Heath Andrew Ledger (4 April 1979 – 22 January 2008) was an Australian actor and director. After performing roles in several Australian television and film productions during the 1990s, Ledger left for the United States in 1998 to further develop his film career. His work comprised nineteen films, including 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), The Patriot (2000), A Knight’s Tale (2001), Monster’s Ball (2001), Lords of Dogtown (2005), Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), the latter two being posthumous releases. He also produced and directed music videos and aspired to be a film director.
Ledger died on 22 January 2008 from an accidental intoxication from prescription drugs. A few months before his death, Ledger had finished filming his performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight. His death occurred during editing of The Dark Knight and in the midst of filming his last role as Tony in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. His untimely death cast a shadow over the subsequent promotion of the $185 million Batman production. Ledger received numerous posthumous accolades for his critically acclaimed performance in the film, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, a Best Actor International Award at the 2008 Australian Film Institute Awards (for which he became the first actor to win an award posthumously), the 2008 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor, the 2009 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, and the 2009 BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Ledger was born in Perth, Western Australia, the son of Sally Ledger, a French teacher, and Kim Ledger, a racecar driver and mining engineer whose family established and owned the Ledger Engineering Foundry. Ledger attended Mary’s Mount Primary School in Gooseberry Hill, and later Guildford Grammar School, where he had his first acting experiences, starring in a school production as Peter Pan at age 10. His parents separated when he was 10 and divorced when he was 11. Ledger’s older sister Kate, an actress and later a publicist, to whom he was very close, inspired his acting on stage, and his love of Gene Kelly, who inspired his successful choreography.
Ledger was an avid chess player, winning Western Australia’s junior chess championship at the age of 10. As an adult, he often played with other chess enthusiasts at Washington Square Park. Ledger also had a keen interest in the West Coast Eagles, a professional Australian rules football team that competes in the Australian Football League and are based in his hometown of Perth. Allan Scott’s film adaptation of the chess-related 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit, by Walter Tevis, which at the time of his death he was planning to both perform in and direct, would have been Ledger’s first feature film as a director.
In 2004, Heath Ledger met and began dating actress Michelle Williams on the set of Brokeback Mountain. Their daughter, Matilda Rose, was born on 28 October 2005 in New York City. Matilda’s godparents are Brokeback co-star Jake Gyllenhaal and Williams’ Dawson’s Creek co-star Busy Philipps. In January 2006, Ledger put his residence in Bronte, New South Wales up for sale, and returned to the United States, where he shared a house with Williams, in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, from 2005 to 2007. In September 2007, Williams’ father confirmed to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph that Ledger and Williams had ended their relationship.
In their New York Times interview, published on 4 November 2007, Ledger told Sarah Lyall that his recently completed roles in I’m Not There (2007) and The Dark Knight (2008) had taken a toll on his ability to sleep: “Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night. … I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” At that time, he told Lyall that he had taken two Ambien pills, after taking just one had not sufficed, and those left him in “a stupor, only to wake up an hour later, his mind still racing.”
In talking with Interview magazine, after his death, Ledger’s former fiancée Michelle Williams also confirmed reports the actor had experienced trouble sleeping. “For as long as I’d known him, he had bouts with insomnia. He had too much energy. His mind was turning, turning, turning – always turning.”
At about 2:45 pm (EST), on 22 January 2008, Ledger was found unconscious in his bed by his housekeeper, Teresa Solomon, and his masseuse, Diana Wolozin, in his fourth-floor loft apartment at 421 Broome Street in the SoHo neighbourhood of Manhattan.
According to the police, Wolozin, who had arrived early for a 3:00 pm appointment with Ledger, called Ledger’s friend Mary-Kate Olsen for help. Olsen, who was in California, directed a New York City private security guard to go to the scene. At 3:26 pm, “less than 15 minutes after she first saw him in bed and only a few moments after the first call to Ms. Olsen”, Wolozin telephoned 9-1-1 “to say that Mr. Ledger was not breathing”. At the urging of the 9-1-1 operator, Wolozin administered CPR, which was unsuccessful in reviving him.
Paramedics and emergency medical technicians arrived seven minutes later, at 3:33 pm (“at almost exactly the same moment as a private security guard summoned by Ms. Olsen”) but were also unable to revive him. At 3:36 pm, Ledger was pronounced dead, and his body was removed from the apartment.
Late in February 2008, a DEA investigation of medical professionals relating to Ledger’s death exonerated two American physicians, who practice in Los Angeles and Houston, of any wrongdoing, determining that “the doctors in question had prescribed Ledger other medications – not the pills that killed him.”
Effect on fans
Eleven months after Ledger’s death, on 23 December 2008, Jake Coyle, writing for the Associated Press, announced that “Heath Ledger’s death was voted 2008’s top entertainment story by U.S. newspaper and broadcast editors surveyed by The Associated Press”. He claimed that this was partially a result of the “shock and confusion” surrounding the circumstances of Ledger’s death, as well as due to Ledger’s “legacy…in a roundly acclaimed performance as the Joker in the year’s biggest box office hit The Dark Knight.”
