Saturday, March 1, 2008
We'll Always Have Brokeback
So, here it is: my long-overdue Heath Ledger tribute. Even as I'm typing, I have no idea what I'm going to say in this eulogy. I don't even know what I want to accomplish. All I know is that I need to write about it. It's my way of doing something meaningful, and my way of healing. It's been over five weeks since he died now. It seems so far away, and yet it feels like it was yesterday. I have literally been terrified to write about him. I kept putting it off because I was afraid that I couldn't do his life and memory justice. How could my measly words capture the essence of a whole human being? Now, I realize that nothing anyone could ever say about Heath Ledger could ever do him justice. So, I'll just do the best I can.
January 22, 2008:
7:15 am: I wake up eagerly anticipating the live Oscar nominations.
7:30 am: I listen to mindless E! drones babble and speculate.
7:45 am: The nominations are mostly quick and painless. I get a phone call from my boyfriend, and we spend 45 minutes yacking about them. I'm all outraged and excited like every year.
After this, I do some miscellaneous things. I don't really remember. All I know is I got up too damn early for the nominations, so I ended up taking a nap around 1 pm or so.
3:30 pm: Heath Ledger is found and pronounced dead.
3:50 pm: I get woken up by a phone call from my boyfriend. It's totally unrelated to Heath Ledger's death. We talk for 8 minutes. I have woken up in a world without Heath Ledger, and I don't even know it yet. Ignorance really is bliss, isn't it? He died while he was sleeping, during the time when I was sleeping. No one knew yet. I don't think the news broke until about 20-30 minutes after they found him, so around the time when I got my phone call or somewhere in the middle of it was when people first found out in the world at large.
3:56 pm: I get a text message from my friend. I'm on the phone, so all I hear is a beep.
3:58 pm: I get off the phone and wander over to the computer. I'm going to send an e-mail based on what my boyfriend called me about, so I plop down in the chair, still exhausted. I remember I heard that beep, so I check my text message. It reads, "Good lord heath ledger died." I panic. My heart races. I sign on to the internet, and I go directly to Yahoo! news. There it is. It's really true. My heart falls into my stomach with a thud.
4:02 pm: I call my boyfriend to tell him. He's shocked. I'm still shocked.
4:03 pm: I get an incoming call from a really good friend. "Did you hear about Heath Ledger?" This call lasts a minute.
4:07 pm: My boyfriend and I end our call. I send out texts to people. I post something about it on my Facebook status. I watch in awe as the news spreads like wildfire. Then, I cry.
I'm sorry if that was really boring, but I had to recreate the series of events that led up to Heath Ledger's death. I had to travel back to January 22nd and get in touch with how I felt that day, hearing it, in order to start really writing. It's working. I feel awful. The tears are welling up again. I've really just never seen news spread like that. The age we live in is insane. I mean, everyone knew about it within minutes. It was amazing to witness the power of the internet era like that, but it was also disheartening, because as soon as the news broke, all the speculation and gossip started. I couldn't stand listening to it. People who prey on the pain and death of others are sick and vile. They're not worth my time. Fred Phelps, I'm letting it go. You'll get yours someday. I don't want to include any hate or anger in this post.
I know people might think it's silly to get so worked up about a celebrity, but I've always felt things deeper. I'm such a typical Cancer, ruled by emotions. It's difficult to explain why I'm so upset about his death. I wasn't like his biggest fan or anything. I guess part of it is that I'm a movie nut. Everyone knows that. This blog makes it amply clear. So, when one of the biggest stars of my generation dies, it hit me really hard, just as a film lover. It was like James Dean, if you want to compare. It was huge. All that talent extinguished in the blink of an eye. Then, I'm so sad for Matilda, who will grow up not knowing her father. I'm sad for Michelle Williams, who clearly still loved him, even though they had their problems. They had a fairy tale romance, which I enjoyed seeing blossom. Also, I have never been more excited about a film than I am about seeing The Dark Knight. For weeks before his death, I had been watching the trailer daily, marveling at his performance, which I knew would go down in history as one of the best. The movie looked awesome, but it was Ledger that got my attention. I had never seen anything like it, so intense and raw. He's acting out of every pore. Finally, I have a very special attachment to Brokeback Mountain, and he's the main reason why. So, in a nutshell, that's why his death has affected me so much. But, I need to break it down to make more sense of it.
