Heath Ledger: Art, Loss and Celebrity

"Heath Ledger dead?" The text message washed and rattled through my mind today, January 22, 2008, my first day as a second-semester sophomore. I couldn't believe it. I was shocked. I was saddened. I was in a state of negative equilibrium that, in writing this, I realize has yet to pass.

Him of all people, I wondered. Ledger had been ever-present in my thoughts as of late; after I'd seen the trailer for The Dark Knight and become obsessed with his uncannily perfect portrayal of the Joker, I had been Googling everything on the man and the upcoming movie I could find. I reminisced about his powerful performance in Brokeback Mountain a couple of years ago. I even phoned my personal friend and famed comic book writer Jeph Loeb to ask him about Ledger after seeing Jeph's name mentioned in a Dark Knight-related Wikipedia posting. Over the last five days, Heath Ledger had become my favorite actor.

So to hear of his death was particularly impacting on me. Born in 1979, that made him scarcely nine years older than I am, and already a father. Still relatively new to the Hollywood scene, he'd only been making American movies since 1999. According to one online source, he prepared for his role in Christopher Nolan's new film by isolating himself for a month and filling a journal with his own Joker-inspired thoughts. I'd never heard of such dedication before, and I loved him for it. To me, Ledger was still fresh, still new and appealing, still without a devastating scandal, a young, extremely talented artist with a doubtless-amazing future.

Upon hearing the devastating news, I wished that I could give back that moment to the universe, the moment Heath Ledger died under still-unknown circumstances, or at least the point at which I heard about it. He'd been an inspiration to me for his commitment to his craft, his seeming avoidance of the many pitfalls of celebrity, and to hear of him dying too far before his time shook me with a draining sadness I cannot fully describe.

I've been writing and shooting my own films since I was a little kid. When I was younger, celebrity was something of a secret aspiration, a guilty fantasy, and in some ways an expectation. What set me apart from the other wannabes, however, was that I admired the legitimatization of artistry that comes with celebrity, and not its wealth, prestige or "Sexiest Bachelor Under 30" status. I confess that I wanted to be taken seriously and appreciated for my creative achievements. In any case, becoming a star was a present thought in my early meditations on living a creative life.

As I aged, however, and learned more about the "darker" side of fame and Hollywood that has become something of a mainstay in today's headlines, I began to doubt that to which I had aspired as a pre-teen; Simpson, Blake and Spector were likely murderers, Hilton and Lohan alcoholic party animals, and scores of other famous faces struggling drug users. I began to wonder whether celebrity had something to do with it all. Perhaps it was a newfound ease at obtaining drugs or public sympathy, an arrogant feeling of entitlement, or simply an overwhelming exhaustion from years of fleeing the paparazzi. Maybe these are merely commonplace tragedies that happen to have occurred in the public eye. I cannot say for sure.

These things frightened me away from pursuing celebrity, but cemented my faith in artists that work for creativity's sake, for the sake of the craft. The incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis falls under this category, for example, and I believe that Heath Ledger does, as well. It is important to note that I do not intend to sully Ledger's reputation, nor to imply that he had become something of a degenerate. One cannot explain his tragic passing at the age of 28, in my opinion. Nor should it become a topic of public scrutiny; but Heath Ledger wore a public face. He surely felt some of the difficult strains of standing in the limelight, and he will be talked about.

This event has spurred another topic in my mind, the odd truth that though we come to know these people by name and appearance, they are not our neighbors, nor our friends. Surely we can admire, support and mourn for those we never meet, but many of us do not know the inner personalities or insecurities of the celebrities we enjoy. Their publicity makes them ours to discuss, criticize and love, but the masses are not necessarily welcome in the hearts of Heath Ledger and his peers. Our love is not requited. So it strikes me as a little weird to feel a sense of loss for a person I've only come to know through the cinema. And yet, I still mourn him, and I still appreciate him.

For us, life continues, but knowledge of its fragility is ever more present with each passing. One's art may never leave one's bedroom, but its meaning transcends public opinion; we do not have to know about it to feel its effect, and we do not have to be famous to have something relevant to say.

These are things I thought about today.