Monday 19 February 2018

A star who left too early in the day

Heath Ledger would have been 38 this week, and excitement surrounds a documentary about his troubled life, writes Donal Lynch

Actors Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams arrive to the 78th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre on March 5, 2006 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Actors Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams arrive to the 78th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre on March 5, 2006 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

In some ways it seems strange that only now are filmmakers getting around to the Heath Ledger story. The lore of a young star gone too soon can drive box office takings and Ledger's story, and his brief, brilliant career, would seem to be irresistibly dramatic fodder for a biopic. Now comes something close to that.

If the actor had lived he would have been 38 on Tuesday and instead of celebrating this anniversary his fans received a gift: the first look at an intimate documentary about the actor. The trailer for I Am Heath Ledger debuted online last Tuesday.

The film, which is set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23 (there are no details yet on when it will open in Ireland), offers new glimpses into the life of the actor, who died from a prescription medication overdose in 2008 when he was only 28. It also features interviews with those who knew him best, including musician Ben Harper, director Ang Lee and the actor's sister, Kate.

It was a brutal, ugly death. Ledger died on a freezing January afternoon, just after lunch. Word spread like wildfire through the frozen streets of New York and by the time they brought out his lifeless body strapped to a stretcher, curious ghouls jostled with journalists on the crowded pavement. The flashbulbs lit the building as though it were a film set - one built for a dead man. There was an immediate frenzy of speculation about the causes of death and it would take a long time for many of the questions to be answered. The autopsy results came quickly, however, and we knew then that he had died from the combined effects of six different drugs, including oxycodone and diazepam.

What was less clear was how Ledger came by this lethal cocktail. His actress friend Mary Kate Olsen was reported to have refused to be questioned by police and her lawyer subsequently put out a statement denying she supplied the drugs to Ledger (Olsen was never charged with anything). There was also controversy about Ledger's will, which left everything to his father and sisters and ignored his daughter (with actress Michelle Williams), Matilda Rose. Later in 2008 Ledger's father Kim released a statement to the effect that the family had decided that the actor's $20m fortune should go to Matilda.

That figure had been steadily revised upward throughout the latter half of 2008, as the Dark Knight took up an extended residency in the box office penthouse. Ledger had now managed the crossover from art house weepy - Brokeback Mountain - to multiplex behemoth, and was probably the hottest young property in Hollywood. The young Australian was seen as a versatile screen presence, and was frequently compared to Marlon Brando. He would posthumously win the Best Actor Oscar the year after he died, for his manic, burning turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

Ledger was the child of divorced parents who split when he was 10, and he had trouble maintaining relationships in adult life. He was linked to the actress Naomi Watts - she later called him "a special soul" who had "a huge impact on my life". But the defining relationship of his life was with Michelle Williams, whom he met when he was 24 on the set of Brokeback Mountain. Jake Gyllenhaal, their co star on the film, would eventually become godfather to their daughter.

Williams and Ledger split the year before he died, as his drug use intensified. Terry Gilliam, who directed Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, says that the actor's relationship began to unravel during the Oscar campaign for Brokeback Mountain. "That was the moment when it changed, when he realised, 'Uh-oh, we see the world differently.' He didn't care about those awards."

Williams spoke late last year for the first time about his death, calling herself "a member of a shitty club" of women in the same position and said that it won't ever be right that Matilda doesn't have her father around.

Ledger's father Kim spoke out last summer to say that the actor was responsible for his own death, but that hasn't stopped the rumour mill churning online and the documentary positions itself to deal with the many unanswered questions around the actor's death, including why someone with so much going for them could sink so deeply into addiction.

The film also looks at Ledger's legacy in film, which is inevitably enhanced by his absence and the lingering feeling that he was robbed of the Oscar for his intense, mumbling performance in Brokeback Mountain. His "bloodied" shirt from the set of that film is expected to fetch up to €20,000 when it goes on auction later this month. This suggests that despite his slight film output and short life, the legend of Ledger continues to grow. And the documentary, when it appears, is bound to be intensely emotional.

Sunday Independent

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