Everyone knows Heath Ledger to be “that guy” from Brokeback Mountain: Ennis del Mar, the gay cowboy. Brokeback Mountain is the stuff of gay jokes, that you can make punchlines out of lines like, “We’re out of beans, Jack” or “I wish I knew how to quit you.” In a way, popular culture cemented Heath’s legacy as a gay cowboy. Movies he starred in, like The Patriot, Monster’s Ball, Casanova, and The Brothers Grimm have become mere footnotes to his moving performance in Brokeback Mountain.
Heath Ledger died today at the age of 28. Heath stands out as one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood before he died, but he is a tragic figure: he died at the prime of his life, and at the pinnacle of his career.
As a movie fan, I say I feel a sense of loss. All too often, when an actor dies, we remember performances and not people. We remember actors for the masks they wear on the silver screen, the roles they portray, and nothing else. Those performances become engrained so much in our minds: when Heath Ledger died, most of us remembered Brokeback Mountain. I can’t say that we remember him for anything else outside of being a performance, but that’s just it. Save for papparazzi reports and the Hollywood press, that’s all there is for us to mourn and grieve about Heath Ledger.
But then again, Heath is immortalized in celluloid: we may not know a lot about him, nor would we know the whole story behind his death. Heath Ledger lives in his work, in every performance in his 12 years in cinema. In that short time, Heath Ledger has proven to be one of the great actors of our time.
He will be missed.