in Ledger's enjoyably over-the-top performance, as a slightly spaced-out and self-conscious hippie pep-talk. "You gotta approach every day like it's your last," he drawls in his outrageous '60s-Santa-Monica-beach-bum accent. "Alright? Anyone got a problem with that?"

It's corny to read much into this. But the very energy which made Ledger live each day as if it were his last is what made him dynamic on screen, and made him a star. Away from the screen, that energy instilled in those who knew him an extraordinarily deep love and affection. Their sense of loss is profound. We can only imagine how painful it must be for Michelle Williams, and for Ledger's family - and how difficult to navigate through the media storm. (Ledger's father, Kim, understated and dignified throughout, released a statement that said, "We remain humble as parents and a family, among millions of people worldwide who may have suffered the tragic loss of a child.")

This pain felt at the sudden loss of a friend, a son, a lover, is understandable. What has been more surprising is the strength of the response of the world at large. Something heroic, playful and generous in Ledger struck a chord with many people, and a collective sadness was experienced - for some, spontaneously and unexpectedly. It was not the salacious interest in the loss of a celebrity, not the desire of the great unwashed to align itself with a Hollywood god-figure by a kind of false grieving. Nor was it about a circus sideshow, though a media circus quickly set up acres of internet tents, with all sorts of bizarre acts. It seemed to be a simpler kind of sadness - at the loss of someone we enjoyed being in the presence of, someone whose transparent openness to his characters' emotions had made us feel, however briefly, more richly our own.

The LA Weekly's deputy editor, Joe Donnelly, knows the real Skip Engblom, Heath Ledger's Lords of Dogtown character, and believes that Ledger's performance was uncanny. "He's almost eerie in how precisely he nailed not only the mannerisms, cadence and physical presence of Skip," says Donnelly, "but also how he raises Skip's spirit, which is the heart and soul and most of what's really great in a not-altogether-great film." The performance constantly sails close to hammy - Engblom was, by all accounts, a flamboyant character - but is pulled back, the wildness offset by a surprising depth of sadness. As in a number of Ledger roles, a kind of animal wisdom and melancholy exists side-by-side with gangly comedy. Witness the beautiful moment late in the film when Engblom, who has somewhat fallen from grace, is alone in the back room of the surf shop, sanding a board. He's a bit drunk. He has, by this stage of the film, every reason to feel unhappy, and perhaps he does. But he's in his element, and when he starts singing along to Rod Stewart's ‘Maggie May', it is rich and tender and intimate; we absolutely connect with his emotion. There's so much going on, and yet Ledger's doing so little.

The English model and actress Lily Cole saw some of this much-in-little that defined Ledger both on and off the screen. She was cast last year in her first significant film role, in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, opposite Ledger. (The film was mid-shoot when he died, and in the process of transferring camp from London to Canada. Ledger was in New York for a few days, and was heading next to Vancouver.) The actor made his places - in London, New York, LA - available to whoever was passing through; he hated an empty house, his friends uniformly agree. Obsessed with music, Ledger gave Cole the password to his computer to access his iTunes, inviting her to roam and browse. She felt privileged that he would entrust her with not just his home, but such an intimate thing as a personal computer. Then, logging on, she noticed that five or six of their mutual friends had also been there recently.

"He wanted everyone to share what he loved," Cole says. "He was just like" - she spreads her arms wide - "he was just like ... give. Give. You know what I mean?"

I don't, really; or not in the way his friends do. But I saw him give himself over, graciously and intensely, to the role I had created in my novel, and drawn from my own life, that became the film Candy. It is impossible, in attempting to pay tribute to Ledger as this magazine's film critic, not to talk about the circumstances of my own connection with him. Ledger's Dan is ultimately a fictional creation, a character who first emerged from the novel; was then re-imagined for the screen by me and co-screenwriter (and director) Neil Armfield; was appropriated by Ledger, taking what he needed from the prototypes and adding his own brilliance; and was finally assembled by Armfield in the edit room. It was a long journey from the facts, such as they once existed. It was, to me, another person up there on the screen; I was merely, along with everyone else, the observer of a beautiful performance. And yet I was aware that I was the only person watching that film who could say it was in some way me on screen. It was an unnerving experience. It felt like a privilege, too.

So I felt I had been the recipient of something from Ledger. Not just a lasting interpretation of something deeply personal that had found its way, through a long and sometimes painful path, from me to the outside world. No, I think it was also my ego's relief that his at times incandescent performance made the character somehow likeable. Because I can't say that's a word I would use to describe myself in my spectacularly dysfunctional twenties.

