The shock death of Heath Ledger in New York yesterday (Tuesday January 22) was not just a tragic loss for friends and family, but also for cinema. The 28-year-old Australian actor had only recently begun to prove his emotional range in complex and challenging films, including Todd Haynes‘ Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. Shunning his pin-up past, he was entering a fruitful and promising new career phase.
Ledger was found naked and unconscious at his Broome Street apartment, in downtown Manhattan, by his housekeeper and a masseuse. An emergency medical team pronounced him dead around 3.30pm EST. Wrapped in a black body bag, his corpse was later carried out in front of huge crowds.
Speculation continues in the media and online as to whether the actor’s death was self-inflicted or accidental. New York City Police are awaiting an autopsy report, but claim they do not suspect foul play. “We are investigating the possibility of an overdose,” said police spokesman Paul Browne. “There were pills within the vicinity of the bed.”
According to the New York Post, these pills included the prescription anti-anxiety drugs Diazepam and Alprazolam. In November last year, Ledger told the New York Times that he had tried the sleeping pill Ambien to combat insomnia. “Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night,” he said. “I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.”
Five years ago, the Perth-born Heathcliff Andrew Ledger was just another junior beefcake actor with a CV of mostly colourless surf-bum roles and supporting turns. But froth like A Knight’s Tale and The Order convinced him he had hit a “plateau of nothing” and needed to raise his game. Defying advice from agents and managers, Ledger resolved to pursue work that prioritised depth and quality over obvious commercial appeal.
The fruits of this new strategy paid off handsomely in Ang Lee‘s drama Brokeback Mountain in 2005. Ledger‘s quietly powerful, mostly internalized performance earned him an Oscar nomination and his first serious industry respect. He also began a romance with co-star Michelle Williams, who gave birth to their daughter Matilda in October 2005. Settling in Brooklyn, the couple announced their engagement last year, only to separate in September.
After Brokeback Mountain, Ledger continued to impress in further offbeat, anti-heroic roles. He played against type as Matt Damon‘s nerdy sibling in Terry Gilliam‘s ambitious but flawed The Brothers Grimm, and as a messed-up junkie rent boy in Neil Armfield‘s low-budget Australian heroin drama Candy.
Todd Haynes then cast Ledger as one of his metaphorical Bob Dylans, a cocky, swaggering actor, in I’m Not There. His performance arguably provided the film’s emotional centre. At the time of his death, he had also just completed his much-anticipated turn as The Joker in Christopher Nolan‘s new Batman blockbuster, The Dark Knight.
Ledger recently described The Joker as “definitely the most fun I’ve had with any character… a psychotic, mass-murdering clown.” The Dark Knight will now be Ledger‘s swansong, but his commanding performance in Brokeback Mountain will most likely be his lasting epitaph.