Heath Ledger wasn't the first young star to die before his time, and he won't be the last. But that didn't make it any less shocking when we heard last Wednesday that the 28-year-old actor had been found dead in his Manhattan apartment. Our first thought was of his two-year-old daughter, Matilda Rose, and how difficult Ledger's passing would be for his family and friends. And as editors of an online entertainment magazine, our next thought was, "Wait, he finished shooting his scenes for 'The Dark Knight,' right? " Ledger's turn as the psychotic Joker is one of the main reasons we've been so geeked to see the new Batman flick this summer, and the news of his death set our selfish instincts into high gear.
But we've been fans of Ledger's work for nearly a decade now, and because of that we decided to highlight our five favorite performances from his tragically brief career, with the hopes that his work in “The Dark Knight” will turn out to be his best ever.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Heath Ledger’s first American film seems, at least on its surface, to be the sort of trifle most actors do merely as a dues-paying exercise, but if that was the case here, you couldn’t tell it from his performance as lovestruck teen Patrick Verona. This clever Shakespeare- derived comedy (it’s inspired by “The Taming of the Shrew”) has had longer legs than most of its peers, and although you can’t chalk it all up to Ledger’s performance – there are strong turns from Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon- Levitt, Larisa Oleynik, David Krumholtz and, of course, the invaluable Larry Miller – Heath’s certainly the one who wins the prize for The Scene Everyone Remembers, a scene which coincidentally placed #21 in our 2006 list of the Top 40 music moments in film history. Patrick hijacks the stadium PA system, launches into an a-cappella rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” then has the school marching band introduce themselves into the arrangement as he struts up and down the aisles, continuing to belt out the Frankie Valli classic even while trying to escape from the clutches of the stadium’s security guards. It’s a grand romantic gesture that does not go unnoticed by Kat Stratford (Stiles), but more importantly, it’s generally viewed as the moment that found Ledger officially on the path to international stardom. – Will Harris
A Knight’s Tale (2001)
For all the kudos and attention that Ledger gained for his work in more “serious” fare such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Monster’s Ball,” one cannot overlook the entertaining “A Knight’s Tale,” directed by Brian Helgeland. Ledger, as Sir William Thatcher, played the part with both humor and charisma. He didn’t need to prove himself as a capable and magnetic presence onscreen. Though he would eschew fare such as this film and “10 Things I Hate About You” – films that in one way or another made Ledger feel as if Hollywood was merely selling his image and not his talent – that is far from the case. “A Knight’s Tale” proved that Ledger could be a great leading man and work effortlessly in comedy, drama and action from scene to scene. Of course, this had something to do with the great writing and supporting cast, but the fresh-faced Ledger was easily the one people would be keeping an eye on and discussing later. And so it came to pass. Unfortunately, so has Heath’s passing, much too soon. – Jason Thompson
Monster’s Ball (2001)
Considering that he was once best known in the U.S. as the hunk star of a teen comedy and a movie with medieval knights dancing to Queen and David Bowie, a film snob might have been tempted to dismiss an actor like Ledger. After his brief but powerful work with Billy Bob Thorton and Peter Boyle in 2001’s “Monster’s Ball,” however, he proved himself to be very much the real thing. In the last of Ledger’s few scenes in the film, Sonny Grotowski faces an emotional nightmare scenario that few of us could deal with — his father coolly admitting that he hates him and is ashamed of his weakness. His steady reply, a declaration of love followed by what might be the ultimate act of vengeance, is impossible to forget. Other actors might have tried to make his character’s act look noble — especially as Sonny is the son and grandson of two abusive racists who has somehow managed to grow up with a certain amount of compassion and decency — but Heath Ledger was more honest, allowing us to see both the legitimate pain and the self-pity behind self-destruction. – Bob Westal
Lords of Dogtown (2005)
We’ll be the first to admit that “Lords of Dogtown” is not the strongest movie in Ledger’s filmography – in fact, we’re convinced that it would have been much better had its original director, Fred Durst, stayed on board – but the movie merits inclusion for the simple fact that once Ledger’s surf shop owner Skip stumbles onto the screen, he instantly steals the movie from everyone else. Drink and smoke perpetually in hand, Ledger plays Skip with a looseness that he had not exhibited before or since, like Philip Seymour Hoffman on a bender. With equal parts charisma and attitude, it’s easy to see why these broken-home skateboarders were drawn to Skip – he is just as irresponsible and immature as they are – and it makes his role as their de facto father figure all the more tragic.
– David Medsker
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
We haven't seen “The Dark Knight” yet, so it's probably safe to say that, for the time being at least, “Brokeback Mountain” remains the pinnacle of Ledger’s career. And to think it almost didn't happen. The film’s two leads were among the most talked-about castings in Hollywood at the time. Agents warned their clients to stay far, far away from That Gay Cowboy Movie (including Jake Gyllenhaal’s), but anyone who had read the original short story by Annie Proulx knew that playing either character would assure instant critical recognition. Encouraged by then-girlfriend Naomi Watts to accept the role of the film's main protagonist, Ennis Del Mar, Ledger delivers an Oscar-worthy performance that completely embodies the character in every way possible – from his nuanced expressions to that strange Wyoming accent that catches most first-time viewers off guard. It's a remarkably honest performance of a man who, quite simply, will never be happy, and Heath nails the emotion and pain down to every last keystroke. – Jason Zingale