April 4th was Heath Ledger’s birthday. He would have been 32. This anniversary serves as a reminder of just how sad his passing was three years ago, and how many more great performances he had in store. After he stared in the critically-acclaimed Brokeback Mountain, he was hailed as the next Marlon Brando. Unfortunately, his story took a James Dean-esque twist instead.
I knew and understood the Brando comparison back in 2005, when I was still in high school.It you watch any Brando film—On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Fugitive Kind, etc.—you see how much he disappeared into a role, how much of his body he committed to the part.In lieu of making dialog work for him, he made the space in between the lines marks of brilliance. Brando never hid behind lines; rather he internalized them, making it appear his character would burst if the line wasn’t spoken.Think of “Stelllllaaaaa!” think of the scene where he opens the bottle of champagne in Streetcar, think of him trying on Eva Marie Saint’s glove in Waterfront.Brando discovered the small things within a role, and used them to define the part.Ledger did this too.
Look no further than his two most honored performances, that of Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain and The Joker in The Dark Knight.Rarely do you see a multiple Oscar nominee represented with two such vastly different roles.But Ledger managed it.Say what you want about his posthumous success with The Joker, but we all know he deserved the praise and would have won had he been alive.Look at him in Brokeback.Minimalism at its finest.He mumbles through his lines like a man trying to find himself, simply lost.He’s hiding from himself, so he hides what he says.Each of his lines in that film is delivered with such a painful hint of self-loathing, and of fear, not of society, but of himself—of the truth.The final scene where he cradles Jake Gyllenhaal’s bloody shirt is something of pure wonder; an actor so clearly understanding what the character is going though, and delivering on the demanding cathartic moment.So much in the body, so much character study, so much devotion.
The same can be said for his instant-classic turn as The Joker.Actors reinvent characters all the time, but never before had it been done to this magnitude.Sparing some of the ad nauseum details about the role, it was perfect.Like Brando, he took small things and made them powerful.For instance, when another actor would have sat quietly in the jail cell, Ledger began applauding—something that wasn’t in the script—and suddenly that’s a memorable scene from the movie.His slithery devouring of lines is nothing short of genius, even changing throwaway lines into unintended punchlines (“Very poor choice of words” anyone?)
I was already a huge fan of Ledger when he passed, and like most of America, probably more so after seeing The Dark Knight. Seeing his performance acknowledged with an Academy Award win was my proudest moment as an Oscar fan. It showed that sometimes, just sometimes, they do award the best performance of the year, regardless of genre.