Heath Ledger's five best on-screen performances
On the 11th anniversary of the late Australian actor’s passing, we remember his greatest roles
His filmography spans just 12 years — shorter than one would expect for an actor who made such an impression. Heath Ledger was broadly recognised as one of Hollywood’s most intriguing, dedicated, and consistent actors, before his untimely death on January 22, 2008, at the age of 28.
The Australian star, who is survived by his daughter Matilda, starred in 18 films — his ephemeral CV bookmarked by 1997’s Blackrock and 2009’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the former released posthumously, as Ledger died during filming.
Sandwiched in between these two films is a treasure trove of impeccable acting, with the Perth-born star often recognised for his nuanced gravitas, which belied his young age.
Here, we recall five of his most skilful performances on the 11th anniversary of his passing — each a timeless testament to Ledger’s abilities.
'10 Things I Hate About You'
One of Ledger’s earliest films, this 1999 re-imagining of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew made the actor a late entry into the list of 90s silver-screen heartthrobs. After all, there was barely a teen girl who didn’t want the star to serenade her with a public rendition of Frankie Valli’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You after seeing this teen romantic comedy.
However, it wasn’t just his crinkled grin and curly mop of hair that made the character of Patrick Verona such an emblem of the decade. Ledger played a rebellious expat high-school student, paid to woo the sister of a fellow student’s love interest. However, Verona soon falls for the object of his (remunerated) affections — just as she discovers the reason behind his out-of-the-blue attention.
While the film may be mostly light in plot, Ledger didn’t tackle the role with a sense of triviality or half-heartedness. Instead, he brought a raw tenderness to the character, as well as flexed his comedic chops with some impressively well-timed quips.
Bill Bob Thornton and Halle Berry may have dominated headlines and awards-season nominations for their star turns in this 2001 drama, but Ledger’s brief yet accomplished performance should not be overlooked.
The hard-hitting plot is set into motion by exploring the strained relationship between father-and-son corrections officers, with Ledger’s sensitive Sonny troubled by the treatment of a death row prisoner. A spectacular, gut-wrenching showdown with his bigoted, belittling father (played by Thornton) remains one of Ledger’s finest performances, played with a string-tight intensity that many Hollywood veterans would struggle to achieve.
His turn as tortured part-time shepherd Ennis Del Mar in Ang Lee’s critically acclaimed 2005 drama scored Ledger his first Academy Award nomination. And his emotively raw yet restrained performance would certainly have warranted a win (though Ledger was pipped to the post by the equally-deserving Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote).
Together with Jake Gyllenhaal, Ledger plays one-half of a Midwestern ranching duo who forge a tempestuous connection after spending months working alone in the Wyoming mountains.
Returning home to lead a double life for years to come, Ledger immaculately captured the complexity, self-loathing and emotional depth of a stoic man caught between two worlds, struggling to express — and instead repressing — decades of inner turmoil.
It’s not well-known outside of his native Australia, but this 2006 debut by filmmaker Neil Armfield contains — arguably — Ledger’s best work. The underrated drama is a study in the tragedy of addiction, centred around a young couple who become as enthralled with heroin as they are other.
As Dan, Ledger captures the dizzying euphoria and heartbreaking lows of addiction, as he whisks promising art student Candy (Abbie Cornish) on a journey of ecstasy, self-destruction and despair.
The underrated film, which also stars Geoffrey Rush, showcased Ledger’s talent for encapsulating pain with subtlety, in a performance that’s both riveting and at times unbearable to watch.
Given new gravity after Ledger’s death from an accidental overdose two years later, every scene in Candy proves why he was considered one of the greatest actors of his generation.
'The Dark Knight'
You couldn’t round up the star’s most noteworthy roles without including the film that netted him a posthumous Oscar for best supporting actor. Ledger may not have been the first to immortalise The Joker on screen, but the actor certainly made the unpredictable character his own, taking the almost caricaturised figure and turning it into something far more unsettling than a typical comic-book villains.
Walking a tightrope between unhinged and hyper-intelligent, Ledger makes the maquillaged anarchist feel like a tangible threat rather than a black-comedy sidekick. In a truly original interpretation, every tic, smirk or offhand comment felt authentically unpredictable, with Ledger effortlessly stealing every scene he appeared in. Darker, deeper and more dazzling than any previous incarnation, Ledger created a benchmark for movie miscreants that actors will undoubtedly be trying to live up to decades.
Updated: January 22, 2019 04:35 PM