Heath Ledger: A Look Back

Seven years after his untimely death, we take a look back at Heath Ledger's short but massively successful career.

Seven years after his untimely death, we take a look back at Heath Ledger and his short but massively successful career.

Today marks what would have been the 35th birthday of Academy Award winner, Heath Ledger. Ironically it's also the 21st anniversary of the passing of Kurt Cobain; two giants of their respective crafts who left this world way too soon. Seven years after the passing of Heath Ledger, we take a look back at his filmography and reflect on the magnificent career that was, and what could have become.

At the age of 28, Heath Ledger was still a way away from hitting his professional prime. Unfortunately, he was never able to celebrate the numerous awards and accomplishments for his portrayal as ‘The Joker’ in Christopher Nolan's, "The Dark Knight." A posthumously awarded Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG awards were absolutely deserving in Ledger's most iconic role.

Some say Ledger’s dedication to the character, including spending weeks inside New York psychiatric facilities studying patients left him isolated, neurotic and scared of the outside world. These symptoms would lead Ledger down a dangerous path that included the mixture of powerful prescribed narcotics and alcohol dependency that eventually caused his accidental overdose and subsequent death on January 22nd, 2008.

Being a student of "The Method," Ledger approached each character head on, making you truly believe he embodied the heart, body, and soul of the man he played, all the while telling their story so effortlessly. Dedicated artist aside, you have to wonder if Heath Ledger had known that his intense preparation would also be his ultimate undoing, would he have been so convicted to the craft?

Heath Ledger first came to light for US audiences in the teen comedy/drama "Ten Things I Hate About You." In this Shakespearian adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew,” Ledger sent young girls’ hearts a flutter as Patrick Verona, the bad-boy with a heart of gold from where else, but Australia. Looking back, it's funny to watch Ledger star alongside Joseph-Gordon Levitt. Why’s that? If you haven't realized by now, Joker, meet Robin.

The next time Ledger garnered Hollywood acclaim was in the Mel Gibson blockbuster "The Patriot." As to avoid being typecast as a "hunk," Ledger was determined to erase the stereotype with a hardened war picture.

He soon put Hollywood on notice that he was indeed the real deal and more than ready to carry his own weight alongside one of the industries biggest names (at the time). As the young revolutionary soldier Gabriel Mann, Ledger stole each and every scene he was in. A boy turned man trying to step out of his father’s shadow, we waited with baited breath each time Gabriel set out for battle. When he ultimately met his maker, you as a viewer couldn't help but get caught up in the emotion.

Showing his versatility, the extremely fun action/comedy "A Knights Tale" was next on the docket. Perfectly cast as a squire turned heroic knight, Ledger proved he was now a leading man, making men want to be him, and women want to be with him.

As the son of Billy Bob Thorton's character in "Monster's Ball," Ledger continued to grow as a thespian. In a film chock full of elite performances, Ledger shined bright in limited screen time, as his Sonny Growtski spoke to all audiences. By now the Academy knew this gentleman was someone to be reckoned with.

Again, Ledger did everything he could to avoid being a one-trick pony actor, by taking on a wide array of character roles in films that were, unfortunately, less than stellar. From the fabled Australian folk hero "Ned Kelly," to a supernatural seeking priest in the "The Order." 

This was followed by a small role as Skip the skateboarder in "Lords of Dogtown," and one-half of "The Brothers Grimm." It wasn't until Ang Lee's heart-wrenching tale of two American cowboys who fall in love that Ledger finally cemented his claim as one of this generation’s great actors. Starring alongside good friend Jake Gyllenhall, and the future mother of his child, Michelle Williams, Ledger was nominated for his first Academy Award and BAFTA for "Brokeback Mountain."

A few years would pass and the vast array of portrayals continued: "Casanova," as the title character; a film called "Candy," and a critically acclaimed part in the Bob Dylan biography "I'm Not There Yet." "The Dark Night" would soon follow with only one more project before his passing, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." 

Because of Ledger passing while still in production, a number of highly talented and successful leading men (Jonny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law) stepped in to play various incarnations of the good Doctor, all in Ledger's honor. The gesture spoke volumes of the man, artist, father, and friend that Heath Ledger was.

In only 28 years, Heath Ledger was fortunate enough to appear in 23 different film and television titles. I have no doubt in my mind that if he were still here today, he'd have doubled that number by now--if he wanted to. It wasn't about the money or the fame for Australia's brightest. It was about the craft of acting, and who he would portray. The possibilities would have been endless for a man of such precision.

So as we remember an incomparable figure of the silver screen, think about a fascinating character from a film you've seen in the past seven years and how Heath Ledger would have done it differently. How would he have looked inside the Marvel Universe? As a Jedi in forthcoming “Star Wars” saga? A new and improved Indiana Jones?

Maybe he would have even been offered juicy roles destined for the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy or Leonardo DiCaprio; eventually garnering a second or third Academy Award. More importantly, though, be glad that you were lucky enough to see the work of a one of a kind man while you had the opportunity to.