This entry contains a small amount of spoilers for the movie The Dark Knight. So if you have not seen it, you should probably wait to read this.
I write this as an actor. Like any profession, I believe there is very specfic poetry to those of a certain calling. I feel in tuned with the poetics of actors, simply because I am one, though any profession has those nuances i dare say. It is with the assumption that every actor would recognize that specil, unique poetry of the acting world that I write this entry. Not with any assumed personal knowledge of the people involved.
Sometimes, strange things happen when people die before their time. (At least before the earthly understanding of their time.) Ironies abound. Coincidences. Images, moments and truths, all of which congeal, in the wake of someone's death, into a body of evidence pointing towards the fact that there is an art to the universe...possibly orchestrated in some inconceivable way, by the departed.
In the very least what I am saying is, I don't by into total chance for some things; even if I cannot say what is going on instead of chance. Nor do I buy into the notion that there are tragedies in which we can find no light. Heath Ledger's "exeunt" is not without it's since of perfection from the standpoint of an actor, and I am going to tell you how.
I saw The Dark Knight yesterday. Average movie, despite the rave reviews and record openings. It was, in just about every count, an average movie. Convoluted plot, lumber pace, way too obvious in its attempts at angst and ambiguity. Not to mention some unnerving yet poorly executed post 9/11 psychology. It was a popcorn flick in all but one respect...Heath Ledger.
In a movie review I wrote on my Facebook page, I mentioned that if Ledger had not been involved in this movie, it would have been popcorn summer fare. Nothing more. If Ledger had lived, critics would have wondered what the hell he, and his brilliant performance were doing in this movie, but would also express anticipation for the projects it would open him up to in the years to come. (This being even more of a break out performance than his Oscar nominated Brokeback Mountain effort.)
But because Ledger died at pretty much a perfect interval before the release of this movie, a mystique formed. Had he died closer to the opening, and it would have been unnerving and sad to watch. A frenzy of loss would have overshadowed any actual product. Yet if the opening had been years away, the concept, (not the performance itself, by any means) would have been lessened. No, Ledger's tragic death, though tragic, came at at the precise time these circumstances required. (Not the only example of perfect balance in all of this, as I will get to.)
To begin with, it is not, I repeat, NOT possible to watch the film and fail to be cognizant of Ledger's death. As I said, a perfect storm of circumstances saw to that, along with the nature of the character. Had his last role been a romantic comedy lead, I would not have felt that way.
Yet I didn't try to fight this mystique, which at times, I confess was more like an eeriness...an eeriness which was certainly related to, but also separate from that of "The Joker" and his scenes in the movie. (One of the few things, Nolan at the helm gets right.)
No, I found it foolish to even pretend Ledger himself was still alive. I wanted to be ever aware that this was to be the last role for him ever. (Yes, I know he filmed some scenes for a yet unreleased fantasy movie, in which he will morph into some other actor during the action...but this is the last experience he was fully a part of creating.) I kept Ledger's death off to the side of my mind the whole time, and in so doing, was grasped even more by the potency of this performance.
Only part of this had to do with the fact he played a psychopath. (Though it certainly added some frosting to this cake.) What really made the experience of watching him is the knowledge that he poured everything into this role. As an actor, I can tell when there is distance between someone doing a part and "being" a part. Ledger is being the part, and there is no discernible dissonance between the actor and the character, while the camera is rolling. It is this truth that awoke the excitement and tragedy of this swan song, and one of the other perfect balances that I talked about at the beginning. His last performance is to be his best. You sit and watch this mediocre action flick become dominated by the talent and dedication of Ledger. If he had done any less, the overall lameness of most of the rest of the movie might have sullied him in death. Instead he escaped the cruel fate of fine actors like Raul Julia, who's final film, as my friend often laments, was Street Fighter.
Ok, so, luck of the draw, you may say. The last image of Ledger was one of brilliance, and that if Julia was cheap, because of the projects they happened to have completed at the times of their deaths. Valid enough point, taken alone. But I am not yet finished.
Ledger's final performance was a great one...he left us all on a high note. Though nobody, least of all me, will fault Raul Julia, or anyone for taking paycheck roles from time to time, one cannot say he (Julia) left on his finest note. (He didn't die after, say, Romero. ) Yet the notion that Ledger left life after completing what by all account was a mentally draining role points to something more than a calendar to me. It points to someone or something out there making up for the fact that Ledger was ripped from this plane in his prime...if he must go early, so said the gods, we'll not allow him to leave without a proper farewell.
Yet those amazing balancing acts that make the Dark Knight experience what it is right now do not stop with the with the "whens" and the "whats". That "what-nots" are also involved. For consider with me how things might have been different if Heath died, and the movie which was posthumously released was one of those turning point, once in a generation 8 Oscar winning deals? At first glance, this sounds like it would have been more fitting, but would it? In that contingency, Ledger would have been recognized as deserved, but along with all the other big fish in a really big pond. He potentially could have gotten slightly lost in the shuffle of the cinematic history being made. Yet, by being the one stellar component of what I feel the years will judge as a tepid movie, his performance stands out all the more.
