Every time an artist dies, I remind myself that I never knew them personally, and the way that I know them lives on forever exactly as it always has, just no new output. That usually helps with the sadness. But what rationale can I use for a shocking death like Heath Ledger's?
On the night of his death, with full details still fully unknown, the bitchy but very fair gossip god Ted Casablancas intimated that Heath's drug problem had long been a blind item. The day after his death, the extent of his drug problems slowly comes above ground. With conclusive autopsy and toxicology results weeks away, this story promises to linger until the explosive final act.
There's a theory that when someone gets fired or laid off from a job, they should be congratulated because in some way they manifested this outcome; it shouldn't be a huge shock. This same theory goes through my head about Heath's death. It's not a suicide, more an accident, but is there really such a thing as an accident?
I was happily on board with Heath since 10 Things I Hate About You (especially because of these scenes!), a movie I can't even watch in mourning since I just watched it (for about the 27th time) a couple of weeks ago, dammit! That movie was the beginning and end of his romantic comedy career, and he never lived well with the "handsome hunk" persona the biz tried to build around him. Turns out he had much better stuff to offer. He was an actor, a real good one, the type that spent more time bettering their craft than playing show biz. Even with a string of actress girlfriends, he wasn't as paparazzi-desirable as other actors in the same situations; he was an actor trying not to be a star. And it paid off.
Brokeback Mountain gave him an Oscar nomination, and will always be listed as his most important work. The Joker in the upcoming Dark Knight will become his most iconic role because of all the posthumous drama, among other reasons. I think his shining moment was as Robbie Clark in I'm Not There. He embodied a difficult time in Dylan's life while also revealing his own turbulence. It's exactly the fluid, multiple layers of meaning that director Todd Haynes craves, and considering that he returns to actors he loves working with, I was excited about Heath becoming Johnny Depp to Haynes' Tim Burton. The shock of his death turns to sadness...
But 10 Things I Hate About You and I'm Not There are my comforting bookends for an actor in steady ascent. An ascent that crashed abruptly. Maybe it would be easier to process if he had died in a plane crash... but that poetic symbolism would have doomed him to insufferable legend forever more. Or maybe there's no escaping the looming legend, considering how shocked everyone is long before the whole story is known. But the common denominator surely is the sadness of being robbed of all the great performances to come.