Despite a career that ranged widely from action epics to intimate dramas, the actor Heath Ledger, who was found dead in his Soho apartment yesterday, will likely be remembered for one role in particular: That of the repressed gay cowboy Ennis Del Mar, deeply in love but bound by fear and fury, in Ang Lee's 2005 romance Brokeback Mountain. To many casual observers of Hollywood the role, which won Ledger an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, signified his transition from underperforming action-movie star to serious actor. But Ledger had always been serious about challenging himself as a performer; even if, at times, he showed poor taste in projects, he always worked hard to develop the kind of résumé that resists typecasting. And it wasn't Brokeback, but instead a small role in 2001's Monster's Ball, that truly encapsulates his career.
That acting didn't always come easy to him was evident in his first starring role, in 1999's teenage Shakespeare adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You. As Patrick Verona, an updated version of Taming of the Shrew's Petruccio, Ledger brooded adequately but seemed, at times, uncomfortable playing the romantic hero. Ledger's performance came to life, though, in his banter with co-star Julia Stiles. "You are amazingly self-assured," Stiles's Kat Stratford tells Ledger. "Has anyone ever told you that?" Replies a cocksure Ledger: "I tell myself that every day, actually."
After 10 Things Ledger's career was forced, at first, along the boring path trod by so many long-haired, high-cheekboned idols before him: a string of three period adventures, all mediocre, all of which required little of the young actor other than that he look pretty in breeches and be willing to execute some derring-do. Of the three —The Patriot, A Knight's Tale, and The Four Feathers — only A Knight's Tale utilizes Ledger's talents at all.
But while those three films reportedly turned him off Hollywood for a time, his small role in 2001's Monster's Ball — a role he apparently landed very shortly before filming began — showed careful viewers what Ledger could do. As the prison-guard son of Billy Bob Thornton's character, Ledger is berated by his father for his perceived weakness when he vomits while assisting in an execution. A violent confrontation leads to Ledger sitting in a chair, a gun pointed at his father. "You hate me, don't you?" asks Ledger. "Yes, I hate you. Always have," his father replies. "Well, I've always loved you," Ledger calmly says, and shoots himself in the heart.
Ledger's early death in Monster's Ball was shocking, and not just because a young idol-in-the-making disappeared from a movie half an hour in. It was shocking because in an industry that prizes toughness in its leading men, Ledger played a young man too weak for the world he'd been born into. There was bravery in Ledger taking the part, and bravery too in how sensitively he played it. It was the true watershed moment in his career.
Ledger still starred in his share of dogs after Monster's Ball, but he managed to find interesting projects, too — playing a skate punk in Lords of Dogtown, a heroin addict in Candy, and one of Todd Haynes's Dylans in I'm Not There. In Casanova, Ledger gamely mugged his way through a ludicrous period romance made watchable only by its lead actor's return to the strutting ways of his film debut. (He also held his own against two expert scenery-chewers, Oliver Platt and Jeremy Irons, who at times seemed ready to take the movie over.)
But it's for Brokeback that he'll always be remembered, and in a way that role was the logical extension of his performance in Monster's Ball. Ennis Del Mar wasn't too weak for the world — he was too strong for it, too bloody-minded and stubborn to allow himself happiness with the man he loves. But in choosing the role, with its subversion of Hollywood leading-man tropes, and in playing it ferociously, Ledger showed he was still the courageous actor who put a gun to his own heart four years before, doing his best to blow away the career Hollywood wanted to make for him.
What's left for Ledger? His performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight seems like it might be outstanding. His performance in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus — a follow-up of sorts to Ledger's worst movie, Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm — may never be seen. We can only imagine the kinds of roles Ledger might have taken in the future; he seemed primed to have the kind of career that few actors manage, one that successfully mixes popcorn and art, strength and vulnerability, light and dark. It's a terrible shame he didn't live to see it through.