Thursday, January 24, 2008

The passing of a great Australian actor, Heath Ledger

This is totally unrelated to Lebanon or the Middle East, but I'm sure I'll be excused for writing about something that is monumental news in Australia at present.

The world is well informed now of the sad and sudden death of Australian actor, Heath Ledger. The world may have passed it on as another 'another Hollywood star bites the drug', but the reception of his death in Australia has been met with resounding grief.

For a country that only amounts to 2% of the film and music global market, Australia has produced some incredibly fine artists, and Heath Ledger was emerging as one of the greatest.

Originating from the isolated city of Perth, the 28-year-old won acclaim and appraisal from film critics and skeptics alike with his performances. He was known to be incredibly picky about which movies he wanted to star in.

Every movie needed to have significance. He chased the story, not the status. He was inspired by art, not by fame. He never accepted the celebrity aspect of being an actor, Ledger remained a private individual that wasn't a booze hound or a party animal like most of Hollywood's A list. He avoided the scene, and simply worked on developing his artistry. For that's what makes an artist. The ability to create, to imagine, and to pursue those imaginations in the face of overwhelming temptation to do otherwise.

After breaking through with his hit teen movie, 10 things I hate about you, in 1999, Ledger rejected every teen movie offer after that, and there were plenty. He didn't want to become a teen star, I don't think he wanted to be a star at all. He wanted to perform in movies that conveyed a real, serious message. His choice to act in Brokeback Mountain wasn't a coincidence,

Ledger is reported to have referred to his uncle Neil as the inspiration behind his Oscar-nominating performance in Ang Lee's gay cowboy film. His uncle was as masculine and butch as they come, a bare-knuckle fist fighter in fact. He's also as gay as they come. Neil's father disowned him when he was 20 and kicked him out of the house. Ledger recalls other more personal stories of his uncle Neil, all of which made Ledger determined to make a movie portraying the hardships of gay men in highly masculine streams of life.

Ledger chose the genres, chose the stories, chose the issues that he wanted to be the base of his art. Rejecting those teen flicks early in his career did come at a price. He ran short of cash, right to the extent where he was surviving on mere rice. Perseverance and persistence gave in, he became a success. He stood by his principles (and to find a Hollywood star with principles is already extremely rare, let alone stand by them) at all costs to become the person he envisioned to be.

He was a staunch opponent of the Iraq war and dared to speak out against it when most Americans and Australians were in favour. Society and principles mattered dearly to Heath Ledger. He avoided the lucrative temptation of caving into any role for the dollar. He didn't pursue the dollar, and he didn't pursue the fame. In fact, it was probably the fame and dollar that drove Ledger to his depression, and his subsequent death.

He wanted to be an artist, but he couldn't handle the fame that came with it. We've seen and are still seeing many performers in Hollywood struggle with the celebrity status, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson are but examples.

So why did Ledger keep it all hidden, and why did it end this way?

The police and his family are referring to his death as "accidental". You don't "accidentally" take a large quantity of sleeping pills and expect to wake up. The police found no trace of illegal substance, and the autopsy proved inconclusive (that was after the first round screening of illegal substances), so he wasn't enjoying a high from a drug substance. Yet stories are now emerging of an unsettled, troubled Ledger, someone suffering from severe depression.

He was known to be a private individual, but could he have been suffering so much? Had he become a person that didn't satisfy him? Did the role of the Joker make him anxious and panic? His art, or rather the roles that he chose to play, were important to Ledger. He wanted them, as I have mentioned, to reflect upon messages that were of significance to society.

Did playing a psycho-path, mass murdering criminal shake the persona of Ledger?

Could it be that he may have had trouble adapting to a character that wasn't him, and to the extreme point of even terrifying Ledger?

Did playing the Joker force Ledger to see something within himself, that he couldn't bare to live with?

It's an extraordinary story. A young man that showed little sign of depression and private problems to a mass media waiting to tear at a celebrity's life as soon as the pen is dropped (Britney Spears for example), was in fact probably the most depressed individual in Hollywood. It is tragic, it is sad. We lost an artist, not merely an actor.

Ledger leaves behind a 2-year old daughter and a legacy that has left a severe impact on many lives. He became a gay icon after the gay iconic Brokeback Mountain. His portrayal of a closet gay cowboy gave inspiration to many homosexuals around the world who are living in fear, in secret, or who have been ostracised by their community.

Ledger wanted to convey an important message to the world through his artistry, and he did. He succeeded.

He'll be sorely missed. One feedback commentator in Australia's The Age noted that although she didn't know Ledger personally, it feels like a personal loss. I can vouch for the same.

Rest in peace.

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