Australian born actor Heath Ledger tread the delicate line between Hollywood movie-star and brooding artist until his tragic death at the age of 28 in January 2008. Launched to success as a teen heartthrob in his early films such as ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’ (1999), Ledger’s career progressed to more challenging roles including gay cowboy Ennis Del Mar in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and the Joker ine ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008). Refusing to be defined solely by his good looks, Ledger pursued new challenges with each role he took on and his untimely death has extinguished a rising star that looked set to break the mould.
On 4 April 1979, French teacher Sally Ledger Bell gave birth to her second child, Heath Andrew Ledger, in Perth, Western Australia. Sally's first child to then-husband, racing car driver and mining engineer Kim Ledger, had been named Catherine, shortened in time to Kate, after the heroine of Emily Bronte's classic 'Wuthering Heights'.
Continuing in this fashion, she named her son after the other main character of the novel, Heathcliff.
Later, after Sally and Kim were to separate, Ledger gained two half sisters, Ashleigh from his mother's second marriage and Olivia from that of his father. He was always very close to his family and even had KAOS, the initials of his mother and three sisters, tattooed onto his wrist.
Throughout his youth, Ledger excelled in a variety of sports including Australian Rules Football, hockey, surfing, skateboarding and go-karting. He was also a keen chess player, winning the Western Australian Junior Chess Championships at only ten-years-old, a hobby he would later revisit going to play chess in Washington Square Park.
Whilst we know that he fell prey to the acting bug early, less well-known is that he also had a keen interest in dance, inspired by the all-singing and dancing Gene Kelly. Ledger was captivated by the man's strong spirit, later explaining in an interview that Kelly could 'bring light to the screen and just fill it up. I remind myself of his spirit sometimes when I need to push on through a particular scene.'
At first glance, it would be easy to see the high achieving Ledger as simply gifted, but he himself would probably argue that his supportive family was the greatest gift life gave him. To label these achievements under talent would also neglect the fact that from a young age he learned to work hard and take risks – skills which would serve him well in the years to come, though arguably contributing to his ultimate downfall, as he continued to push beyond his own limits.
Older sister Kate shared her love of performance with her brother and encouraged him to take on stage roles as school, but Ledger took this burgeoning passion and interest in dance even further, choreographing a show for 60 boys from his school, Guildford Grammar, which won Australia's prestigious Rock Eisteddford Challenge.
Kate played a more direct, albeit accidental role in starting Ledger's professional acting career, for it was while tagging along with his sister to a casting agent's office that he was given the once over and also invited to audition. Like any sensible kid, he did, and promptly landed a role as gay cyclist Snowy Bowles in teenage drama 'Sweat' (1996).
Although the show itself was forgettable at best, the bold role began Ledger's professional career and was groundbreaking at the time, presaging Ledger's next turn as a gay man, which would launch his career as a box-office star.
Also in 1996, Ledger auditioned for the lead role in an Australian/US co-production TV series called 'Roar'. He was flown to LA for follow-up auditions, which he thought he had nervously made a mess of, yet despite his misgivings and being the youngest actor auditioned, he landed the part of Conor, a spirited young Irish man who rallies folks to his cause in order to rid the Celtic lands of evil. 'Roar' itself was not so well received, but this heroic and handsome young man dashing about on horseback dressed in sparse leather and enthusiastically slaying foes with his mighty sword certainly was.
The series was axed after its first season, and Ledger promptly went on to do a prerequisite stint on the Australian soap 'Home and Away', the early stamping ground of countless young future Australia stars. Shortly after, he packed up his Australian life to follow his 'Roar' co-star and now girlfriend Lisa Zane (older sister to Billy) to Los Angeles.
It was in Hollywood that Ledger achieved a series of roles in the teen genre, appearing in the 1999 hit 'Ten Things I Hate About You' a send-up of Shakespeare's 'The Taming of the Shrew' in which he appeared opposite Julia Stiles. A spate in the light hearted 'A Knight’s Tale' (1999) didn't break the mould but Ledger even at this time was rigorously self-critical, reportedly walking out of an audition for Mel Gibsons' 'The Patriot' (2000).
He was nevertheless given the role thanks to Gibson, who recognised a talent when he saw one; a leap of faith he was later to repeat with Robert Downey Jr in 2003.
As his career progressed, Ledger passed up offers for similar roles in other teen films, later saying in a 2007 interview "I feel like I’m wasting time if I repeat myself." At times, this commitment to integrity meant passing up on paycheques and Ledger even ended up borrowing from his agent, describing later in an interview with The Evening Standard: "I was literally living off ramen noodles and water, because I was sticking to my game."
A host of films followed Ledger's appearance in 'The Patriot' with a turn as troubled sheriff's son in 'Monster's Ball' (2001) and an Australian bandit in 'Ned Kelly'(2003), where he formed a romantic relationship with his co-star Naomi Watts. He also starred in 'Two Hands' in 1999 and played a heroic 19th century soldier in 'Four Feathers' in 2003.
