Tribute to Heath Ledger

Australia lost one of it's most beloved sons today. The handsome and talented actor, Heath Ledger, died today far from home in New York. I don't want to dwell on the how, but pay some tribute to a man that contributed far more to cinema in his short career than many do in a lifetime.

It's the eyes that get you first. Soft, brown and with a hint of the poets' gaze. In many ways that is what made Heath so unique. His weren't the classically tooth-capped, fake-tan, pumped up good looks of many Hollywood A-listers, but he had an easy smile, rogue-ish curly hair, and looked as much like he belonged in a romantic 18th century novel as he would having a drink with you down the pub. The eyes were enigmatic, belying a big heart, an impishness, and yet wistful and almost sad.

It was this inner mystery that attracted women to him in droves. Heath had his fair share of Hollywood lovelies, Heather Graham, Naomi Watts and the mother of his baby, Michelle Williams and the role of father was one he seemed to relish. His easy charm, wide smile, those eyes and boyish good looks meant he appealed to young and old alike. There was something so accessible, so likeable about Heath, that watching him on the big screen was like watching someone you knew. A best friend, a cousin, a boyfriend. He generated affection from the viewer, you wanted his character to strive, and you wanted to be right there at the end cheering him on. It's this trait that raised him above the normal Hollywood players, even in his less successful career choices the viewer is drawn to him, his performance often being the only redeeming feature of a movie, The Order being an obvious example. Lack of box office success didn't stop him working with big-name directors and he made his way up to the A-list in his own way, rather than being sucked into big commercial money-making vehicles. His choices for historical characters gave a hint of the inner romantic within. He was drawn to tortured souls, characters with emotional layers drawn from real-life rather than Hollywood-scripted reality.

Few young actors have the capacity to play the variety of roles, or the courage to make such diversified choices. Whether it's a charming player (Casanova), or a skanky surfboard maker made almost unrecognisable by makeup (Lords of Dogtown), his range was incredible and he refused to be pigeon-holed. His depth of character as the quiet, tormented Ennis that earned him an Oscar nomination, playing the character as a young man and into middle age. Ennis's brooding silences, the few sobs which seemed wrenched from his body at the death of his lover are all Heath, and it's Heath's heartbreaking performance that made the film into a true love story that everyone could relate to, not just 'that gay cowboy movie'. His passing has left a gaping hole and there are few in Hollywood talented enough to fill it. He had a niche all of his own. His star was set to rise into the echolons set by De Niro, McKellan, Hurt, Depp. His turn alongside Geoffrey Rush in Candy was outstanding - their onscreen cameraderie crackled as film critics worldwide nodded their heads enthusiastically. Heath stood his ground amongst those who have spent years honing their craft. His already highly-acclaimed last role as The Joker will remain a poignant insight into the future that could have been.

Offscreen he didn't fit into the red carpet in-crowd, shunning LA for the more down-to-earth New York, preferring grunge wear over Bond St slick. He fidgeted in interviews, and seemed awkward, uneasy and almost bewildered by the attention. Maybe this belied some insecurity, but rather I think it's how most down-to-people would react. And this was part of Heath's beauty, off camera he didn't have to play the big Hollywood star even though onscreen he was every inch the leading man.

In the recent film The Guardian, one of the characters asks: "What makes a legend? Is it what a man does while he's alive? Or is it what he's remembered for after he dies?" I think Heath will be remembered for his remarkable, diverse body of work, his Australian boy-next-door good looks that could transform into devilishly handsome at the flick of a smile. He'll be remembered because he was a unique, and remarkably talented human being.

Whilst his death remains still shrouded in mystery, one can only hope his passing was painless, that at the time of his death he was aware of the millions of people who revered his work, respected him as an actor, and wished him well, with a fondness few other actors will ever inspire even by people who many not have seen many of his movies, and this was part of Heath's magic. It's a tragic story of unfulfilled potential but he will remain forever young in the hearts of millions around the world, and elevated into film legend because that is exactly what this quiet 21st century hero deserves.

Heath Ledger 4 April 1979 - 22 January 2008

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