Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Dark Knight Approaching: Heath Ledger, Revisited

We've all, at one point or another in our movie-watching careers, experienced moments of complete transcendence. Moments when you first see an actor, usually an actor you've never seen before, and you delve, head-over-heels, into a love affair for that one person's entire existence, and then there's just no going back. No going back to the way things were before he or she walked onto the screen. I've had epiphanies with Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Robert Downey Jr, Christian Bale, Kate Hudson, and countless others. They all gave me joy and sent me on movie benders that sometimes lasted for months. One of them, however, stands out in particular. I was young, fourteen years old, in a movie theater with twelve other fourteen year olds. It was opening weekend for "Ten Things I Hate About You." Allison Janney is there. "Kat. Cat! Meow." Julia Stiles flits from the shot , a combat-booted, ringlet-headed, full-fledged wafe. "As always, thank you for your excellent guidance. I'll let you get back to Reginold's quivering member." Nice . And then, enter my first really big Hollywood crush: Heath Ledger. "Only so we can have these moments together." Hello, smitten.

The day he died, I went home, opened a bottle of Australian Chardonnay, and held my glass up really high--to that one, particular moment. To his eyes, like cups of coffee, their fearless undercurrent. And now, the time has come. Midnight on Thursday (or Friday, whatever), I'll be court side to, quite possibly, the greatest superhero villain performance ever created. I will wonder how things could have been, at the career I've looked forward to following film by film all these years. There is a moment in the movie "Candy" in which Heath and Abbie Cornish have ditched their drab wedding reception for a quick bite to eat at the local McDonald's. "We're the coolest people in McDonald's," Abbie says, and Heath laughs, and there's this very real, familiar face up there on the screen looking on, making promises with the eyes. I think that, while "Candy" is not my favorite Heath movie by a long-shot, this scene will always be the scene I remember him by. If you get the chance, watch the movie. Even if only for this one moment of wonderful acting.

My favorite Heath movie (thus far) is, without a doubt, "A Knight's Tale." The movie itself is very fresh and exciting. I am, for whatever reason, glad that, before his untimely death, Heath was able to play a knight. It sounds corny, but think about it. Not every actor in the world is given the chance to play a knight, even if that knight's actual knighthood is fabricated. The character of William Thatcher/Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein, no doubt, came with a crass potential for cliche. He could have been too eager, too pushy, all brawn and no brains. Could you imagine if Paul Walker had been handed the role? But Heath brought a signature vulnerability. The result is a surly but frightened young man, one unsure of his past but determined to make something of his future. He plays the handsome dreamer, but he has a fatal flaw: compassion for the weak. Compassion for the place that he came from: Cheapside, the dregs of Medieval society, worth nothing but the dime in his pocket and the friends by his side. His hubris is short-lived and quickly corrected. Heath is the reason that William Thatcher is so worthy of his loyal followers.

People talk about "Brokeback Mountain" quite a bit, as if its Heath's one and only achievement. I disagree with this mentality, but I do admire the caution, the subtlety, the slight of hand that he gave to the character of Ennis Del Mer. I did not like the movie as much as most people did. I thought it was long and sweeping and made up mostly of mountain scenery. But I did like Heath. I thought that the emotional restraint was so very in tune. He was there, inside of Ennis, calculating the way this man walked and talked and spat and drank and grieved and remembered and moved on. The whole time, however, you didn't see him. There was no Heath on the outside; he was merely stirring up brilliance from within. When I left the movie, I was quiet for a very long time. I wasn't pondering the depth of the film itself, which is really quite simple. I was pondering Heath Ledger's performance, the yearning chemistry between him and Jake. I was glad he finally took a role that demonstrated his talent to its fullest extent. At that moment, that's what I thought.

I know now, however, that true talent is not released in any one fledgling moment. It is a process that, over time, cracks up from the surface of something raw and something good. The innate ability to do anything comes first, and then it is honed, and then, once its basic potential is mastered, something begins to squirm underneath. It comes alive and breaks through gradually: one foot, one hand, a belly button at a time. Eventually, the monster is loose, and you never knew until this moment, that something so vast lurked within. As I anticipate "The Dark Knight," I can only wonder: is Heath's monster waiting in a film canister somewhere in the form of the villainous Joker? Is this what he was meant to do--truly meant to do in his time here on Earth? I don't believe in fate, but I do believe in the soul finding its one, true purpose. Heath's soul has moved on. It's somewhere else, sharing cocktails with Edie Sedgwick and James Dean, looking in on us from time to time. But perhaps, at some point before its departure, it met its final aim.

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