I was on set all day, every day, shooting a making-of documentary that became a kind of anti-making-of and is yet to see the light of day. I also had a one-line role in the film, as a milkman. It was a joke for six weeks among cast and crew, the neurotic author and his looming cameo, but by the time the night of my scene came around, it was deadly serious, so far as I was concerned: I was dry-throated with the realisation that I was about to commit my woodenness to celluloid, and that I had been a fool to seek the role. It was Ledger who broke through that ridiculous self-obsession: in all the mad bustle just before we started shooting the takes, as I stood there in the glare of the lights practising my action and going over my line, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, very quietly, "Breathe, Lukey, breathe." I managed, if not to breathe, then at least to smile. Lily Cole speaks of the same phenomenon on the set of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. From the start of shooting, Ledger took her under his wing. "Are you nervous?" he asked. (She was.) "It's going to be fine," he said. Ledger's playful spontaneity helped her to not take the whole process too seriously.

Cole remembers Ledger being absolutely driven to finish scenes, even though in the final week in London he was suffering from the flu. He was never the precious actor. The crew would want to wrap things up, for his sake, but Ledger insisted they plough ahead while they still had the "momentum". "OK, everyone," he'd announce, clapping his hands before a take, "let's make this one fun!" - as if the last one had not been exactly that. On a few occasions I saw him say the same thing on the set of Candy, with a mischievous grin. It was his way of saying: Let's remember why we're here; let's recharge the batteries. The crew loved him for it. Those moments would break through the exhaustion, if only briefly. And no one begrudged him his riches, either. It was more a sense of wonder that we could view, at close range, the endearing ease of his person and his performance, knowing that at last we were all there making the film because his presence in it had helped us get the final financing arranged. It was also the sense of wonder, of course, at watching all that fun on set become, later, so much more on screen.

In that same week in London, he called his agent, Steve Alexander, in Los Angeles. Alexander had believed in and nurtured Ledger from early on, and the young actor had crashed many a month on the young agent's couch, in the days when his career was just beginning. Ledger was notorious among friends and family for his endless phone calls, always wanting to relate his latest idea at any hour of the day or night, without much regard for time zones. Alexander was more used to them than most. "I'm really getting the hang of this at last," Ledger said to him from the set, calling just to tell him he was having fun with Terry Gilliam. "I think I'm beginning to know what I'm doing."

He knew what he was doing, in fact, from an early age. He knew the direction he was heading - east, for starters. Not even 17, he packed up and drove himself from Perth to Sydney, in search of fortune. That awkward country boy in a Kings Cross bedsit, determined to make it as a boxer in Gregor Jordan's 1999 film Two Hands - Ledger's first major role - is not a million miles from that Perth boy making a go of it with quiet determination in the Big Smoke.

And then he went further east, to America. One well-known actor described him, off the record, as "this great white shark who came over to our shores and ate all our roles and our women". Women adored him, and he them. He was embarrassingly romantic, each time he fell in love. He bordered on impulsive. I witnessed, during the Candy shoot, the startling intensity of his love for Michelle Williams: the reverence with which he spoke of her, his quietly joyful announcement of her pregnancy, the way they laughed when together. I saw them dance in an empty Kings Cross nightclub, Ledger swirling Williams around, grinning so widely, like the cat that got the cream. He seemed both startled by, and at ease with, good fortune.

"If you asked something of him, the answer was not always yes; it was often, ‘I've got a better idea!'" says the Australian actress Bojana Novakovic, a good friend of Ledger's since they acted together in Blackrock, when Ledger was 17 and Novakovic just 15. "And then everyone would be swept along," agrees Sara Cline, another of his close friends, who ran his production company, The Masses, along with director Matt Amato and Ledger himself.

"His life turned on a dime all the time, which taught me a lot about living in the moment," Cline explains. One Friday morning, Ledger called her and asked, "What do you think about getting a caravan and going to Mexico for the weekend? A dozen of us ... we can surf, camp, be back on Monday."

She was on her way to rent the campervan when Ledger called back and said, "Listen, I was thinking its a little too last-minute; maybe we should go Wednesday instead. It'll be less traffic, more time to plan."

"OK ..." Cline hesitated. "But Heath, we have a company to run."

"Yeah," he shot back. "But it's our company. We can do whatever we want."

Then he added, sheepishly: "Can't we?"

Cline replied, "Heath, by Wednesday, you could be in another country. If we're going to do this, we have to do it now."

At 3 on Saturday morning, a 12-person camper left the windy curves of Mulholland Drive, bound for the border. And, like most things in Ledger's life, there were no regrets.