This is so hard. I know why I was avoiding it. It's so painful to analyze it, but I need to. I have to give myself closure, however feeble an attempt it may be. I don't know if there can be closure. Okay...deep breath. So let's start with my familiarity with Heath Ledger's career. I knew of him, of course. I was very knowledgeable about his work. However, I'm ashamed to admit that I have only seen three of his films. I know, it's awful. I always loved him, though. I remember working at a movie theater when A Knight's Tale was out, and I would sneak into a theater while it was playing and watch for a few minutes here and there. It looked like a lot of fun. I remember all the heartthrob talk about him. Sigh. I need to get over this guilt I feel about not seeing more of his work. That doesn't mean I loved him any less, and it doesn't make my reaction to what happened any less valid.
I saw The Patriot on DVD (was it still video then?) at a friend's house when it came out. I loved the movie, and I loved him in it. His performance was so vivid that I never forgot it. My lovefest with Heath (can I call him Heath? Is that disrespectful? I want to call him Heath, because this is a very personal journey I'm on here.) began with Brokeback Mountain, as I'm sure a lot of people's did. That was his huge moment, his big break-through performance. People were stunned that he was such a great actor. They couldn't believe it. The first time I saw Brokeback Mountain, I fell head over heels in love with it. I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and one of the most beautiful love stories. I still think that. To say I was blown away by the film is an understatement. I saw it several times in the theater. I wasn't making annual lists then, but if I had been, Brokeback Mountain would have been the best film of 2005 for me.
I loved everything about the film (even Anne Hathaway and her crazy hair), but I thought Heath was a miracle. I connected with that performance and the character of Ennis Del Mar in such a profound way. Who knows why? I just did. Maybe it's because I've felt some of that outsider pain. I've felt trapped in my shell and my own body at times. I was at a really bad place in my life in late 2005. I was miserable and lonely. Nothing felt right. I didn't feel right. Ennis was a character I totally empathized with instantly. I can't think of many other characters or performances that have made me feel that instantaneous, unbreakable connection, except for Ellen Page as Juno and Keri Russell in Waitress. No film had moved me as much in years, since Magnolia, when I saw it in 1999 and found it so beautiful that I knew deep down I had to go to film school (Hitchcock started it, but Magnolia was the clincher), even if I wasn't aware of it yet. After years of stress and emotional torment (since 2001, really), Brokeback Mountain was a revelation in 2005. And boy, did I need a revelation. It spoke to me, it changed me, it inspired me, and it even healed me a little bit, enough to replenish the strength I had forgotten I had. That's the power of cinema.
So, when I said I don't know why his death affected me so deeply, I guess I was wrong. I absolutely know. Heath Ledger was part of an epiphany. Heath Ledger was part of a major turning point in my life. Heath Ledger was a part of an emotional milestone. Heath Ledger was and is Brokeback Mountain. He represented that experience for me, and he still does. He is the heart of the film, and without him, there would be no film. I know that Brokeback Mountain started something very profound for me, and even though I didn't quite realize it at the time, beyond knowing that I loved it and was moved by it, I can now look back with the clarity of hindsight and recognize it as the beginning of a new chapter in my life. Something just shifted and clicked. Less than a year after seeing it, I took initiative, made some serious, much-needed changes, and regained control of my destiny. I'm not sure I would have had the courage to do so without Brokeback Mountain and Heath Ledger.
Beyond the film, I also thought the relationship between Heath and Michelle Williams was just about the most romantic thing ever. I was so happy for them, and they seemed perfect for each other. They were so swooningly in love. I don't know what happened, but I believe that they still were in love with each other, up until the day he died, and probably even still. This is just me speculating, but I think other factors were too overwhelming, so it just didn't work out. Maybe they would have gotten back together some day. I think he missed her very much, and that probably contributed to his depression. Whatever happened between them really got to him. I'm sure she was equally affected. It's just so sad. I was devastated when they broke up, as silly as that sounds.
