The Day Heath Ledger Died

Where were you the day Heath Ledger died? It’s crass to quote survey results, but the magnitude of the effect his untimely passing had on pop culture can perhaps be better understood when you consider that it was voted 2008’s top entertainment story in a survey of U.S. newspaper and broadcast editors conducted by The Associated Press. As one of the many people who became a fan of Ledger during his short career (over and above being a lifelong fan of the Joker), his death was one of those time-stopping events where I’ll always remember where I was and what I was doing that day.

I say “day” but actually, it was nighttime when I heard the news. I had just parked my car in the lot of a Mexican restaurant on the Tennessee Strip in Tallahassee, Florida, right across the street from Florida State University. One of my friends had texted me while I was driving, but I didn’t pick up my phone and look at the text until I had parked and the keys were out of the ignition. The text read simply, “Heath Ledger dead at 28.” As it happens, /Film’s obituary carried the same headline.

I thought it was a sick joke at first. I was a college kid with a flighty brain and I think that friend of mine had a history of playing pranks, so maybe, because I was in a hurry to get inside and eat dinner, the gravity of the text didn’t fully register. The restaurant was one of those fast-casual chains where you move through the line and watch your burrito being assembled. It didn’t take long for me to get my meal and when I was finished, I went back out to the car and called one of my other friends. The significance of the text — the possibility that it wasn’t just a prank — had begun to sink in and on the phone, my friend confirmed that the news was real. Heath Ledger was dead.

Of all the shocking celebrity deaths, Ledger’s hit close to home for me on a number of levels, none more so than the fact that I had observed him in-person once at a live taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. This was in New York City, on one of my last trips into Manhattan back in the spring of 2001.

Having attended a liberal arts college in Bronxville for three semesters, I was preparing to transfer back to my home state of Florida to finish up my undergraduate education in what I thought would be a timely fashion. Ledger was in the studio that day doing an interview to promote A Knight’s Tale. You can watch that interview over on the official Comedy Central website. I was one of the people in the background making noise with the rest of the audience.

Suffice it to say, the interview, which touched comically on Ledger’s “sheep-jousting” background in his hometown of Perth, was funny but also slightly antagonistic at times. Ledger was fidgety — an old soul still uncomfortable in his new skin, perhaps — and Stewart kept taking these little digs at the 22-year-old Australian heartthrob, as if he was venting his microaggressions through jokes. I almost wondered if something had happened between them backstage to get them off on the wrong foot. Immediately after the interview, when Ledger had left the stage and Stewart was interacting with the audience off-camera, I remember one woman in the studio bleachers saying she thought Ledger was nervous. Stewart said something to the effect of, “We can’t all get by on our good looks alone.”

He couldn’t have known, of course, what was to come. At the end of that year, Monster’s Ball would open in New York and L.A., showcasing Ledger’s first memorable dramatic performance as a despondent correctional officer living with his hateful father, played by Billy Bob Thornton. By then, I would be back down in Florida, earning Cs and Ds already in my first semester at FSU because I was lazy and bored with math and science electives and I didn’t know what I wanted to do for my major. Ledger’s Daily Show interview wouldn’t actually air until four days after I had bid the Big Apple farewell.

College Dropout, Media Fallout

When Ledger suddenly died in 2008, I still hadn’t graduated from college, though I had followed his career, writing a review of The Four Feathers for my college newspaper, among other things. Forget being a fifth-year senior. By 2008, I was a 9th-year senior.

As someone who was only a year younger than him, it was humbling to think about all this great actor had accomplished in his life by the age of 28. Besides building up a DVD collection and being a college dropout for a few years while working a series of dead-end jobs in the food-service industry, my biggest claim to fame was that I had co-written and recorded a bunch of songs and played a couple shows with one of my bands at a local college bar.

