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Heath Turns It Around

8 minute read
Belinda Luscombe

Here’s a tip: If you’re in a jam, find the nearest Heath Ledger fan. They are among the most charitable people in the world–forgiving, long suffering and loyal. How can you tell? Because they have put themselves through some spectacular duds on his behalf. (The Order, anyone? The Four Feathers?) Having captivated them as a rascally but tender heartthrob six years ago with teen catnip like 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale, Ledger, 26, then virtually disappeared from the kind of movies they–and almost everyone else–enjoy. The chisel-jawed Australian is decent enough to acknowledge this. “I feel like I’ve never been in a film that people have liked before.”

Those who have missed Ledger’s work to date are in luck because they can start with his latest, Brokeback Mountain, an elegiac western about two gorgeous, lonely young people who find in each other a passion and a long-sought sense of belonging but who cannot be together. Oh, and they’re both guys.

Ledger plays a tightly wound sheepherder named Ennis Del Mar, who if this were a more traditional romance would be the female. He is the one who’s pursued, who withdraws, who has to be won over. But there’s nothing girly about Ledger’s Del Mar. He’s classic cowboy, from the way he wrangles his words out through lips opened barely half an inch to his habit of donning his hat to ward off anyone coming too close. Del Mar doesn’t have too much to say, but he’s got a Russian novel’s worth of body language, most of it about loss. “If you can’t fix it,” he tells Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), his lover, in a rare moment of reflection about his life, “you’ve got to stand it.”

That is not a philosophy Ledger subscribes to. Shy in demeanor but headstrong as a buffalo, he’s not much for talking; he just up and does what he wants to. When he arrived in Los Angeles seven years ago, pursuing a woman, he had done some Australian TV and a few small movies and was completely broke. “We were going to dinner one night,” says Gregor Jordan, a friend and the director of two of his films (Two Hands and Ned Kelly). “He put his credit card in the ATM, and it swallowed it because he was so overdrawn. But then later at the bar, I found a margarita in my hand, and someone said Heath had bought everyone a round of drinks.”

That devil-may-care charm, plus what director Lasse Hallstrom calls “those eyes and that physicality,” twigged the antennae of Amy Pascal, head of Columbia Pictures, who took him under her wing and laid out a buffet of starmaking career moves. In short order, he was Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot, and then–without so much as an audition–he was given the lead in A Knight’s Tale. The posters proclaimed, HE WILL ROCK YOU.

For many actors, that chain of events is a dream come true. Ledger is not one of them. “In a way, I was spoon-fed, if you will, a career. It was fully manufactured by a studio that believed that they could put me on their posters and turn me into their bottle of Coca-Cola, their product,” he says, his fingers fidgeting with anything he can find–a pencil, his scraggly beard, his beat-up old Samsung phone, the buttons on his army-style coat. “I hadn’t figured out properly how to act, and all of a sudden I was being thrown into these lead roles. I didn’t have the black room and the black pajamas to prance around making mistakes in private. All my mistakes are on the screen.” Most of all, Ledger says, he felt he was undeserving. “I wanted to scrub it all away and start again, to see what my abilities are, if there are any.” Or as Jordan puts it, “They wanted him to be Harrison Ford. He wants to be Sean Penn.”

So he destroyed whatever buzz he had generated in the industry. Thoroughly. He went after roles in which he wasn’t the son or romantic lead. The result was that, with the exception of Monster’s Ball, all the films he has made since A Knight’s Tale got critical drubbings or have been commercial busts or both (including this year’s The Brothers Grimm and Lords of Dogtown), at least in the U.S. Even Brokeback Mountain, which was the talk of the Toronto and Venice film festivals and has generated lip-smacking advance criticism, could be a tough sell. Many people might find the notion of gay cowboys too jarring In Texas, where the movie is partly set, voters just overwhelmingly endorsed a ban on gay marriage. But producer James Schamus is confident people will see the love story, not the politics. “Young girls are going to be a huge part of this movie,” he says. And that’s largely because of Ledger. “He’s managed to become a bit of a movie star and at the same time to protect his own vulnerability.”

Ledger’s masculinity frames an urgent sensitivity; he gives off the air of being willing to punch someone but only to mask his own pain. He’s the kind of guy who has his mom’s, sister’s and two half sisters’ first initials tattooed in Gothic letters on his wrist. (“It spells KAOS, but upside down it looks like Sony,” he notes wryly.) But will young girls warm to his vulnerability when it’s drawn out by another guy? “I don’t think Ennis could be labeled as gay,” says Ledger. “Without Jack Twist, I don’t know that he ever would have come out. I think the whole point was that it was two souls that fell in love with each other.” Then again Ledger’s not sure about conventional notions of gay and straight anyway. “I don’t think it’s that black-and-white, and I think because we label it so harshly, there’s just a lot of confused people running around thinking, Oh, f___, which side am I on?”

Even if the movie pulls in crowds only in New York City, South Beach and San Francisco, it has redeemed Ledger from being a pawn–or even a knight–in the Hollywood chess game. “He’s one of the best actors of his age,” says Ang Lee, Brokeback’s director. “He has complexity and intensity, and he’s meticulous.” Gyllenhaal, who wondered before filming whether Ledger “was going to pull it off,” says he was blown away. “I know he hasn’t been 100% happy with every performance he has given. But being able to make mistakes and fail has brought him to this success,” Gyllenhaal says. “I knew within two days of meeting him he was going to be great.”

Ledger seems to have had enough rebellion for a while because the movie he made after Brokeback is the ultimate heterosexual fantasy. In Casanova, out Christmas Day, directed by Hallstrom, he’s the swashbuckling charmer for whom his fans have been waiting. It’s a very Disney Casanova, with minimal sex and maximal caper (Hot-air balloons! Masked balls! Duels! Mistaken identities!). Ledger, who plays the legendary lover, opposite Sienna Miller, is not too proud to admit that the appeal of the movie lay more in a 120-day shoot in Venice, where he could unwind from Brokeback, than in any nuances of script (although the part is deceptively hard, given the number of identities Casanova assumes). It will probably make more money than his previous five outings combined.

But that’s O.K. by him. He has a cheerful yellow house in a leafy part of Brooklyn, N.Y., where neighbors took lasagna when his fiancé Michelle Williams (see box) gave birth to daughter Matilda Rose a few weeks back and where he and his family have been chased by paparazzi only once. He wants more kids. He wants to take Matilda to the beachside home he bought in Sydney, although he dreads the “long lenses looking at your butt as you come out of the ocean.”

Brokeback Mountain is a movie about the circumscription of dreams, about how fate and our choices make the life we have much smaller than the one we had hoped for. But that’s not Ledger’s story. Now that he has finally shed that bulky knight’s armor, his life is just opening up.

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