I've loved Michelle Williams since my Dawson's Creek days. Of course I watched it, I was in high school when it was big. So, this pairing of Heath and Michelle seemed so magical, and their work in Brokeback Mountain is so special. She's amazing, too. And then, they had a beautiful daughter, Matilda. My heart aches when I see the pictures of her with her daddy and hear people talking about how devoted he was to her. I fully believe Heath's family. This was no suicide. He had too much to live for. His career was about to explode with The Dark Knight, and he worshipped his daughter. It was a total accident caused by the negligence of doctors (pressured by drug companies) to overmedicate without thinking about the consequences. What a tragedy. There needs to be more regulation of prescription medications.
I know that Heath will be watching over Matilda, and I know that Michelle is a great mother and will do the best she can to be both mother and father to this precious little girl, even though nothing can ever fill the void left by the loss of a parent. Matilda will probably not remember anything of the short time she had with him when she gets older, but he will always be with her, and she will be able to see how her dad moved countless people with his work and how much he influenced cinema and the world with his life and talent. And she'll be so proud. At least his memory will be preserved for her. She'll have that much, at least. I'm Not There contains the most parallels to his life, and it'll be something for her to treasure when she's old enough. His love for her resonates with every note of his performance.
I want to take a break from my own thoughts for a bit and include some comments from the people who knew Heath best. I'm sure they can say it much better than I can.
At the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards, which aired on February 23rd, Cate Blanchett received the Best Supporting Actress award for I'm Not There. This is from her speech:
"I suppose it's the ultimate post-modern ensemble cast. We didn't actually share any screen time, but we're all there together. So thank you to Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw and, to probably one of the most beautiful independent spirits of all, Heath Ledger. And this is for him. Thank you."
Also at the Independent Spirit Awards, I'm Not There received the special Robert Altman Award. This award honors a casting director, ensemble cast, and director and celebrates films made in a truly collaborative, independent spirit.
It was presented by Dennis Quaid and Patricia Clarkson (from Haynes' Far from Heaven). This is from their introduction:
Dennis Quaid: "The presentation of the Robert Altman Award takes place under special circumstances this year because one member of the film's ensemble, Heath Ledger, who was also a past Spirit Award nominee, died in January. He played one of the film's multiple personalities, Robbie Clark, a seducer who is himself seduced by fame."
Patricia Clarkson: "Anyone who has seen I'm Not There will remember the line, 'Live in your own time, child.' As actors, we were lucky to leave in Heath's times. We only wish they could have been longer."
From his acceptance speech, the ever-eloquent, compassionate, and wonderful writer/director of I'm Not There, Todd Haynes:
"It was clear that the extraordinary actors Laura (Rosenthal, casting director) helped me to assemble were not just stars, they were artists. They were drawn to and driven by the same kind of creative risktaking that had so inspired me in the life and work of Bob Dylan, and that I tried so hard not to compromise on film. That's my only explanation, cause they sure were not doing it for the dough. Ultimately, this is a tribute to their incredible gifts as performers and a testament to that fundamental risktaking and creative experimentation I'd like to think still distinguishes independent film, the hardest and scariest kind of filmmaking, it's true, but the kind that keeps us learning, that tries things out, and that hopefully contributes to the growth and vitality of the medium that we all love.
But honoring this amazing ensemble today is so bittersweet, given how shattered all of us are by Heath's inconceivable absence. We all loved him so dearly. He really was unlike anybody I've ever known, giving of himself less like an actor than a creative partner on the film as a whole. For beyond his startling depth and sensitivity on screen, Heath was already an established filmmaker in his own right and the creator of some of the most exquisite and diverse music videos I've ever seen. I know our film and the way it was made was very close to his own artistic sensibilities and ambitions. In fact, he had just started circulating a feature script that he was planning to direct, an adaptation of The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis. And the first people he sent it to were Ed Lachman (cinematographer for I'm Not There) to shoot and Laura Rosenthal to cast. I have no doubt he would have made an astounding director. And when I'm not looking bitterly or perhaps selfishly at the future of cinema without him, I treasure the time we shared on this film and the love and talent that he gave so freely. Thanks so much to the board of Film Independent. I know I speak for everyone honored today in accepting this award in the memory and the dazzling creative spirit of Heath Ledger. Thank you."
