A decade has gone by since Heath Ledger passed away. At the time, we were still living in W’s country, teetering on the verge of a recession, which had already shown its effects on the global stock market. Kanye West and Taylor Swift were coup de la. A high school science teacher and a slacker reject were making meth a household name. Cloverfield was all the rage. And somewhere in there was talk of America’s first black president — a Senator out of Chicago with a killer book and a big plan.
It wasn’t exactly an exciting time, but it was about to be an exciting time, and in hindsight, much of that energy started with Ledger’s passing. Here was a guy with so much promise and so much potential, notions that were further exacerbated that July, when Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, The Dark Knight, swept into theaters and conquered the summer with excitement and dread. It was one of those rare moments in a blockbuster when you truly felt like the villain would never come back again.
No, watching him dangle over Gotham, laughing and cooing into the dark abyss, was the last time most moviegoers saw Ledger. (You know, with the exception of those who actually tuned into Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.) It’s a scene that’s still haunting, not only because of the life that’s been lost, but the feeling that lingers. As he weaves back and forth — on what would become Chicago’s Trump Tower, mind you — the repetition of his jittery laugh hits you like sharp daggers.
Today, you can’t talk about Ledger without mentioning the Joker. He won an Oscar for the role — making him one of two actors to posthumously win; the other being Peter Finch, who gave a similarly jarring performance in Network — and his Glasgow smile has become a now-permanent design of the DC villain. Yet part of the reason his turn was so impacting was because nobody ever expected that level of commitment to the role. Not from Ledger, not from anyone, and certainly not on January 22, 2008.
When he passed away 10 years ago, I wasn’t thinking about Batman, Gotham City, or pencils being erased. I was sitting in a Chicago diner with friends — fun fact: Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz was eating a meal three booths down; he seemed relatively unaffected — reflecting on the more tangible stuff by Ledger. You know, like that goddamn ending to Brokeback Mountain. Or his boyish smile in 10 Things I Hate About You. Or whatever he was doing in that Bob Dylan movie by Todd Haynes, which we all saw only a few weeks prior. Sure, the anticipation for his Joker was there, but the Joker was not.
There was only the hype — fueled by several months of groundbreaking viral marketing — but when it comes to death, you’re not exactly anticipating, you’re reflecting. For that reason, we were mining the past, where Ledger wasn’t a creep in makeup, but an unmistakable hunk. Here was a guy who could play a leading man with his eyes alone, whether he was a medieval knight kicking ass to Queen or a slacker Lothario with a penchant for singing The Four Seasons, only he never did. He gave us his best, and he was at his greatest toward the end, and his potential will forever tantalize us.
Though, perhaps “tantalize” isn’t the right word. After all, it wasn’t like Ledger was heading toward greatness; he had already achieved that — no, really. Think back to all the stars cut from the same cloth — ridiculously attractive albeit ridiculously talented — and who walked away with maybe one or two iconic roles after giving it their all for 40 or 50 years. Ledger’s legacy is not only rich, but surprisingly deep, filled with a multitude of performances that are enchanting as they are confounding. And while that doesn’t make his death any less tragic, there’s comfort in knowing that legacy will continue to entertain 10, 20, or 50 years from now. But, that’s the beauty of the past: it doesn’t go anywhere, it just hangs around … sometimes even laughing at us.
Having said that, here are 10 things I miss about the guy.
Naturally, That Smile
Dancing to Bowie
Getting Schooled by Billy Bob
Doing the Dylan Thing
Getting Saved by Martin Riggs
Directing Videos for Modest Mouse
And, Duh, Singing Frankie Valli