I’m sure many fans had a healthy, normal relationship with the movie, but how many other Dark Knight obsessives like me turned to the movie to fill some hole in their lives? As morbid and wrong as it sounds, Ledger’s death added a deeper dimension to the pre-release news cycle for the movie. Simply put, it caused a worldwide media sensation. His last days, the circumstances of his death, his acting process, the reactions of industry professionals who had worked with him, became the subject of intense fascination around the globe. Now suddenly there were all these stories from major news outlets floating around out there in addition to the ones being posted on movie blogs. Juicy Fox News headline: “Jack Nicholson Says He ‘Warned’ Heath Ledger.”

Slowly but surely, an air of Hollywood legend started to grow up around The Dark Knight. The death of a crew member during production (special effects technician Conway Wickliffe, to whom the movie was co-dedicated along with Ledger), compounded by Christian Bale’s arrest before the London premiere and Morgan Freeman’s car crash in August 2008 even had people saying the movie was cursed. Ledger’s tragic death, meanwhile, took on the mythic status of an actor driven to an early grave through sleepless nights brought on by the channeling of genius.

Even if he hadn’t died, his actual performance as the Joker would have ensured him a place in the pantheon of great movie villains. But the fact that he did die young immortalized it even further. He became an icon, this generation’s James Dean, someone Creative Writing majors like me (I was back in school by 2008) latched onto and used as the hagiographic subject of our assignments in Poetry class. James Franco wasn’t the only one penning odes to Ledger. To this day, I would still have to credit Brokeback Mountain with being one of the first pieces of media to expand my worldview as a WASP beyond its previously homophobic borders. As it turned out, repressed longing (for a better life) was something I could relate to very much.

Bottle It and Sell It

In 2008, my brief stint writing for the college newspaper was long since behind me. This was back in the Stone Age of journalism, when it seemed like having physical newspaper clippings of recent articles you had written (as opposed to just links you could send to well-crafted posts) was necessary for a portfolio. Beyond the occasional workshop assignment in school, the most constructive thing I was able to do with writing about movies was to present a paper related to the upcoming Iron Man film at my university’s international Film and Literature Conference.

2008 wound up being the Year of the Comic Book Movie, though of course, none of us had any inkling that a full-fledged Marvel Cinematic Universe was on the way. I was just happy to be able to parlay my love of comic books into a speaking engagement where I was admittedly out of my depth, surrounded by all these academics, PhDs who had traveled in from other countries and were asking the baby-faced undergrad tough questions about Iron Man during the Q&A session. The theme of the conference was regional and global posthumanism. Technically, Tony Stark could be considered a cyborg if you’re familiar with his origin and changes that were made to the character in the 2007 graphic novel Extremis.

Outside of the two classes a semester I was taking, I was working full-time to support myself. Movies had largely become a passive form of entertainment that helped me vegetate after work. My friends and I used to have some lively discussions about new releases and we joked that if we could just somehow bottle and sell the discussions we were having, they’d surely hold entertainment value for others. We had no frame of reference for online radio, you see. Podcasts were not yet such a widespread thing. As noted in the History of /Film, the /Filmcast did not launch until late May 2008.

If only my friends and I had the foresight to start a podcast or set up shop on YouTube. I had all this pent-up film-loving energy with no outlet for it and maybe that’s why I was so obsessed that I dressed up as the Joker three times and went to see The Dark Knight eight times in the theater. It was fun and memorable, but as I look back, it also feels like there were times in my twenties and even later, into my thirties, when my consumerist fanboy habits waylaid me and resulted in misdirected creative energy.

Over the years, I had absorbed all this otherwise useless information about movies and unlike Heath Ledger, I was not some highly functional genius able to synthesize that into a legendary career. Privately, I had all these creative projects that I had started but never finished. It left me restlessly worshipping on the altar of cinema, which I believe has been and is potentially the highest art form, but which can also function as the great dung heap of civilization at times.

Movies were my golden calf, like Mooby in Dogma. Maybe that’s why I made the pilgrimage to Austin that summer to see the bats and visit the Alamo Drafthouse.

Continue Reading A Personal History With The Dark Knight >>

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