Todd Haynes' speech made me cry. I can't believe Heath was planning on directing films. What a loss. It would have been amazing to see what he could have done. I love Haynes' filmmaking, especially I'm Not There, and I love him for saying these beautiful words.
Finally, and most heartbreaking, here is Michelle Williams' first public statement about Heath's death:
"Please respect our need to grieve privately. My heart is broken. I am the mother of the most tender-hearted, high-spirited, beautiful little girl who is the spitting image of her father. All that I can cling to is his presence inside her that reveals itself every day. His family and I watch Matilda as she whispers to trees, hugs animals, and takes steps two at a time, and we know that he is with us still. She will be brought up in the best memories of him."
If you want to look at my other blog entries mentioning or dealing with his death in some way, go here, here, and for the glorious Daniel Day-Lewis, go here.
I keep writing because I don't know how to end this post. I don't want to end it. I'll probably go weep when I finish. This has been emotionally exhausting, and I thank whoever was patient enough to read it all. I plan on seeing every single one of Heath's films. I'm still eagerly anticipating the release of The Dark Knight this summer. I know my high expectations will be justified and even exceeded. It's going to be phenomenal. Sure, it'll be strange to see Heath Ledger on screen again, so full of life, and especially in this role. I'll probably cry then, too. But I'll be there at midnight the day it comes out cheering him on, celebrating his outstanding performance and his eternal legacy.
The Dark Knight could very well make more money than any other movie has before. Box office means nothing, but still, I'm reminded that the money would be going to Matilda. I have been so excited about the film, and I still am, although now it's bittersweet. It's a starmaking role. I mean, he was already a star in my book, but the whole world would realize it with this film. He'll still shine, though. I predict an Oscar nomination, and a well-deserved one at that. That's obvious from the trailer alone. I'm also intrigued by Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which will be Heath's last, last film. I think it's wonderful that Colin Farrell, Jude Law, and Johnny Depp have stepped up to finish his role. What a great way to pay their respects.
Still, I'll always cherish Heath the most for Brokeback Mountain and I'm Not There. For my review of the life-altering experience that was I'm Not There, and for some of my feelings about Heath, go here. I'm Not There is so poignant and powerful, and it's a really wonderful memorial to a wonderful man.
Wow. After all this writing, I still feel so inadequate. I'm not ready to end it, but I have to, otherwise I'll write forever. I hope I've managed to convey even a fraction of what Heath Ledger means to me and how he's changed and touched my life. Thank you for reading. I needed this desperately.
Now, this last part is my goodbye to Heath Ledger, and I'm saying it to him. I hope he can hear me...
Heath, thank you so much for bringing your unique passion, spirit, talent, and commitment to film. The world of cinema is richer because of you, and the contributions you made in your way-too-short career are incalculable and priceless. I know the best was yet to come, but I will always treasure the legacy you left us in your films. Thank you for all your work, but especially for your performance as Ennis in Brokeback Mountain. You've touched my heart and moved my soul, and I'll be grateful forever. You're an inspiration, as an actor, a father, and as a human being. I'm so sorry that you're gone. You gave of yourself so selflessly, courageously, and beautifully, and the world is so lucky.
Seeing you in I'm Not There after you were already gone was the most emotional experience I've ever had watching a film. It's a wonderful tribute to you, way better than I could ever hope to write. I know what the title says, and it's tragically fitting, but you will always be here. Always. I'm sorry I couldn't write a better tribute for you. I tried my best, and I hope that my respect and appreciation come across. Thank you for what you gave me. Thank you for being you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I miss you so much, and I'll never forget you. I love you, Heath Ledger.
Rest peacefully now, sweet angel.