On the Death of Heath Ledger Jan 29, 2008 16:32:54 GMT -5
Post by Flash on Jan 29, 2008 16:32:54 GMT -5
On the Death of Heath Ledger
by Gary Leupp / January 29th, 2008
Ang Lee had called him a “young Brando.” John Travolta called him “my actor.” Tributes poured in from Hollywood as the Australian prime minister mourned the loss of a deeply talented native son and the White House postponed an event that might have been construed as exploiting Heath Ledger’s death likely caused by an accidental prescription drug overdose.
I can’t think of an actor whose death has affected me so deeply. Last Tuesday was one of those moments that reminds you that there is no reason or logic in the cosmos, merely bright and beautiful stars interspersed with dark matter that eventually burn themselves out.
I was not the most ardent fan; I saw only three of Ledger’s films. But I found his performance as Ennis Del Mar in the epic Brokeback Mountain — a study in quiet, lonely, dignified, protracted pain soothed intermittently by sublime moments of intimacy — was as soaring as the film’s Santaolalla soundtrack. Some criticized the film for lack of realism — the initial physical episode between Ennis and Jack was indeed implausibly executed — but the performances rang true. They stuck in your head, made you think and feel.
It was a film that made many uncomfortable. In January 2006, Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam noted that the it wasn’t meeting box office predictions because “[f]irst and foremost, outside of major cities, many Americans remain jittery at best and disapproving at worst of homosexuality.” (Never mind that Brokeback had just been named Best Picture by the Iowa Film Critics Society.) I myself never saw it in a theater. My film-buff son almost always selects our viewing fare, and at 15 at the time he didn’t suggest this one. I rented the DVD when it came out and he watched it before I had a chance to do so.
“It’s not a ‘gay cowboy’ film,” he announced matter of factly. “It’s a love story.” I watched it with him and my then-teenage daughter, all of us blown away by its intensity and courage.
Since Ledger’s death I have perused some of the fan sites, curious to see how his career impacted others. There is a site devoted entirely to the friendship between Ledger and Brokeback co-star Jake Gyllenhaal — surely a product of people wishing to fantasize that the film relationship blossomed into something in real life. Such imaginings are fed by the fact that Ledger’s first serious acting role was as a gay cyclist on the Australian TV series Sweat (1996), Gyllenhaal’s statement that since Brokeback Ledger has been his “best friend,” and Ledger’s selection of Gyllenhaal to serve as his daughter Matilda’s godfather.
Matilda’s mother is of course Michelle Williams, who played Ennis’ wife in Brokeback Mountain. In the lives of highly artistic people sometimes life replicates art. Rumors swirl about Gyllenhaal’s sexuality, and he himself has said that while he’s not gay he’s open to the possibility. Should we find that Ledger and Williams broke up because of the Ledger/Gyllenhaal friendship fetishized by the above bloggers, or due to related sexual issues virtually replicating the Brokeback script, the actor’s death would I suppose acquire even greater poignancy.
With such thoughts in my mind I encountered Fox News’ reportage on Ledger’s death. Radio show racist hatemonger John Gibson opened his January 23 show with funeral music, playing the tape of Jack in Brokeback swearing, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
“Well,” said Gibson, laughing, “he found out how to quit you!” The piece of shit followed up by playing the clip in which Ennis tells Jake that if their relationship were discovered, “We’re dead.” Calling the actor — in fact by all reports one of the most stable, sober, and down-to-earth of his community — a “weirdo” scumbag Gibson declared that Ledger had “a serious drug problem.” He specifically accused him, with no evidence, of “snorting heroin.”
Thus the tragic death of a non-political Australian actor in New York City becomes culture-wars material for a semi-literate fascist-prone sensationalizing bullying butthead, confident that Fox News culture will tolerate and nurture this sort of assault. Immediately challenged by normal rational people for his broadcast remarks, he smirked, “Why pass up a good joke?”
But there are apparently limits. Even MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough expressed disgust: “This is about as callous and harsh as anything I’ve heard. It is unspeakably rude. I don’t know who syndicates this guy, but that is absolutely stunning, that John Gibson would be that mean-spirited and hateful.” (I myself find it stunning that Scarborough should be stunned, since he’s anything but a model of political correctness.) MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinki said, “I’ve got to tell you, that makes me nauseous . . . I don’t know how you stay on the air after doing something like that, quite frankly.”
Thus this grotesque John Gibson-thing — no doubt after some in-house discussion at Fox and with his sorry ass on the line — issued a quasi-apology: “I’m sorry that some took my comments as anti-gay and insensitive,” he drawled, noting that Ledger was a “good father.” As though his use of his family-man qualifications make him less of the weirdo Gibson had earlier mocked.
