Utter Play: Heath Ledger, 1979-2008
In the teen comedyTen Things I Hate About You, from 1999, Heath Ledger bribes the marching band, commandeers the PA system in the school sports stadium and appears, high in the stands, belting out "I Love You, Baby" to an initially shocked, then embarrassed, then touched Julia Stiles, in her soccer gear amid all the other girls at practice. Ledger hops, skips and glides as he makes his way down towards the playing field, using the raked stadium seats as a kind of expansive stage on which to play, deftly avoiding the security guards moving in to put an end to his tomfoolery.
The performance is hammy, self-knowing and exuberant: There is a sense that Ledger the actor is embracing the corniness just as much as his character quite clearly is. It's one part Singin' in the Rain, one part high school talent quest, and about eight parts Heath — this gangly, beautiful surfer-looking boy, tumbling through experience, always on the brink of calamity, risking grand failure in a public setting with nonchalant generosity.
It's Ledger's playfulness that many will remember the most. I have home-movie footage of director Neil Armfield and Ledger workshopping a critical entrance scene from Candy, a film I scripted with Armfield and which was adapted from my semiautobiographical first novel. In the scene, Dan (Ledger's character) returns home after pulling off a successful bank scam, his pockets filled with cash for the first and only time in the film, a bunch of flowers in his arms. He's filled with joy at his improbable success, ready to shower Candy (Abbie Cornish) with the flowers. Armfield suggests a kind of grand unloading of the flowers, and the home movie shows Ledger beginning to mime the action, grinning at Armfield, repeating the action more exuberantly each time, as if the flowers are more than he can carry.
What's remarkable is how similar the emotional texture of this behind-the-scenes moment is to that scene six years earlier, where a 19-year-old Ledger grins so delightedly, at Julia Stiles, at the security guards, the entire universe. It's Ledger in the place he loved most — utter play — wearing the grin of someone both excited by and at ease with the unlikeliness of good fortune.
The types of characters Ledger portrayed had become a little more complex over those years. But his ability to convey a kind of inner purity — a force strong enough to dispel either the adolescent self-consciousness of singing a love song in public or the guilt and remorse of not being the junkie breadwinner — seems in Ledger to have been both consistent and innate.
Some actors, Ledger included, are natural clowns, and this inner-clown quality helps to create character sympathy where it's needed most. In Candy,the character Ledger plays acts reprehensibly for much of the film, but somehow audiences felt more empathy for him than for Candy herself, the victim of his foibles. Guarded though he may have been in his private life, Ledger had a capacity to be truly vulnerable onscreen — as are the best clowns, such as Chaplin — that gives a genuine radiance to his performances.
Candy brought Ledger back to Australia in early 2005, straight from the grueling Brokeback shoot, with his new girlfriend, Michelle Williams. He seemed, at times, quite literally beside himself with love for her, unable to contain his excitement. I remember one night during preproduction, in an almost empty nightclub in Kings Cross, watching him sweep her to her feet and swirl her around an empty dance floor, much to the relief of a bored DJ. It was a completely private moment; he wasn't doing it for the benefit of others, for those of us settling into our seats or buying a round. He just wanted to dance with Michelle. One almost felt the need to avert one's eyes, and yet it was oddly compelling: that pure joy again.
That the paparazzi hounded him remorselessly genuinely distressed Ledger. He did not see why his privacy could not be his own, to do with as he pleased. I think he felt that the set was a haven, a refuge, from all the white noise outside, and from the constant sense of lurking ambush. No wonder he came across as skittish: In another context, that's called being on your guard. Away from that public world, where the media constructed a "bad boy" that was far from how Ledger acted in reality, he was warm, down-to-earth, bighearted.
I somehow wrangled a one-line cameo as a milkman in Candy. The scene came near the end of the shoot and I had six weeks in which to cultivate my growing panic. But when the moment finally came, what I remember most from the bustle of crew, equipment, camera rehearsals, bright lights and finding your mark, from my what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here paralysis, was Ledger putting a hand on my shoulder, leaning into that private space, and saying, "Breathe, Lukey, breathe."
My own sense is of deep gratitude, to have had the warmth of that connection during those few months. Someone was going to play, not just a character that I had created, but one that was a version of me. It was a surreal experience. Someone else was going to take ownership of that. Ledger did, and created something entirely new. He imbued the character of Dan with a kind of optimistic yet damaged nobility far beyond what Armfield and I had imagined in writing the script.
Watching the film being shot at close range, watching my own words come to life in front of the cameras was my first experience of just how amazing good actors are. "This is a good script," Ledger had said to Armfield and me during the rehearsal period, "but there's way too many words in it." He would march into a scene, and do with a twitch of his face, a glance, a shift in posture, a softening in his eyes, in two seconds, what we had tried to get across in a page of script. The most notable instance of this is in the film's final scene, where most of our two pages of finely honed dialogue is nowhere to be seen, and the bewildered pain of the two lovers is played out largely in silence. It's a beautiful and powerful performance; one that I believe will stand among the best of his tragically short career.
Producer Margaret Fink constantly referred to Ledger as "our boy." "What about our boy, eh?" she would say, wide-eyed, with a faint conspiratorial grin, after viewing another batch of exciting dailies. It was not even a rhetorical question, merely a statement of marvel.
He was, in fact, not just a boy anymore. He was becoming a man. It was exciting, the very notion of the films he would do in the upcoming years. He was gifted, he was A-list, he had the power to choose the best. The tragic loss, more than anything, is in what we might imagine was still to come. The actress Bojana Novakovic was a close friend of Ledger's for 12 years, since they both acted in Blackrock as teenagers. In recent months she had been staying at his places in Los Angeles and New York. A week ago she made a little gift for him, a sheet of silver contact that she painted black, and then scraped back, to reveal the words "Fail gloriously." Novakovic said he laughed, accepting the gift with the lightness with which it was intended.
"Now it seems so different," she said to me on the phone from New York, waiting, forlornly, to sort through her stuff.
Luke Davies is the author of the novels Candy and Isabelle the Navigator, and numerous award-winning volumes of poetry. His new novel, God of Speed (Allen & Unwin), will be released in Australia in April.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.