Many filmgoers, whether fans of the Batman comics or not, consider Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight to be one of the greatest portrayals of a cinematic villain in the history of film. He completely embodies the theme of chaos, transforming a familiar role into one that is completely his own. His performance is so monumental that people are already using it as a benchmark to judge Jared Leto’s take on the character in Suicide Squad, a film that has not even been released yet. Ledger defined the role so well, many fans have probably forgotten about the days in which they doubted his casting. Unfortunately, as we would later discover, there was a reason that Heath Ledger seemed to portray the embodiment of chaos with such ferocious realism.
This isn’t our first time talking about celebrities. We’ve covered the death of Amy Winehouse, Ronda Rousey’s battle with eating disorders, and a number of famous people in recovery. Our discussion of Heath Ledger will follow the same format as our articles on Rousey and Winehouse, beginning with an overview of Ledger’s career and continuing with a look at his struggles with substance abuse. As addiction education is our primary goal, we will end by discussing what we can learn from his story.
We’ve actually wanted to cover this for a long time. We hope you will get something out of it.
How Heath Ledger Became a Star
Born on April 4, 1979, in the Australian city of Perth, Heath Ledger was named for the character of Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. He enjoyed chess in his youth, but he discovered his even greater love for acting early in life. This was largely due to a mixture of his sister’s motivation after he played Peter Pan in a school production, and the need to seek emotional release following his parents’ divorce. After landing a couple of roles as a background actor to learn more about the film world, he graduated school at 16 and sought a few roles in Australian television shows before landing a film role in the 1997 drama Blackrock.
Heath Ledger was formally introduced to American audiences when he scored the leading role on the short-lived fantasy series Roar. It only ran for one season, but it was enough to get him noticed. Two years later, his performance of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in the 1999 Shakespearean teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You (a modern remake of The Taming of the Shrew) got him nominated for Best Musical Performance at the MTV Movie Awards. But it wasn’t just his singing that cemented Heath Ledger as a household name in the United States. Young women were instantly attracted to his good looks and his smooth charm. He was an instant sensation, and it didn’t hurt that his acting chops were a bit more solid than most audiences had come to expect from teen movies at the time.
After 10 Things, Heath Ledger managed to land a couple of roles in fairly big movies. In 2000, he played Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot. The following year, he had a role in Monster’s Ball. That same year, he got his next big starring role in A Knight’s Tale. The film was known for using anachronistic music to underscore the excitement of a medieval joust, but it was also known for revealing Heath Ledger to a wider audience. Those who may have been a bit too old to harbor any interest in 10 Things might still have seen A Knight’s Tale, and Ledger had matured enough in the two years between them to reach a new level of mass appeal.
For the next few years, Ledger’s career didn’t turn out too many hits. He had starring roles in 2002’s The Four Feathers (an adaptation of the 1902 novel of the same name) and 2003’s mystery horror film The Order. Also in 2003, he played the title role in Australian historical drama Ned Kelly. Then, 2005 turned out to be his big year. He played the title role in Casanova, one of the title roles in The Brothers Grimm, and one of the three leads in the biographical drama Lords of Dogtown. But none of these films really underscored why 2005 was such a big year for Heath Ledger. His defining film of the year was Brokeback Mountain.
Brokeback Mountain, adapted from a 1997 short story of the same name, tells the story of two male American sheepherders who find themselves romantically entangled. While the film was flippantly referred to as “the gay cowboy movie” by much of the American public, with the word “brokeback” often used pejoratively in relation to homosexuals, Brokeback Mountain was ultimately a major success that established Ledger as an actor who was more than willing to push his boundaries. While he almost wasn’t cast because executives believed he wasn’t butch enough to play a ranch hand, his performance was a defining feature of the film and was enough to earn him an Academy Award nomination. His co-star, Jake Gyllenhaal, has even said in interviews that working with Heath Ledger taught him to take his roles more seriously.
Ledger’s next couple of films might not be familiar to most. He starred in the 2006 Australian romance Candy, a novel adaptation in which Heath Ledger and co-star Abbie Cornish play heroin addicts. The following year, Ledger starred alongside several actors (including Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, and Christian Bale) as one of many characters based on Bob Dylan in the film I’m Not There. This movie was received much better than Candy, and even Dylan himself complimented the actors on their work. The film also marked the first collaboration joining Heath Ledger and Christian Bale, although their next film together would receive much more recognition.
Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his 2008 portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, surprising very few people. We already sang the praises of this performance in our intro, but we could easily go on. He brought subtle characterizations to the iconic villain, such as never looking at his victims or habitually sticking his tongue out to appear more unstable. Ledger even helped design the character, adding touches such as the makeup on his hands in order to look more chaotic, less clean. And while many are aware of the journal he kept to stay in character, he was actually quite charming around the set. He would skateboard around, and relax with the crew when he wasn’t busy. He brought a lot to the table, while also being fun to work with. Much like his role as Ennis in Brokeback Mountain, many thought that Heath Ledger was wrong for the Joker when he was first cast. You won’t see anyone saying that now.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was Ledger’s last film. A highly fantastical film starring Tom Waits as an approximation of the Devil (fitting, since Waits appears to have inspired Ledger’s voice as the Joker), production was disrupted when Ledger died one-third of the way through. Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law stepped in to help portray his character in various scenes. Due to the imaginative spectacle of the movie, coupled with the fact that all three replacement actors had been close friends with Heath Ledger himself, Doctor Parnassus became something of a tribute to the young actor following his death. He was only 28, and only about ten years had passed between Doctor Parnassus and 10 Things. Nevertheless, Heath Ledger will be remembered by an entire generation due to his amazing abilities and his unshakable willingness to take risks.
Heath Ledger Takes His Final Bow
Numerous questions surround Heath Ledger’s death. There are certain things we know. For instance, we know that he died in New York on January 22, 2008, due to what was presumed to be an accidental overdose involving sleeping pills, painkillers, and anti-anxiety medications. We know that none of these drugs were technically abused to excess on their own, but that their combination was what ultimately proved fatal. Between the autopsy and the toxicology reports, we know that six specific drugs were found in his system. The sole sleeping aid was doxylamine, which is relatively tame on its own. The two painkillers were oxycodone and hydrocodone, the active ingredients in OxyContin and Vicodin, respectively. The three anti-anxiety medications were diazepam, alprazolam and temazepam, ingredients respectively associated with Valium, Xanax, and Restoril, the latter of which doubles as a sleep aid.
While this is all quite well-known, there are still many unanswered questions. It is generally presumed that, since none of these was taken in great quantities, Heath Ledger’s death was an accident and not a suicide. But the average person does not take six different kinds of pills when they cannot sleep. It is also generally presumed that he was not a drug addict, but this has come into question as well. While we were still waiting on his autopsy report, it was discovered that Mary-Kate Olsen was contacted by Ledger’s masseuse upon finding him unresponsive in his SoHo apartment. In fact, Olsen was phoned twice, both times before the masseuse in question thought to call 911.
This raised suspicions, since the Olsen family have long been the subjects of numerous rumors. Many speculated that Mary-Kate Olsen was on cocaine when she entered rehabilitation for anorexia, and her label as an addict has stuck with her despite the lack of credible evidence. As such, many simply assumed that her involvement in the case was proof that Ledger struggled with addiction. Since it was also rumored that they were more than friends, many jumped to the conclusion that they may have been using drugs together. And the rumors didn’t end there, either. Further rumors would convince many that Heath Ledger had struggled with full-on addiction, even though there has been little evidence of this to date.
Rumors from an unnamed source convinced media outlets such as MTV News and Fox News that actress Michelle Williams, Ledger’s former fiancée of and the mother of his child, had driven him to rehab in 2006 but that he wouldn’t go. He had supposedly been abusing pills, heroin and cocaine. Many were willing to believe the allegations of prescription drug addiction, due to the circumstances of his death. A rolled-up twenty-dollar bill had also been found at the scene. It was clean, but it gave some credence to the cocaine rumors. Especially when combined with the Mary-Kate factor, these rumors convinced many that Heath Ledger had secretly been a self-destructive drug addict at the end of his rope. But as far as coroners and medical examiners were concerned, he was just a man who really wanted to sleep.
While the extent of his drug use is uncertain due to the proliferation of rumors surrounding his death, many agree that Heath Ledger likely began experiencing issues with insomnia and general mental unease around the time he was preparing for his role in The Dark Knight. Jack Nicholson had allegedly warned Ledger that playing the Joker would be a source of stress. Nevertheless, the young actor went to great lengths in order to learn how to embody the type of psychopathic character he envisioned the character to be. He holed up in a hotel room for about a month, playing around with the voice and characterizations. The character was so mentally jarring that Ledger had trouble sleeping, averaging about two hours a night. Pills weren’t getting the job done, which may be what led to the prescription cocktail that ultimately killed him.
