Respectful tribute to a life and talent cut short
Tomorrow – Monday, 22 January – is the tenth anniversary of the death of Heath Ledger. He was just 28. Marking the anniversary is the release on DVD and digital of documentary, I Am Heath Ledger, made originally for TV but also a feature of last year’s festival circuit. It’s a moving experience for anybody who admired his work and, indeed, for any film fan. His passing at such an early age when there was clearly much more to come was a tragedy, but that’s not the only reason why the film makes your eyes smart in the final few minutes – and prompts tears from some of the talking heads.
What the film reveals is that his talents extended well beyond acting. There’s no mention of him struggling over which path to follow, but it’s hard to believe that it never happened. He was equally at home behind the camera as well as in front of it. Towards the end of his life he was preparing to direct his first movie, The Queen’s Gambit, which would have combined his love of film making with another passion – chess. As father, Kim, relates, he was just a few points away from being a chess grandmaster. Heath did, however, direct a number of videos to go with music made by his close friends and that resulted in him founding his own music production company. His love affair with the camera also extended to photography, he constantly sketched and painted and hardly seemed to need any sleep. No wonder his email address was “Illberunningaround@ …..”
This close relationship with the camera means the movie is blessed with video footage shot by Ledger himself, intimate home movies showing his dedication to his art. He turns the camera on himself, tries out looks and angles, even creates a short thriller which is essentially one long selfie of him running around a hotel. He’s honing his craft: he never had any formal training and, as a result, was rarely without a camera in his hand. There was always something to film, something to learn from. As he told one of his friends, “just film your feet!”
His best known movies are used as the film’s backbone, starting with Ten Things I Hate About You. Each one of them introduces us to other members of the talking heads cast and comes replete with anecdotes. After his success in the lead role, he was inundated with more rom-com roles, all of which he enjoyed turning down. And when the part he really wanted, acting with his idol Mel Gibson in The Patriot, he thought he’d made a complete mess of the audition. There’s his explanation behind his portrayal of Ennis in Brokeback Mountain – Ledger also acts as the film’s unofficial narrator with extracts from what sound like interviews – and the reason for his Joker’s creepy lip licking in The Dark Knight turns out to be more practical than artistic.
Contributors range from family members to his agent, Steve Alexander, his entourage of friends from home and other actors, including Emile Hirsch (who, from his facial expression, regrets ribbing him about playing The Joker) and Naomi Watts. She explains something that the Australians call “tall poppy syndrome” – being cut down if you grow too tall too fast – and how it concerned Heath as his career really took off with the launch of A Knight’s Tale. He’d sought fame, but when it came, he was never comfortable with it.
With all his talent, ceaseless energy and passion for his work, Heath Ledger is tailor made for a documentary. And, given his burgeoning skill as a director, it’s impossible not to wonder what kind of film he would have made about himself. Judging from what we see of his efforts behind the camera, it would have been less than conventional. What we have here comes close to getting underneath the skin of a complex, gifted man and the depth of the loss suffered by his family and friends is all too poignant, but there are parts of his life which are hardly touched upon, leaving us wanting more. The result is an uneven but respectful celebration of a talent that left us way too soon.
I Am Heath Ledger is released on DVD, Blu Ray and digital on Monday, 22 January 2018.