In life and art, he was a mixture of child and sage. He was boyish in many ways, and yet it was not a Peter Pan quality, of someone incapable of growth. And for all that youth, he did at times seem like an old soul. He was just 22 when he played Sonny Grotowski, in Monster's Ball. That character was so crushed by the grimy weight of life's circumstances, he might have been 60. Billy Bob Thornton played his deeply flawed prison-guard father; Peter Boyle, his irredeemably corrupted grandfather. It was a lineage of nasty white-pecker bigotry. Lost and adrift among awful men, knowing that he could not survive what it would take to live the morally corroded life that seemed his destiny, Ledger was riveting: the lamb in need of nurturing, and at the same time a kind of automaton, inured to the verbal abuses of these appalling males. (It was Monster's Ball that convinced Neil Armfield that Ledger was the one for Candy.)

His exit from the film, only 20 minutes in, is a genuine shock the first time you see it. And though it's Thornton's film, there's a sense that Ledger might have hijacked it, had he stayed. It's because he offers a reservoir of vulnerability, an openness to experience. In the trailer-trash South of the film, that vulnerability is a liability; in Ledger himself, the transparency of that vulnerability as he brought it, again and again, to the screen, is what made him great, and his small body of work lasting. It is all the more moving because of the way it sat with his grace and fluidity, the way he seemed, in his films, so comfortable in own skin. He was not always so comfortable in interviews.

Ledger could effortlessly push these qualities in different directions. In Brokeback Mountain the vulnerability, the potential for danger, is so great - a world so masculine it might destroy you for any aberration - that his real brilliance was to bring to the screen a character, Ennis Del Mar, so fundamentally shut down that he is like a bible of unrequited desires, stifled yearnings, lost potential. In A Knight's Tale, on the other hand, he is vulnerable only in the sense of being a new adventurer in a world that is clearly going to teach him more than a few lessons. It is a dumb film, but fun dumb (like, say, There's Something About Mary) as opposed to Hollywood-is-very-dumb dumb (like Pearl Harbor). Ledger knew just how to ride such films lightly, with self-awareness and good humour.

He was making good choices. The world was at his feet. The sense of loss many have experienced since his death is not just for what has gone, but for what would have been. There always seems, for instance, to be a Steve McQueen biopic project floating around Hollywood; it's hard to imagine anyone other than Ledger capturing perfectly the young McQueen. He had that similar restless energy, that public guardedness and private expansiveness. Candy producer Margaret Fink speaks of being "knocked out" by her first sight of Ledger, at the front door of her Sydney home. "Too simple to put it down to that smile," she says, "but boy, what a smile. There was energy in that smile."

After Brokeback, there was no longer any doubt that he would go on to be one of the great leading men of his time. "He knew his own power," says Neil Armfield. "His relationship with the camera was so instinctive, so private. There was, of course, his face: intelligent, kind, beautiful. Those eyes. That mouth. That smile. His extraordinary physical agility - he was a great natural clown. And that rich, glorious voice."

The film-going public fell in love with all of that. In private, his friends fell in love with all that and more. Late one night recently in London, Ledger went out dancing with Bojana Novakovic. Before leaving, Ledger couldn't find his iPod cord with twin earsets. So he loaded Novakovic's iPod with the same evening's playlist he had just prepared on his own one. "One - two - three!" he said, synchronising players, as in a military operation, so they could be listening to the same songs at exactly the same time as they walked the streets and rode the Tube. At the nightclub, on the dance floor, he shouted to Novakovic, "I hate this music!" And so, once again, they synchronised their iPods - "One - two - three!" - and danced, for the next hour, in a bubble of their own. At the end, a chap came up to them and said, with admiration, "What are you guys on?"

"You look at death differently," said Ledger in a recent interview, speaking of what happens when you become a father. (Matilda, his daughter to Michelle Williams, is two years old.) "I feel good about dying now because I feel like I'm alive in her, but at the same hand [sic], you don't wanna die because you want to be around for the rest of her life." I remember in those first awful moments of learning of his death, as the flurry of phone calls and text messages multiplied, wishing for anything, anything at all other than this abrupt impossibility. One of those vacuous, lurid gossip-column items - Ledger rushed to hospital, suspected overdose, a publicist speaking of ‘exhaustion' - would have been fine. Anything other than this finality.

Yet he fully inhabited his life, and he left not just traces but great swathes of himself. He was extravagant, in gesture and in action, in intimacy and on screen. But his friend the New York tattooist Scott Campbell, who had arranged to meet Ledger for dinner on the night he died, says it was Ledger's kindness and sincerity, above all else, that came through at close quarters. Campbell speaks of how, when Ledger talked about Matilda, he - Campbell - would get jealous about the amazing childhood she was going to have. "Heath would get all excited about it and that excitement was so contagious," Campbell says. "All the things he would do with her as she grew up. Like buying a garage in Brooklyn and setting up a big screen on the back wall, so he and Matilda could pull the car up into it and have their own private drive-in theatre."

"And now," he says, "every time the weight of all this comes down on me, I just think about Matilda, and how she got cheated out of her drive-in."

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed and Totem, the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004.
More by Luke Davies