Wednesday, January 23, 2008

'Twas The Joker Killed Heath Ledger!

Portrait of the artist as - an actor named Heath Ledger!
For what reason did this morning's news provide regular updates on the preliminary autopsy of Heath Ledger?

The 28-year old actor, one of the finest working in popular films (far more versatile and imaginative than the other handsome movie stars), was found dead yesterday afternoon in New York City with a bottle of sleeping pills nearby.

This morning, KFWB was reporting on Ledger's autopsy (which was inconclusive, by the way) every five minutes. They do traffic reports that often. This is the news station that promises to give you the world in 22 minutes, and they wasted at least five of them telling us that they had no ghoulish details to relate - yet - on the death of Heath Ledger.

Was it an accidental overdose? "Ooops, I took fifteen pills?" Was the actor despondent over the rift in his family? Perhaps the pills were something else entirely. Or perhaps the pills are a red herring.

I don't know about you, dear reader, but - I can wait to hear about it. I might be able to wait a very long time before I hear it. It certainly does not require the kind of press coverage that would attend, say, open-heart surgery on the President of the United States. Does it?

Some commentators are already working on a narrative for Ledger's death that fills me with a familiar dread: the Tormented Actor. Ledger had recently completed work on his performance as The Joker in the new Batman movie, and around Hollywood it is being said, breathlessly behind sweaty palms, that Ledger grew so disturbed while working on the character that his sleep was disturbed, and this is why he turned to the pills.

Oh, no no no. Do. Not. GO. THERE. You unspeakable cretins, must we go over this again?

As romantic an archetype as it is - the Actor Haunted By His Demons! - let us reiterate that personality disorders and manic depression are not the tools with which a good actor pursues the work. Good actors do not lose touch with their "real" identity, they do not forget about reality, they do not so immerse themselves in a character that they may be lost, forever, in the labyrinthine confines of the character's soul. If they do, they have problems that will not help their art.

As with most bullshit, there is barely an ounce of truth that inspires the Myth. Personal example: The first time I played Shakespeare's Richard III, okay, I was trying really hard to prove myself and spent day and night breathing and eating the astonishing words and deeds of the cruelest villain in dramatic literature. I will grant you during that project, the days could feel pretty dark. At the curtain call, I usually felt ready to drop from exhaustion and perspiration. Could fatigue have played a role here, of equal or greater magnitude than some mystical communion with Shakespeare's id?

If we are going to dress up Ledger in the passion play of the Tortured Actor Whose Last Role Killed Him, how do we keep a straight face? He played the villain in a Hollywood action flick. You can blow this smoke when it's Shakespeare or Chekhov or writers shrouded in even greater mystique ("He lost himself in Becket!" "I TOLD him to stay away from Artaud!!"), but BATMAN for chrissakes??

Begone from my sight!


Andrew said...

I made a similar comment to the people at work shortly after we heard the news. It's sad, but it seems like these days the media doesn't want to report the news, they want to create some story and report that instead.

Like it's not bad enough that there is a little girl out there now with no father.

Anyway, it was a tragedy. Very nice writing Al.

Jane R said...

Right you are.

And it's not like he was in the Scottish Play. Geez. Batman.

It's all very sad. So young and talented and a child. And the ridiculous media buzz on top of that.

Theriomorph said...

Thanks for this Algernon - really well said. I was very sad to hear about Ledger's death, because he was an extremely talented and courageous actor, and he was young. But that trope of the tormented artist has to go.

Yes, exhaustion comes into play. For most (not working Hollywood stars, but most artists), poverty comes into play. The daily grind of basing one's life around art in an historical moment when few care to support it. Regular life stuff (family, medical issues, whatever) comes into play.

The thing I respected most about Ledger is the thing I look for in actors in general - he was not vain. His performances were not circumscribed by what made him look good. This is so rare, and deserves praise.

Batman didn't eat him. Our culture might have, or not. We don't know. To turn his or anyone else's death into some kind of weird self-serving metaphor is so disrespectful.

Ok, rant over. : )