April 4 would have been Heath Ledger’s 38th birthday. In 2008, the film world was stunned to learn of the Australian actor’s premature death, aged just 28. His absence is still keenly felt; here was an actor seemingly finding a groove of all of his own, and his absence is still keenly felt. As this sad anniversary approaches, we look back at some of his most memorable appearances in film.
Ledger made his first splash in movies in this crime movie from his native Australia. He plays Jimmy, a young man in thrall to a local gangster played by Bryan Brown after he loses $10,000 of his cash. Gregor Jordan's film never got much attention outside Australia, but stands as one of Ledger's best and his is a hungry early performance that was a marker of things to come.
10 Things I Hate About You
As Patrick Verona
After a reasonably successful career in Australian TV and film, Ledger broke through internationally in this modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. He’s a delight as the slightly mysterious but fun-loving Patrick; his rendition of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You still stands as a teen movie classic moment. Ironically, given that it’s the film that brought him success, this also steered Ledger toward the pin-up status that lead him to briefly quit Hollywood.
A Knight’s Tale
As William Thatcher
He might be the leading man in this chirpy medieval romance with modern twists, in which he plays a peasant lad looking to become a champion jouster, but Ledger felt very much part of an ensemble. The limelight was often stolen by more amusing characters like Paul Bettany’s Geoffrey Chaucer or Mark Addy’s Roland. The occasional discomfort he shows at being the centre of the film means it’s not one of Ledger’s finest performances, but it is one of his most enjoyable movies.
As Sonny Grotowski
His appearance in Marc Forster’s take on racial tension and salvation is only a small one, but it’s effective. He plays the unloved son of Billy Bob Thornton’s grizzly prison guard, stuck in a job he’s acquired through family habit rather than any kind of desire. A tragic character, he’s the sort of man that casting directors were rarely keen for Ledger to play in lead roles in his earlier days.
As Ned Kelly
One of Ledger’s least seen movies this, but one in which he looks most comfortable. The film itself is by-the-numbers biopic of the Australian outlaw who became something of a national hero, but Ledger (along with a career best Orlando Bloom) sinks into the role. If you want to see the start of his more brooding leading man persona, this is the one to watch.
The Brothers Grimm
As Jacob Grimm
Daffy, bookish romantic Jacob Grimm is a real curio in Ledger’s career. Half of a duo of paranormal con men, along with brother Will (Matt Damon), it’s a role that’s unapologetically daft and often delightfully silly, a caricature of the type that took Johnny Depp to his more interesting heights. It was obviously an experience he relished, since he re-teamed with director Terry Gilliam for The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, the film he was still working on at the time of his death.
As Ennis Del Mar
This was the film that set Ledger on the path he’d always intended to walk: that of an actor, not a movie star. The role of a Ennis Del Mar, a married farmhand who spends his life fighting against his love for Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), was one that many actors in Hollywood refused to touch. Ledger approached it with all the subtlety it deserved, turning in a performance where a storm of emotions bubbled just beneath the often silent surface and was rightly Oscar nominated for his efforts.
Now divorced of his image as a commercial blockbuster leading man, Ledger freed himself up to do smaller indie movies like this thoroughly grim but impressive account of a romance between a couple as addicted to heroin as they are to each other. Ledger’s chemistry with co-star Abbie Cornish carries the film through its darkest moments and it ranked as one of his proudest performances.
I’m Not There
As Robbie Clark
The character name says Robbie Clark, but Ledger, like the rest of the starry cast of this movie, is playing a single shard of the personality of music legend Bob Dylan. Ledger is ‘Famous Dylan’, in the guise of an actor who’s professionally lauded but in the midst of a decaying marriage. It was Cate Blanchett who got the Oscar nomination for playing another piece in the Dylan puzzle, but Ledger could easily have been standing alongside her.
The Dark Knight
As The Joker
Ledger’s casting as the classic Batman villain came with initial wobbles. Online outrage abounded from Batfans who could only see Jack Nicholson in the role. But Ledger – whose preparation included locking himself in a hotel room for a month to work on voice and posture – made the role his own, earning universal praise and a posthumous Academy Award. It's a fitting epitaph to an actor who will be sorely missed.