The death of Heath Ledger on January 22 came as one of the biggest shocks to the film industry in recent years. The news travelled quickly, with candlelit shrines being erected, tears being shed and mournful tributes held.
To most he will be remembered for his Oscar Nominated performance as quiet Ennis Del Mar from Brookeback Mountain or perhaps the sadistic psychopath the Joker in the upcoming sequel to Batman Begins: The Dark Knight, but for every admirer there is another person who has never heard of him.
This mixed reaction has been echoed amongst students: “I barely knew who he was until he died.” Said second year Cheryl Pennant-Jones, “As someone who’s only ever seen him in 10 Things I Hate About You, I didn’t know too much about him before.
“It’s a tragic incident though, and I especially feel sorry for his daughter Matilda .”
Keen fan Elizabeth Norman, a first year Philosophy and Media student added: “He was someone with great talent, who loved his daughter and will never get to see her grow up which is tragic. He wasn’t afraid to show his emotions and express how much he loved her…in fact it was his unfailing power of emotion that made his name.
“Whatever the film it is clear Heath could both feel and express what he feels deeply on screen.”
Born in Perth, Australia, on April 4 1979, Ledger was only 28 when he was found dead in his Manhattan apartment by his housekeeper. Police Commissioner of the New York Police Paul Browne said “there were pills within the vicinity of the bed” and there was a possibility of drugs being related, but they had no suspicion of ‘foul play’ in his death.
The latest reports suggest Ledger may have suffered a heart attack, since the level of drugs in his system was apparently too low to cause an overdose.
Ledger’s family described the traumatic event as “accidental”, his father Kim said: “We, Heath’s family, can confirm the very tragic, untimely and accidental passing of our dearly loved son.
“Heath has touched so many people on so many different levels during his short life that few had the pleasure of truly knowing him”
Ledger’s impressively vibrant career began on Australian television in 1992 as an extra, but his first breakthrough was on 1996 TV series Sweat, which saw a group of athletically gifted youngsters training in an academy tackled their personal problems.
The first well-known show for Ledger to come into contact with was down under take on Baywatch: Home and Away, when he joined as Scott Irwin. This performance gave him the credibility he needed to play a part in the US-financed series Roar, a medieval drama inspired by Braveheart which earned him a cult following in the US, despite quickly being axed by its US distributor.
Ledger also met the first of his older female partners Lisa Zane, 14 years his senior, who he shared a relationship with in 1997 and followed across the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles in an attempt to find work.
Unfortunately the now 18 year old actor was less successful in Hollywood than in his native country and was saved when he made his name in the film industry through the Australian film Two Hands in 1999.
Shortly after came one of Ledger’s most well known roles, as Patrick Verona in 10 Things I Hate About You, a modern take on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew alongside teenage heartthrob of the day Julia Stiles.
With this first wave of international success came a downside, Heath felt he was at risk of being typecast into shallow teen-movie roles, and turned down numerous scripts over the next year, his increasingly low finances forcing him to live on noodles and water.
His resolve paid off though when he was cast alongside Mel Gibson in millennium success The Patriot. Ledger played Gabriel Martin, the son of Gibson’s Benjamin Martin, which went a long way in shaking his ‘toy boy’ image and established him in Hollywood as a well-rounded actor.
Along with his latest step up the showbiz ladder came relationships. The first came during the filming of A Knight’s Tale in Prague when Heath met actress Heather Graham (Austin Powers 2) but it went on for only a few months.
In 2001 Ledger began a two year relationship with the star of The Ring Niomi Watts after they met on the set of Ned Kelly. The American, 10 years older than Mr Ledger, was unphased by the age gap: “I think it’s about life experience and not about age. I fell in love with a soul and a person, and his life experience was rich enough that it stimulated me.”
By 2004 Ledger had faded a little from the spotlight as The Sin Eater (a.k.a. The Order) floundered at the box office and he focused more on his private life. The filming of Brookeback Mountain the same year threw Ledger together with Michelle Williams, with whom he had a serious two year relationship and his daughter Matilda.
The film itself had been often dubbed ‘that gay cow boy movie’ in the industry since the story had been floating around for years before it was taken on by the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee.
Ledger teamed up with Jake Gyllenhaal, who’d previously auditioned for his part in The Patriot, in a story which earned him the Best Actor Oscar Nomination and Best Supporting Actor nominations for his co-stars Gyllenhaal and Williams. Unfortunately for the cast, the films only win was Best Director.
Soon after the media frenzy surrounding Brookeback Mountain died down, Ledger was approached and asked to portray one of the most iconic villains of all time: The Joker.
Seemingly epitomised by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s original Batman film in 1989, Ledger made it clear he wasn’t going to try to ‘do a Jack’ and would play a far darker and more psychotic character, in line with director Christopher Nolan’s gritty re-vision of Gotham City in Batman Begins.
Internet servers went into meltdown when the first picture of how Ledger would look in the film found its way onto the internet in May 2007, and every trailer, poster and interview since has had fans and critics alike ripe with curiosity as to how it will turn out.
However history remembers him there is no doubt that the death of such a young actor is significant, particularly in such delicate times with the recent strikes and the annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.
To his fans in particular, Heath Ledger will remain a symbol of the achievements of the film industry in recent years and proof that the talent seen in glory days of Marlon Brando and Cary Grant’s Golden Age live on through the performances of young actors and actresses.