As time went by, I cycled through the stages of grief, and the pain started to ease. And while I was grateful for that, I found it somewhat alarming because it felt like, as the pain started to go away, the memory was starting to go away too. While I didn't want to begin each morning of the rest of my life with the bleak thought that "Heath Ledger is dead," I decided that, by the same token, I also didn't want to let a day go by without thinking of him. Fortunately I have found that I can memorialize him without dwelling on the pain. I had saved a picture of Jake and Heath out of the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack CD case, which I love because it seems to be a candid shot of the actors themselves. So I found a frame for it and I put it up in my living room. Then I went on the Brokeback Mountain website and found a desktop background featuring this picture of him that I now have as my wallpaper. Perhaps that seems frivolous, but since I use my computer every day I'm guaranteed to see it and think of him every day.
The day after he died (the day I first learned of his death) IMDb posted a poll question: "for which role will you most remember Heath Ledger?" This was perhaps premature since he was involved in two films that have not yet been released, but in my case there was no question that it would be for Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. I've written a lot about the subject of Brokeback Mountain, but as I look back over what I've written, I notice that I've never said anything very specific about Heath's acting (or anyone else's for that matter). I had intended to do so today, but I fear that it will make me cry, and I already have a cold so I don't want to make my nose run any more than it is already. It's just as well, because all of my words seem so pretentiously inadequate when I try to describe the power of that performance. Instead, I will reference Daniel Day-Lewis' tribute to him at the SAG awards, which is beautiful and heartfelt and probably much more eloquent in its simplicity than anything I could have said anyway.
For various reasons, I had not seen Brokeback Mountain since I devoted a week to writing about it in October of 2006. Immediately after Heath passed away I couldn't bear the thought of watching it or any of his movies at that time because the pain was still too fresh. However, as the pain started to ease, and I started to feel myself in danger, not of forgetting but of not remembering actively enough, I felt not only that I could watch it again, but that I needed to do so. So I did, and in the wake of Heath's death I found it all the more poignant and moving. I had shed tears over the ending before, but now when I watch it I can't help but weep openly. It's always seemed like a compound tragedy to me, with the fictional tragedy evoking the real-life tragedy of the murder of Matthew Shepard, and now that double-tragedy is further conflated with the tragedy of Heath's passing. The tragic deaths of Matthew Shepard and Heath Ledger have affected and continue to affect me in different ways. I never met either of them, but I didn't even know of Matthew Shepard until after he died, and I never felt his passing as a loss until four years after the fact when I performed in The Laramie Project; until that time, his death was so abstract to me. I knew, intellectually, that he was a person and that people had loved him, that he had been to others what my loved ones are to me, but I didn't feel the reality of that knowledge until The Laramie Project, so I never felt the need to grieve for Matthew Shepard the way I've grieved for Heath Ledger.
Watching Brokeback Mountain now is a bizarre emotional experience; Heath merged so seamlessly with the character of Ennis Del Mar that, when I would watch the film while Heath was alive, I would only see Ennis and sort of forget about Heath until the end credits when his name would come up. It's a bit more complicated than that, but that's the best way I can describe it. Yet now that Heath is gone, I can't help but see him too, and think of him and the fact that he's no longer with us, and it's like Heath and Ennis are trying to occupy the same space at the same time, not only on screen but in my heart. And yet, while there's perhaps some conflict between these two perceptions trying to occupy the same space within my heart, on the screen it's completely harmonious; the two succeed in occupying the same space because they exist in a kind of symbiotic, or at least complementary, relationship. For that reason, thinking of Heath doesn't take me out of the experience of the movie the way I would have expected.
I read an article recently about actors who were considered for, and turned down, certain popular, award-winning, and/or iconic roles, and they mentioned that Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix were early considerations for the leads in Brokeback Mountain. I had heard, in the past, that other older and better-known actors had been considered for the parts, but I had never heard specific names mentioned. I've not seen enough of Mark Wahlberg to comment, but I am an admirer of Joaquin Phoenix, so perhaps that would have been good. Ultimately, however, I feel that the right actors got the parts. In the article Mark Wahlberg mentioned that he and Mr. Phoenix were a little freaked out about the male-sex aspect of it which, while certainly not the whole point of the movie, is a fairly crucial component, and it demanded actors who were going to commit fully to it, which Jake and Heath did. Their performances were so iconic that it's now difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anyone else in the roles. I think in particular the role of Ennis Del Mar would not have been what it was were it not for Heath's acting ethos and for his good heart. He brought to that role an undeniable humanity. While the character of Ennis attempts to conceal his emotions, from others and from himself, the job of an actor is to reveal the character's emotions to the audience, and Heath found the power in that paradox. Because of his performance, Ennis' pain is palpable; it's almost a tangible thing. You see it, you hear it, and when he holds those two shirts to his face and breathes in you can almost smell and taste that pain....at least that's the way I feel.
As I'm sure I've said before, I've enjoyed Heath's performance in everything I've seen him in, even films that I didn't particularly enjoy, like The Brothers Grimm, or that I can hardly remember the details of otherwise, like The Patriot. At the moment, probably my favorite Heath Ledger film besides Brokeback Mountain is Casanova, a film that I actually didn't expect to enjoy all that much. It's not a great movie, but it's a good movie: a smart, sassy romantic comedy; a period piece with a contemporary sensibility; largely predictable, but with a few delicious surprises; slightly naughty, but too good-natured to be called wicked. I didn't see Casanova until after I saw Brokeback Mountain, and since at that point Heath had been Ennis Del Mar almost exclusively to me for six months or so, it was such a delight to see him play a character who was the polar opposite of Ennis Del Mar, one who was so sensual and exuberant and full of joie de vivre. He said in one of the DVD special features that filming that movie was like a vacation for him, which does my heart good to know.
Heath, you've left behind many people who love you and miss you. You gave so much of yourself...you gave us so much...and you had so much more to give.