Of all the things Heath Ledger did to develop his take on the Clown Prince of Crime, probably the most famed is the diary he kept. It was something of a scrapbook, involving joker cards, pictures of hyenas, stills from A Clockwork Orange, and insane writings. Included among the journal entries is even a list that contains various things he believes the Joker would find amusing, such as AIDS, land mines, roadkill, brunch, and the Periodic Table of Elements. While he did not always stay in character, keeping this journal with him made it easier to get back into the right mindset whenever he needed to. We can only imagine the mentality that overtook Heath Ledger during his month or more of solitude, but the existence of this diary gives us a clue. Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was the embodiment of chaos. But in preparing for the role, chaos enveloped Ledger himself.
In truth, we’ll never know exactly what went through Ledger’s head when he took those pills. We’ll never know just how much his mind was still suffering, the last victim of the Jester of Genocide. Had the Harlequin of Hate hung Heath Ledger’s mind to dry? Was he an addict, or a man who simply couldn’t sleep? In a sense, it doesn’t matter. No matter how much we speculate on his final days, we will simply be writing his history in a fashion that makes it easier for us to comprehend. Because that’s really all we can do. Whether it was a suicide, a freak accident, or the ultimate end to a longstanding addiction, Heath Ledger’s death has robbed the world of his future roles. We may occasionally catch a showing of The Dark Knight on television and wonder if he ever could have topped the Joker. But the joke is on us, because life doesn’t always give us the answers we want. His death will forever remain something of a mystery.
Why He Continues to Inspire Us
The story of Heath Ledger’s untimely death may be a mystery, but that does not mean we cannot learn from it. There are two ways we may look at the story of Heath Ledger as an educational tool. The first is to look at his death, which contains grave warnings for anyone who considers using prescription drugs. The second is to look at his life, and the career that may serve as an inspiration to us all.
Some may not see Ledger’s death as much of a warning, especially given the shroud of mystery concerning the extent of his drug use. But one should not need to know that he is an addict in order for his death to exemplify the dangers that drugs pose. In truth, the fact that he may have been relatively inexperienced with drugs should serve as more of a warning than anything else. Bear in mind that the common consensus is that he did not take any of these drugs in excess, but merely stumbled upon the ingredients to a fatal prescription cocktail. He is not the first person to have died in this fashion, nor is he the last. The unfortunate reality is that many people (especially young people) have died the first time they used drugs or alcohol. This may be especially true of prescription drugs, which are small and take a while to set in. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence warns teens that anyone may “die from abusing prescription drugs…even the first time.”
The second warning that we may find in the story of Heath Ledger is to avoid unhealthy levels of obsession. There is a difference between obsession and addiction, but the line can become blurred quite easily. And while obsessions can be positive in some instances, this usually requires some work by the person who is obsessing. For the most part, obsession takes over one’s entire mental state. A man who locks himself in his hotel room for a month to try out different voices and work on the diary of a fictional criminal character is a man who clearly has an obsession. In this case, he was obsessed with creating one of the greatest characters of his career. It worked, but at what cost? We must never let our obsessions get the best of us. Even when our intentions are good, obsessive behavior has consequences.
On the flipside, we can also learn from the story of Heath Ledger that our goals may not be as impossible as they seem. He wanted to be an actor, and he worked hard to graduate school at an early age so that he could pursue his dream. It took a few roles before he really became a star, and it took quite a few more before he was really taken seriously. Even when Brokeback Mountain helped to establish him as a particularly serious actor, many people doubted that he could pull off a great performance in The Dark Knight. He proved them wrong, and he did so with style. We may not always achieve exactly what we want. But it’s worth it to put in the effort, because there’s no telling where we might end up if we do. Ledger’s performance as the Joker would have garnered respect no matter how he came about it, but he is even more respected now that we know how hard he was willing to work for it.
Walking the line between dedication and obsession may be difficult, but it pays off. The trick is simply learning to stay sober while we do so. Even one slip could be enough to end a life, and the risk is most certainly not worth it. If we are truly dedicated to living out our dreams, we will not take that risk. Heath Ledger unwittingly gave his life to teach us the value of dedication, but also the value of sobriety. All he wanted to do was sleep for more than two hours a night. When prescription drugs didn’t work, he upped the ante. Had he tried another method of lulling himself to sleep, we might not be talking about his death. The story of Heath Ledger teaches us to pursue our goals and to keep our heads in the clouds, but also to keep our feet on the ground by exercising some foresight. We must never lose sight of this lesson, or we may pay the ultimate price.
Heath Ledger was a talented actor, but he was also a human being. It is truly a shame that his family is left with nothing but memories of his goodness and rumors about his drug use. But even this is better than nothing. We must always be the best we can be. It does not matter whether we are famous or loved only by a few, whether we die due to overdose or to natural causes…someone will be left with the memories. We should always do our best to leave them with good ones.