Ang Lee had called him a “young Brando.” John Travolta called him “my actor.” Tributes poured in from Hollywood as the Australian prime minister mourned the loss of a deeply talented native son and the White House postponed an event that might have been construed as exploiting Heath Ledger’s death likely caused by an accidental prescription drug overdose.
I can’t think of an actor whose death has affected me so deeply. Last Tuesday was one of those moments that reminds you that there is no reason or logic in the cosmos, merely bright and beautiful stars interspersed with dark matter that eventually burn themselves out.
I was not the most ardent fan; I saw only three of Ledger’s films. But I found his performance as Ennis Del Mar in the epic Brokeback Mountain — a study in quiet, lonely, dignified, protracted pain soothed intermittently by sublime moments of intimacy — was as soaring as the film’s Santaolalla soundtrack. Some criticized the film for lack of realism — the initial physical episode between Ennis and Jack was indeed implausibly executed — but the performances rang true. They stuck in your head, made you think and feel.
It was a film that made many uncomfortable. In January 2006, Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam noted that the it wasn’t meeting box office predictions because “[f]irst and foremost, outside of major cities, many Americans remain jittery at best and disapproving at worst of homosexuality.” (Never mind that Brokeback had just been named Best Picture by the Iowa Film Critics Society.) I myself never saw it in a theater. My film-buff son almost always selects our viewing fare, and at 15 at the time he didn’t suggest this one. I rented the DVD when it came out and he watched it before I had a chance to do so.
“It’s not a ‘gay cowboy’ film,” he announced matter of factly. “It’s a love story.” I watched it with him and my then-teenage daughter, all of us blown away by its intensity and courage.
Since Ledger’s death I have perused some of the fan sites, curious to see how his career impacted others. There is a site devoted entirely to the friendship between Ledger and Brokeback co-star Jake Gyllenhaal — surely a product of people wishing to fantasize that the film relationship blossomed into something in real life. Such imaginings are fed by the fact that Ledger’s first serious acting role was as a gay cyclist on the Australian TV series Sweat (1996), Gyllenhaal’s statement that since Brokeback Ledger has been his “best friend,” and Ledger’s selection of Gyllenhaal to serve as his daughter Matilda’s godfather.
Matilda’s mother is of course Michelle Williams, who played Ennis’ wife in Brokeback Mountain. In the lives of highly artistic people sometimes life replicates art. Rumors swirl about Gyllenhaal’s sexuality, and he himself has said that while he’s not gay he’s open to the possibility. Should we find that Ledger and Williams broke up because of the Ledger/Gyllenhaal friendship fetishized by the above bloggers, or due to related sexual issues virtually replicating the Brokeback script, the actor’s death would I suppose acquire even greater poignancy.
With such thoughts in my mind I encountered Fox News’ reportage on Ledger’s death. Radio show racist hatemonger John Gibson opened his January 23 show with funeral music, playing the tape of Jack in Brokeback swearing, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
“Well,” said Gibson, laughing, “he found out how to quit you!” The piece of shit followed up by playing the clip in which Ennis tells Jake that if their relationship were discovered, “We’re dead.” Calling the actor — in fact by all reports one of the most stable, sober, and down-to-earth of his community — a “weirdo” scumbag Gibson declared that Ledger had “a serious drug problem.” He specifically accused him, with no evidence, of “snorting heroin.”
Thus the tragic death of a non-political Australian actor in New York City becomes culture-wars material for a semi-literate fascist-prone sensationalizing bullying butthead, confident that Fox News culture will tolerate and nurture this sort of assault. Immediately challenged by normal rational people for his broadcast remarks, he smirked, “Why pass up a good joke?”
But there are apparently limits. Even MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough expressed disgust: “This is about as callous and harsh as anything I’ve heard. It is unspeakably rude. I don’t know who syndicates this guy, but that is absolutely stunning, that John Gibson would be that mean-spirited and hateful.” (I myself find it stunning that Scarborough should be stunned, since he’s anything but a model of political correctness.) MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinki said, “I’ve got to tell you, that makes me nauseous . . . I don’t know how you stay on the air after doing something like that, quite frankly.”
Thus this grotesque John Gibson-thing — no doubt after some in-house discussion at Fox and with his sorry ass on the line — issued a quasi-apology: “I’m sorry that some took my comments as anti-gay and insensitive,” he drawled, noting that Ledger was a “good father.” As though his use of his family-man qualifications make him less of the weirdo Gibson had earlier mocked.
Somehow it seems appropriate that Ledger (whatever his sexuality, which was perhaps complex, the norm among actors) should in his death immediately become a lightning rod for the homophobes. The sick, tiny Baptist sect that routinely spews antigay hate speech at military funerals reportedly had a presence near Ledger’s funeral ceremony last week. These hate manifestations pay tribute to the actor’s impact. His performance as Ennis, a young man who quite simply and as the most natural thing in the world fell in love with another, maintaining that love to the bitter end of death, is indeed a fucking threat to these bigots.
Al Gore just came out in favor of gay marriage. Acceptance of gays in the military is at record highs. The “We’re dead” fear of Brokeback recedes in light of progress in the real world. That is what frightens the homophobes, lashing out stupidly at a dead actor but in doing so further validating his life.
Jake Gyllenhaal is reportedly filming in New Mexico. He has issued no statement so far, a conspicuous void in the posthumous closure process. One report says he is too upset about Heath’s death to talk to the media. (This is in contrast to Ledger’s family which conducted a very dignified brief interview with the press outside their Perth home within hours of his death.) He seems like such a good guy, a Buddhist seeking mindfulness, politicized, working with World Can’t Wait. I feel for him and respect his silence. On the other hand I wish he would vent his pain on behalf of all of us who at least in small quantity share it, and might derive some comfort in his thoughts.