Which of course brings me to the portrayal itself, without which all of my idealistic notions would have been moot. As I mentioned in my review, the Joker makes you like him, if not root for him, and it is not because the actor playing him died. It is because the actor playing him avoided cliche, short cuts, phone ins, and instead gave a depth and realness to a villain that few have achieved since Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. We are supposed to hate this guy...but we cannot. We cannot hate the character, at least from within the safety of cinema. It is as though Ledger winks at us all...the fine, decent man that by all accounts he was, leaving behind this character, with all his evil acts...and we are compelled to love him for it?? Talk about a "joke" in the most acidic and ironic sense. In real life, the Joker would be a grotesque entity; a deplorable presence in many ways, (though he is sometimes portrayed as morally neutral in the movie.) But as I said, in the comfort of the cinema, what a way to go out...as a fiend who answers to nobody, loved by everybody for his very lunacy.
In other words, it's brilliant because he is there, the whole time, every frame, every moment. There is no doubt Ledger was immersed in this role.
Now is a good time to mention that I do not think this role killed Heath Ledger. Nor do I believe he killed himself because of this role. (His family says he wouldn't, and I have to believe that.) I can confirm that being obsessed with a role can lead to restlessness, anxiety and insomnia, things from which Heath suffered, so they tell us. Yet to assume that he became so much a part of the Joker that he had to kill himself, or somehow became unhinged is an insult to Ledger. I feel, though I of course cannot promise, that though there were side effects to the intensity, he was well balanced and professional enough not to be killed and overcome by playing a role. It was his job to play roles, and though that in a sense can cause stress he may have been suffering from, i do not think this final role, or any role, would have led directly to his going insane... even a role as intensely, maniacally brilliant as this one.
Sure, there is some stereotypical action villain in Ledger's Joker, but I have to say, there isn't too damn much of it, which is another reason he stands out. Yes, the writing has something to do with it, but less so than the performance. All of his lines could have been hammed up to the maximum. They are not, and it is Ledger's prowess that prevents it from becoming that predictable cliche.
One final way the character is not cliche ties in with one final way in which all of this pulls together to bring a poetic smile out of tragedy. (Quite literally.) That final avoided cliche, (and the subject of my spoiler warning) is that the Joker does NOT die. He lives. I couldn't believe that. Yes, villains are not always killed, and yes, it's not even the first Batman movie where the bad guy made it out. But all indications were that this was the kind of movie where I would witness the creepiness of watching the late Heath Ledger's final character become late himself. And turning the irony on it's head, (again, quite literally!), the last thing we see of the Joker is him hanging upside down laughing his ass off.
This is perhaps the saddest, eeriest, yet most poignant and sincere of all of the Ledger/Joker ironies...the character lives...and in this incarnation will forever live due in part to the fact that Heath Ledger himself died. True, we would all rather have Heath alive, and the chaarcter be nothing, but hear me out onthis one.
There can be no sequel with Ledger, and no studio in their right mind would cast someone else as the Joker now. I think it unlikely that the Joker will even be mentioned in future installments. He shouldn't be, because as it stands now, the Joker, played by a now dead actor attained in our imagination what the Joker would not have attained as a character had the character died, or the actor lived...he vanished into the oblivion from whence he came. No beginning, no end. He shows up at first in Gotham as a spider just slithering over your door frame, and he exist our minds in roughly the same way. I love it.
And I dare say Ledger loves it. Though a performance, and though Ledger could not know when that final scene was being filmed that he would soon die, I think that forces were at work outside of Hollywood, and indeed outside of this mortal coil itself. Things that allow certain moments to be pulled together just so, as I mentioned when i started off. To wit, that final scene with the Joker left me with the impression that it is just as much Heath Ledger laughing his ass off, as it is The Joker. Not because he takes glee from leaving his loved one's behind. Not because he thinks his death and the impact it had on those that loved him is funny. But because, as I said from the beginning, if it had to happen, what a way to go out.
Robert Frost once wrote, in his poem "The Soldier", of how those of us left behind can sometimes fail to see the quality of a life cut short, because, like a lance thrown by someone who fails to take the curve of the land into account, it falls way short of the target. Yet Frost reminds us...
But this we know, the obstacle that checked
And tripped the body, shot the spirit on
Further than target ever showed or shone.
That mystically ironic final scene is not just the Joker saying f*&^ you. It's Heath Ledger saying, "Thank you", and bowing. It can be that not because the actor knew he would die, but because of all of these things I have been talking about which we cannot understand, which pull light even out of a dark night.
We all have to leave the stage at the end of the show. Heath got to leave it in style...even if he didn't know the curtain was coming down.