January 22, 2018 marks the 10-year anniversary of Heath Ledger's death. Gone too soon. It's what you say when someone dies too young, and it couldn't be more fitting with regards to Heath Ledger, who passed away before his 29th birthday of an accidental prescription drug overdose. It was just six months before the release of The Dark Knight, which would earn him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Being that the Joker was one of his last roles — and the bar by which all villains will now be measured — it's easy to forget Ledger had only been in 16 movies before his untimely death. He wasn't even able to finish his final movie, Terry Gilliam's 2009 film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. So three different actors — Jude Law, Colin Farrell, and Johnny Depp — stepped in to complete the film and honor the late star. Ledger may have felt like a Hollywood staple, but he was a young actor just starting to find his stride.
His breakthrough role in Brokeback Mountain (which came out in limited release on December 9, 2005) earned him comparisons to Marlon Brando, who redefined acting with his method style. Like Brando, Ledger seemed to inhabit his characters, changing his vocal patterns not just to act like, but to basically become a Wyoming ranch hand, a sensitive death row prison guard from Georgia, a tempestuous Revolutionary War soldier, or a California surfer dude. With the Joker, Ledger spent months figuring out the octave-jumping, tic-filled delivery that would send chills down our spines.
Ledger was able to get at the emotional core of every character he played, often channeling the sadness that went with love or the lack of it. Even though by all accounts, he was a happy, loving father to his daughter Matilda with ex Michelle Williams, he evoked deep sadness on-screen, if it wasn't an apparent part of his own life. His ability to get at his characters' humanity made each of them so individual. Or, to paraphrase The New York Times, whether in a Stetson or a wig, Ledger was an actor who was hard to pin down.
After his death, Ledger has been likened more and more to James Dean and River Phoenix — actors, like himself, with so much promise whose careers were cut short. What more could Ledger have done if he'd had the chance? It's the sad question we're all left with. But we've also been left with his body of work, which is filled with roles we still talk about today, nearly eight years after his passing, and will continue to revisit in years to come.