Somehow it seems appropriate that Ledger (whatever his sexuality, which was perhaps complex, the norm among actors) should in his death immediately become a lightning rod for the homophobes. The sick, tiny Baptist sect that routinely spews antigay hate speech at military funerals reportedly had a presence near Ledger’s funeral ceremony last week. These hate manifestations pay tribute to the actor’s impact. His performance as Ennis, a young man who quite simply and as the most natural thing in the world fell in love with another, maintaining that love to the bitter end of death, is indeed a fucking threat to these bigots.
Al Gore just came out in favor of gay marriage. Acceptance of gays in the military is at record highs. The “We’re dead” fear of Brokeback recedes in light of progress in the real world. That is what frightens the homophobes, lashing out stupidly at a dead actor but in doing so further validating his life.
Jake Gyllenhaal is reportedly filming in New Mexico. He has issued no statement so far, a conspicuous void in the posthumous closure process. One report says he is too upset about Heath’s death to talk to the media. (This is in contrast to Ledger’s family which conducted a very dignified brief interview with the press outside their Perth home within hours of his death.) He seems like such a good guy, a Buddhist seeking mindfulness, politicized, working with World Can’t Wait. I feel for him and respect his silence. On the other hand I wish he would vent his pain on behalf of all of us who at least in small quantity share it, and might derive some comfort in his thoughts.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Read other articles by Gary.
This article was posted on Tuesday, January 29th, 2008 at 5:00 am and is filed under Culture, Media, Prejudice. Send to a friend.
5 comments on this article so far ...
Whittney Hayes said on January 29th, 2008 at 8:45 am #
Heath Ledger was a great actor and a great person despite of what the tabloids say about him. He had a 2 year old daughter why would he want to take his own life i don’t think any parent would be that selfish.
Robert Lelfet said on January 29th, 2008 at 9:09 am #
Bravo, Professor for confirming again about what so many of us feel with respect to this overwhelming tragedy-a very personal sense of loss that will not readily disappear. Heath entered our hearts unlike any other star in contemporary cinema. He was our brother, our son , our lover –it didn’t matter because we just wanted to be with him. It has already been written that the sadness we all experienced watching the ending of “Brokeback Mountain” was tempered by the fact that we knew Heath was alive and well in real life….now that’s all gone…
As to John Gibson, those stupid and vicious comments weren’t even acceptable to his own viewers . And as far as a statement from Jake, it certainly would be comforting but we can only assume he is overwhelmed. The bottom line is we lost Heath and we can’t accept this fact, we just can’t!
HR said on January 29th, 2008 at 12:37 pm #
Amazing how the so-called alternative press follows in the footsteps of its corporate counterpart in reporting entertainment news and opinion as though it had some vital importance. Surely, there are more important issues to address, ones that actually affect our lives.
neal cass said on January 29th, 2008 at 12:44 pm #
That was a beautiful well thought out piece you wrote
about Heath. I agree in everything you said as if you
took the words right out of my mouth.
I couldn’t explain myself why I’m so moved about his
passing when it was only after seeing Brokeback
Mountain that made me realize what a great talent and
person he was. Before, I too never much thought about
him thinking maybe, he’s just one of those matinee
idols who will soon be forgotten. When news about him
and Jake being cast in that film, I was somewhat
perplexed but also intrigued that producers would
choose him. Everything changed after that. I then saw
Heath in a new and different light. Perhaps his Ennis
character which is the saddest you’d ever seen, is
somewhat unavoidably forever linked to him and why I
feel such pain for Heath. It’s as if Ennis himself
died. It’s also why this Westborough church and other
anti-gay groups have made their presence at his wake
in L.A. and yesterday outside the SAG awards. Yes he
played a gay character but Heath himself was not gay
because he loved women. They could not distinguish the
character from the person. Even for the rest of us
with an open mind, we too are “guilty” of that
association with Heath and his character but in an
endearing way as if we had a long lost special friend
that the rest of the world doesn’t understand.
Secretly or not, we cherish Ennis as much as we
cherish Heath because he played it perfectly and made
it come to life. How else would Daniel Day Lewis who
had never met him but had paid tributes to him not
only yesterday at the SAG awards, but earlier on
Tuesday’s interview with Oprah preferring to talk
about Heath than his Oscar nomination. Gary Oldman,
Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale
all have spoken fondly of him too. As an actor, they
know when a fellow actor has given his greatest
performance and they are only left to marvel at his
Though I’ve never met Heath, I thank you for your
sincere article because it gave me comfort and
assurance that I’m not alone in my thoughts and
feelings about his passing and that their are writers
like you who have something positive to say at a time
when it’s needed most.
He was a friend of mine.
Deadbeat said on January 29th, 2008 at 1:19 pm #
Being a comic book fan, I was looking forward to Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker. That being said, I think from a DV point of view the issue behind Ledger’s death is the over use of prescription drugs by doctors and the connection to the pharmaceuticals companies. I don’t know exactly what Ledger was suffering from but from what I heard if he was having sleeping problems there are many homeopathic remedies that are much safer than pharmaceuticals. I think this angle into Ledger’s death need not be overshadowed.
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