By this stage, Ledger had made his mark on the Hollywood acting A-list. Gregor Jordan, the director of 'Ned Kelly', who had previously directed Ledger in 'Two Hands', stated that "for leading men under 25 there's Leonardo DiCaprio, whose salary is stratospheric, and then basically there's just Heath Ledger and Josh Hartnett." Of the thousands of young men clamouring to be Hollywood's next hot big thing, there were but three names on the list and Ledger's was one of them.
But it was Ledger's role in the film 'Brokeback Mountain' in 2005 that led to the Academy Award nomination for 'Best Actor' and widespread critical acclaim, playing one half of a thwarted gay love story opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. The New York Times wrote of his performance: "as good as the best of Marlon Brando and Sean Penn."
The critical acclaim that this film received was new to Ledger as his other movies of that year were not viewed as positively, including 'Lords of Dogtown', 'The Brothers Grimm' and 'Casanova' alongside Sienna Miller.
The film was also where Ledger met Michelle Williams and the couple swiftly became a frequent feature of the celebrity-gossip pages and blogs. In fact, paparazzi intrusion in his home country of Australia got so bad that Ledger left the country to live in Brooklyn, New York, where Williams gave birth to their daughter Matilda Rose on 28 October 2005.
After 'Brokeback Mountain', Ledger became an instantly bankable name, such that he was able to be selective about the many offers now knocking at his door. As such, he looked to take on more interesting and challenging roles, including a young heroin addict in 'Candy' (2006), starring alongside Abbie Cornish and Geoffrey Rush, and a troubled actor Robbie Clark in 'I'm Not There' (2007), embodying one of seven aspects of the legendary Bob Dylan.
The birth of his daughter would prove to be a brief time of stability for the actor as he reportedly became a homebody, staying at home in Brooklyn with Michelle and Matilda Rose, saying in an interview: "The level of synchronicity in my life now, with me and Michelle and now Matilda, (has) meant it's become everything to me - the most important thing I do," he said of caring for his family.
But this much searched for balance proved short-lived and whilst the actor's screen career seemed to be going from strength to strength, his personal life began to look increasingly troubled. In his penultimate film before his death, Ledger took on the dark and complex role of the Joker in Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight.' Previously immortalised by Jack Nicholson who reportedly 'warned' Ledger on the possible strains that came with taking on such a role, Ledger himself spent considerable time preparing for the part, seeing the Joker as a "psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy."
Whilst playing the role, Ledger reportedly had trouble sleeping, describing in an interview how he often only got two hours sleep and frequently resorted to sleeping pills: "I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going." His relationship with Williams also broke down and it wasn't long before he was romantically linked in the tabloids to a number of famous women including Helena Christensen, Gemma Ward and finally former child star Mary-Kate Olsen who was to be contacted by authorities on the day he died.
It is ironic that at a time when Ledger was evidently struggling off the screen, his performances on screen have been lauded as arguably his greatest, particularly The Joker, described by 'The Dark Knight' director Nolan as "iconic" and New York Times film critic David Denby, as "mesmerising in every scene" with a performance both "sinister and frightening" yet also a "heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss."
On 22 January 2008, Ledger was found dead in the Soho apartment where he had been living for several weeks. An autopsy reported the cause of death as 'acute intoxication', found to be the result of a deadly combination of prescription pills, and a later coroner's report declared the death as 'accidental' although there remain rumours of suicide.
Neighbours interviewed at the time expressed dismay and surprise at the news of his death - one hairdresser who owned a salon several doors away told that she used to see Ledger once or twice a week and had twice seen him going on walks with his young daughter. "I think it's really sad," Ms McIntosh said. "He's a really nice guy. He seemed happy."
Before he died, Ledger was half way through the filming of 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' directed by Terry Gilliam. Having been cast as the role of Tony, Ledger's part was subsequently recast to have new actors portray his "physically transformed versions" in different realms, including Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.
For many who knew the actor, what is left is a sense of regret at an unfulfilled promise Ledger was destined to realise. His death at the age of 28 looks set to cast him alongside James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe within the cult of beautiful stars who died too young.
"I had such great hope for him," Gibson said in the wake of Ledger's death, "He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss."
On 9 February 2008, a memorial service attended by several hundred guests was held at Penhros College in Perth, Australia. His body was cremated at the Fremantle Cemetery after which ten members of his closest family attended a private service. They interred his ashes next to his grandparents and held a wake on Cottesloe Beach that evening.
After Ledger's death, 'The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus', which was released in 2009, was dedicated to the actor. Nolan also partly dedicated the 'Dark Knight' to Ledger alongside a technician who had died in a car accident before its release.
On 10 November 2008, it was announced that Ledger had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for his role as the Joker, which he subsequently won on 11 January 2009, with Nolan accepting on his behalf.
Following the Golden Globe win, film critics and his co-stars including Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michael Caine called for an Oscar nomination. Ledger's Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination was announced on 22 January 2009 - the anniversary of his death.
Ledger became the second person to win a posthumous Oscar for acting, with his family picking up the award.