Memorial tributes and services
As the news of Ledger’s death became public, throughout the night of 22 January 2008, and the next day, media crews, mourners, fans, and other onlookers began gathering outside his apartment building, with some leaving flowers or other memorial tributes.
Several actors made statements expressing their sorrow at Ledger’s death, including Daniel Day-Lewis, who dedicated his Screen Actors Guild Award to him, saying that he was inspired by Ledger’s acting; Day-Lewis praised Ledger’s performances in Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain, describing the latter as “unique, perfect”. Verne Troyer, who was working with Ledger on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus at the time of his death, had a heart shape, an exact duplicate of a symbol that Ledger scrawled on a piece of paper with his email address, tattooed on his hand in remembrance of Ledger because Ledger “had made such an impression on him.
On 1 February, in her first public statement after Ledger’s death, Michelle Williams expressed her heartbreak and described Ledger’s spirit as surviving in their daughter.
After attending private memorial ceremonies in Los Angeles, Ledger’s family members returned with his body to Perth.
Method and style
Directors who have worked with the actor praised him for his creativity, seriousness and intuition. “I’ve never felt as old as I did watching Heath explore his talents,” The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan has written, expressing amazement over the actor’s working process, genuine curiosity and charisma. Marc Forster, who directed Ledger in Monster’s Ball, complimented him as taking the job “very seriously”, being disciplined, observant, and understanding and intuitive. In 2007, director Todd Haynes compared Ledger’s presence to actor James Dean, casting Ledger as Robbie Clarke, a fictive personification of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Drawing on the similar characteristics between the actors, Haynes further highlighted Ledger’s “precocious seriousness” and intuition. He also felt that Ledger had a rare maturity beyond his years.” Ledger, however, disconnected himself and acting from perfectionism. “I’m always gonna pull myself apart and dissect [the work]. I mean, there’s no such thing as perfection in what actors do.
“Some people find their shtick,” Ledger reflected on the categorization of style. “I never figured out who ‘Heath Ledger’ is on film: ‘This is what you expect when you hire me, and it will be recognizable’… People always feel compelled to sum you up, to presume that they have you and can describe you. That’s fine. But there are so many stories inside of me and a lot I want to achieve outside of one flat note.”
Speaking of editing The Dark Knight, on which Ledger had completed his work in October 2007, Nolan recalled, “It was tremendously emotional, right when he passed, having to go back in and look at him every day. … But the truth is, I feel very lucky to have something productive to do, to have a performance that he was very, very proud of, and that he had entrusted to me to finish.” All of Ledger’s scenes appear as he completed them in the filming; in editing the film, Nolan added no “digital effects” to alter Ledger’s actual performance posthumously. Nolan dedicated the film in part to Ledger’s memory, as well as to the memory of technician Conway Wickliffe, who was killed during a car accident while preparing one of the film’s stunts.
Released in July 2008, The Dark Knight broke several box office records and received both popular and critical accolades, especially with regard to Ledger’s performance as the Joker. Even film critic David Denby, who does not praise the film overall in his pre-release review in The New Yorker, evaluates Ledger’s work highly, describing his performance as both “sinister and frightening” and Ledger as “mesmerising in every scene”, concluding: “His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss.” Ledger’s co-star and friend Christian Bale, who played opposite him as Batman, has stressed that, as an actor, Ledger greatly enjoyed meeting the challenges of creating that role, an experience that Ledger himself described as “the most fun I’ve ever had, or probably ever will have, playing a character.” Terry Gilliam also refuted the claims that playing the Joker made him crazy, calling it “absolute nonsense” and going on to say, “Heath was so solid. His feet were on the ground and he was the least neurotic person I’ve ever met.”
Ledger received numerous awards for his Joker role in The Dark Knight. On 10 November 2008, he was nominated for two People’s Choice Awards related to his work on the film, “Best Ensemble Cast” and “Best Onscreen Match-Up” (shared with Christian Bale), and Ledger won an award for “Match-Up” in the ceremony aired live on CBS in January 2009.
On 11 December 2008, it was announced that Ledger had been nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture for his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight; he subsequently won the award at the 66th Golden Globe Awards ceremony telecast on NBC on 11 January 2009 with Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan accepting on his behalf.
Film critics, co-stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michael Caine and many of Ledger’s colleagues in the film community joined Bale in calling for and predicting a nomination for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in recognition of Ledger’s achievement in The Dark Knight. Ledger’s subsequent nomination was announced on 22 January 2009, the anniversary of his death.
Ledger went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, becoming the second person to win a posthumous Academy Award for acting (after fellow Australian actor Peter Finch, who won for 1976’s Network), as well as the first comic-book movie actor to win an Oscar for their acting. Ledger’s family attended the ceremony on 22 February 2009, with his parents and sister accepting the award on stage on his behalf. Following talks with the Ledger family in Australia, the Academy determined that Ledger’s daughter, Matilda Rose, would own the award. However, due to Matilda’s age, she will not gain full ownership of the statuette until her eighteenth birthday in 2023. Until that time, her mother Michelle Williams, will hold the statuette in trust for Matilda.
On 4 April 2017, a trailer was released for the upcoming documentary I am Heath Ledger which was released on 3 May 2017. It features archival footage of Ledger and interviews.