About this time a year ago, I learned of Heath Ledger’s death. Like the rest of the world, I was stunned. Unlike the rest of the world, however—and I’m only guessing here—I still find myself affected by it, welling up whenever I try to watch his E! True Hollywood Story or see him being given yet another award for his final full performance as The Dark Knight’s Joker. (How eerie that the Inauguration bumped his Academy Award nomination from the habitual Tuesday to Jan. 22, his death date.)
Mostly, though, I think of him when I can’t sleep. While Ledger was filming The Dark Knight, he sat for an interview in which he seemed tweaked, exhausted, and uncomfortable. He talked about how sleepless nights plague him, how a couple of Ambien were only good for a couple hours’ rest: “I couldn’t stop thinking,” he told the New York Times. “My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.”
And I know such nights too well—2 a.m. becomes 4; 4 a.m. becomes dawn. (I started this piece one long, sleepless night last week at 5:30 a.m., in fact, my frustration drifting to thoughts of this anniversary and why his death hit me so hard.)
So I’ll take a little of one drug and wait. Then a little more. Shit, I guess I’ll try something else. Fuck—now the sun’s up, and my neighbors are heading to work, and I really, really, really need to sleep. So one more hit, this time of something heavier. Ahhh…finally. Sure I’ll sleep until the afternoon on those occasions, but really, I can do that without drugs anyway.
So that’s the thought process I imagine was running through Ledger’s head that night. He’d just flown back from London; surely he was jet-lagged. He just wanted some rest. I look at the list of drugs found in his body, and they’re not all that different from the pharmacy I have scattered around the house, good-faith prescriptions to quell my migraines, my depression, my insomnia.
Granted, I don’t know how much he used or why he had them in the first place; the medical examiner emphasized that it was not the quantity but the combination of drugs that killed him. Reports on his rehab stint are conflicting—was it just research for his role as a junkie in Candy, or was he the compulsive partier from whom Michelle Williams had to separate herself and their daughter?
If Ledger’s passing were just another sad story of an addict who had one hit too many, I wouldn’t have cried so fiercely the day of his death, wandering my neighborhood that night in need of air and to calm myself after my husband accused me of being “too sensitive,” his concern not adequately sugarcoating what I interpreted as callousness. My reaction certainly was and continues to be oddly raw; I’ve never been a starfucker, though my lifelong sense of morbidity (anyone else weep while playing “American Pie” or “Que Sera, Sera” 45s as a kid?) pretty much guarantees that even the latest car-crash story will leave me a little misty-eyed.
And I’ve since realized that it’s not fear for my own life that I’m crying over but an empathetic ache knowing that someone, anyone, has experienced those dark nights of the soul (pardon the pun), to such an extreme that he killed himself trying to quell the demons.
I also mourn the talent lost, though I’m not going to say I saw it in Ledger his entire career. I scoffed at A Knight’s Tale and dismissed him as another pretty boy who’d never do anything interesting. (I did warm to him slightly, though, when I read an interview in which he blasted the film’s poster and tagline—He Will Rock You—which led his friends to taunt him with, “Hey Heath, are you going to rock us?”)
The first time I spotted brilliance in Ledger was when I reviewed Lords of Dogtown. I saw his name during the opening credits and promptly forgot it—surely it was going to be a terrible movie; it was about skateboarding, for God’s sake.
But the film ended up impressing me, and I looked up its production notes when I went home to write the review. Holy shit—that was Heath Ledger? The surfboard store-owner, the organizer of the team, the adult among kids who had bad hair and worse teeth and spoke like a West Coast waste case with a tube sock in his mouth? Unrecognizable, and not only because of the magic of makeup. Ledger was not much older than his co-stars, yet his character was years beyond them. He disappeared in the role. And that totally rocked me.
Then came Brokeback Mountain. The Australian, who had proved a deft Californian, was now a Midwestern ranch hand. His prettiness hardened; Ledger was now a mumbling, nearly uncommunicative man’s man. (You know what I mean, but go ahead and make your jokes anyway.) His performance broke your heart; his Academy Award nomination was well-deserved, and never a more promising young couple did you see than him and Williams on Oscar night: Beaming, gorgeous, the future high talents of film.
The posters for The Dark Knight had come out just before his death; I kept forgetting to mention them to my husband, to tell him how creepy and totally awesome the Joker looked like he was going to be. Then, on Jan. 22, the e-mail with a link to the news landed in my inbox, and suddenly the character’s scarred, horrific persona twisted my gut. How could I ever watch this ghastly merchant of death, knowing the actor died just after filming?
Months passed, and The Dark Knight opened, and I did, of course, watch it—several times, both in the theater and at home. I’ll probably go again now that it’s being rereleased, because I never did see it in IMAX.
Ledger’s Joker, unquestionably the triumph of the film, will again be larger than life. And maybe once he gets the Oscar—as if another outcome is even possible—I’ll finally be able to make peace with his death.