There's a moment in Heath Ledger's far too short, sometimes brilliant film career that makes me so teary eyed, so filled with wistful emotion, that no matter how many times I watch it, I'm still taken aback by its deceptively simple power. No, it's not a scene from Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (his transcendent performance there makes me weep -- for more obvious reasons); rather, it was his final scene in Catherine Hardwicke's Lords of Dogtown, that underrated skater picture featuring one of Ledger's most poignant performances.
As Skip Engblom, the crusty, aging uncle/father figure to the kids of Team Zephyr, young Ledger played beyond his years with sublime, quirky effortlessness. As in most of his performances, Ledger imbued what could have been a one-note aging stoner dude with sympathy and soul, dignifying Skip with a disarming, surprisingly heart-wrenching end note: Sanding a surfboard in the back of what was once his kingdom, in what could have been an easy, here's-where-he's-at-now scene. Instead, Ledger fills us with a compelling mixture of sadness and a glimmer of hope that Skip will at least survive this life OK. After his boss orders him to finish a surfboard for some kid, the past lord dutifully, but bitterly, complies. Glumly sitting down, Skip slowly perks up to the lovely opening of Rod Stewart's "Maggie May." Pounding to that infectious double drum beat preceding Stewart's passionate "Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you," Skip, in a flash of understated joy and release, turns up the radio and sings along. Ledger is so in the moment and so naturally bittersweet that in mere seconds, he makes one remember just how much those little things in life can affect you -- those times or sensations that either make you crash hard or for one wonderful, ephemeral moment, lift you higher.
And Ledger could work those powerful sensations in all of his performances, whether he was gleefully laughing at himself in the giddily entertaining A Knight's Tale or silently, desperately pining for his beloved in Brokeback Mountain. It seems silly to say he was underrated since he received an Academy Award nomination for his tortured cowboy Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback, but in many respects he was underrated. Given that much of his earlier work was looked upon as the standard, hot young thing pabulum many actors slog through before reaching critical credibility, Ledger was often underappreciated for always being interesting, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Patriot and all.
Moving his career to his own fascinating frequency, the Australian Ledger eschewed the predictable romantic comedy/action hero leading man roles that could have followed his splashy, sexy 2000 Vanity Fair cover, anointing him as the latest stud du jour. It reads like a terrific career move, an initial sacrifice but ultimately a rewarding step toward serious movie stardom. But watching Ledger skillfully slip into the skin of a depressive, soft-hearted young man in Monster's Ball or embody a brash, sexy rake in Casanova, I can't imagine the actor having any kind of choice. He was just too sensitive, too interesting, too intelligent an actor to not make any part uniquely his own. And exciting. Watching his psychopathic, perfectly hideous Joker in the trailer for Christopher Nolan's upcoming Batman chapter The Dark Knight gives me chills, not only for the dual thrill of seeing two of cinema's greatest, chameleonlike talents (Christian Bale and Ledger, who were also terrific in Todd Haynes' stunning Dylan meditation, I'm Not There) pitted against one another, but for Ledger's maniacal, edgier take on the legendary supervillain. Ledger's ability to create a Joker that'll out-do Jack Nicholson appears to be unquestionable, and this was clearly yet another important transformative moment in the actor's career.
But I'm discussing Ledger's career in the past tense, something I'm having a tough time wrapping my mind around. He was one of my favorite working actors, an actor I've been advocating and arguing for as someone special and different since his earlier roles, and an actor I now find myself cherishing. Like many of you, I was absolutely stunned and depressed to learn of his death. I can barely grasp the realization as I write this right now. He was only 28 years old. He was in the middle of Terry Gilliam's newest picture, an admirable task since, in spite of how great he was in Gilliam's otherwise messy The Brothers Grimm, you know someone must have advised him against it. But Gilliam, as troubled as some of his productions have been, is an artist. And so was Ledger.
Thinking of the last movie I saw Ledger in, as the beautiful, romantic but flawed and human "live fast, die young" James Dean-inspired Dylan persona in I'm Not There, I was filled with sadness, recalling the enchanting, idyllic scenes between Charlotte Gainsbourg and Ledger tuned to Dylan's "I Want You." What bliss. What joy to simply watch Ledger engaging in such bliss. And what a magnificent, soulful talent he was, with so much more to give movies and life. To paraphrase Dylan, we want you, we want you, we want you back, so bad.