Five years ago this week, I got the call: “Heath Ledger is dead.” For the next month my life was consumed by the premature passing of an actor whose career I’d followed closely from his earliest days in television through to his Oscar-nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain.
I had interviewed Heath on several occasions and written stories on him — on his brief but brilliant career, on his rocky relationship with the media, on the astonishing global outpouring of grief, from those who knew and worked with him and those who loved him as actor.
I was relentlessly questioned by the national and international media as Perth became the epicentre of the tabloid-celebrity universe.
Journalists were especially interested in a message Heath left on my mobile some weeks before his death in which he asked me to thank Perth for respecting his privacy during his recent visit home and that he was looking forward to talking to me about The Dark Knight Rises when it was released later that year.
That message did not yield any insights into his state of mind or offer any clues to how he came to overdose on a lethal cocktail of prescription medications which led to his death in his Manhattan apartment.
What strikes me a half a decade on is not the content of the message or the tone (a bit rambling and incoherent but that was typical of Heath, whose honesty and lack of polish in the face of media scrutiny was part of his charm) but that he even bothered to speak to a journalist he barely knew and from town a long way from the movie industry’s power centres.
While other big-name stars cast off Perth like a pair old thongs (think Isla Fisher and Sam Worthington) Heath never got WA out of his system even as became the hottest young actor on the planet in the wake of Brokeback Mountain and the upcoming Dark Knight.
Instead of hiding away with his family or holing up in a swish hotel with his latest squeeze Heath would returns to all of his favourite summertime spots — hitting the beaches, drinking at the Sail and Anchor in Fremantle or attending a screening at one of Perth’s outdoor cinemas without any fear of being mobbed or made uncomfortable. Contrast that to the tension and anxiety around Worthington’s return to make Drift.
Heath’s connection to his home town was affirmed by my colleague Simon Collins’ posthumous revelation of his championing of young Perth singer-songwriter Grace Woodroofe, who he met through his half-sister Ashleigh Bell (they were close friends at Penrhos College) and whom he introduced to American rocker Ben Harper.
While Heath is now celebrated for his Oscar-winning performance as The Joker I often think about the film he was supposed to make in WA — Philip Noyce’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s Dirt Music, which was derailed when Christopher Nolan offered him the role of a lifetime in The Dark Knight.
I sometimes wonder if Heath had returned to play the character of Luther Fox — he would have been perfect playing the grungy, emotionally damaged poacher — and spent more time in the place where he felt comfortable and which nourished his soul would he still be with us today and starting reach his full potential.
Or perhaps Heath took on The Dark Knight to get away from Australia which for much of his career had not returned the love clearly had for his country.
When Heath died the Australian media went into overdrive celebrating his career, putting him on a pedestal with another acting great and movie heartthrob who was taken before his time, James Dean.
But before the revelation of Brokeback Mountain, he was target of much animosity. He was ridiculed for the films that he made in the wake of his splashy early efforts Two Hands and 10 Things I Hate About Her, rubbished for his media performances (remember the infamous orange-peeling incident) and drawn into spats with the paparazzi at the time of the making of Candy.
Commentators really got stuck into Heath when he took time out from his duties publicising the film Ned Kelly in Melbourne in 2004 to joint the anti-Iraq War protestors with his then-girlfriend Naomi Watts. When Heath failed to answer questions coherently about his position, he was dismissed as another empty-headed Hollywood type who should keep his nose out of politics.
The problem was that we saw too much of Heath Ledger too quickly – and nobody was aware of it more than Heath himself.
Hours after the Melbourne protest march, I sat down with Heath who confessed to me that his rapid rise to movie stardom made him extremely uncomfortable. He was making millions of dollars in A Knight’s Tale only a few years after he had played a gay cyclist in the Perth sports academy TV series Sweat.
Instead of making blockbusters, he told me that he would rather have made a series of smaller movies so he could hone his craft away from the spotlight (remember Heath never went to drama school like contemporaries Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jackman). He said it made him cringe to look up at his big head on the proliferating Knight’s Tale billboards.
And he was right. Those multi-million dollar movies that Heath was pushed into through his early years – Four Feathers, Ned Kelly, The Sin Eater, The Brothers Grimm and Casanova – were all terrible, box-office flops in which he his charisma and booming baritone voice were poorly corralled by his directors. These films were so bad feared I Heath’s career was over before it began.
Then came smaller supporting parts in the very indie movies that he was craving — Monster’s Ball and Lords of Dogtown — which tapped into his capacity for introspection, anguish and a grungy glamour instead of demanding heroic performances.
They also led him to the three roles for which he will be remembered — the anguished junky poet in Neil Armfield’s drama Candy, the even more anguished cowboy in Ang Lee’s gay western Brokeback Mountain and his mesmerising, madcap performance as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Even before The Dark Knight was finished, the Internet was abuzz with reports that Heath’s Joker was so inspired, so off-the-wall that he had surpassed Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s original.
Indeed, some were even suggesting that Heath had immersed himself so thoroughly in the part of the comic-book villain that it killed him, that there was madness in his method acting.
So it was with enormous trepidation that I sat down to watch The Dark Knight when it finally arrived several months after his death. Would we be watching an Oscar-winning performance or the real-life unravelling of a troubled young man?
What struck me, however, was how much obvious enjoyment Heath took in playing Batman’s arch-nemesis.
There is darkness and danger but mostly it’s a playful, grandly Shakespearean performance, one full of craft and acting technique, more a flamboyant Laurence Olivier or Javier Bardem in the recent Bond movie and less a tortured James Dean or Marlon Brando.
Even his co-star Christian Bale denies that Heath was in a bad state making The Dark Knight. And Heath himself was quoted as saying that it was "the most fun I’ve ever had, or probably ever will have, playing a character.”
Those three great performances constitute a smallish legacy but, like the trilogy of classics made by James Dean before he died in a car crash at the age of 24, they will be watched for decades to come.
Both actors lit up the screen briefly but the afterglow will be with us as long as there are movies.