On the Death of Heath Ledger

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.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.

25 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Whittney Hayes said on January 29th, 2008 at 8:45am #

    Heath Ledger was a great actor and a great person despite of what the tabloids say about him. He had a 2 year old daughter why would he want to take his own life i don’t think any parent would be that selfish.

  2. Robert Lelfet said on January 29th, 2008 at 9:09am #

    Bravo, Professor for confirming again about what so many of us feel with respect to this overwhelming tragedy-a very personal sense of loss that will not readily disappear. Heath entered our hearts unlike any other star in contemporary cinema. He was our brother, our son , our lover –it didn’t matter because we just wanted to be with him. It has already been written that the sadness we all experienced watching the ending of “Brokeback Mountain” was tempered by the fact that we knew Heath was alive and well in real life….now that’s all gone…
    As to John Gibson, those stupid and vicious comments weren’t even acceptable to his own viewers . And as far as a statement from Jake, it certainly would be comforting but we can only assume he is overwhelmed. The bottom line is we lost Heath and we can’t accept this fact, we just can’t!

  3. HR said on January 29th, 2008 at 12:37pm #

    Amazing how the so-called alternative press follows in the footsteps of its corporate counterpart in reporting entertainment news and opinion as though it had some vital importance. Surely, there are more important issues to address, ones that actually affect our lives.

  4. neal cass said on January 29th, 2008 at 12:44pm #

    That was a beautiful well thought out piece you wrote
    about Heath. I agree in everything you said as if you
    took the words right out of my mouth.
    I couldn’t explain myself why I’m so moved about his
    passing when it was only after seeing Brokeback
    Mountain that made me realize what a great talent and
    person he was. Before, I too never much thought about
    him thinking maybe, he’s just one of those matinee
    idols who will soon be forgotten. When news about him
    and Jake being cast in that film, I was somewhat
    perplexed but also intrigued that producers would
    choose him. Everything changed after that. I then saw
    Heath in a new and different light. Perhaps his Ennis
    character which is the saddest you’d ever seen, is
    somewhat unavoidably forever linked to him and why I
    feel such pain for Heath. It’s as if Ennis himself
    died. It’s also why this Westborough church and other
    anti-gay groups have made their presence at his wake
    in L.A. and yesterday outside the SAG awards. Yes he
    played a gay character but Heath himself was not gay
    because he loved women. They could not distinguish the
    character from the person. Even for the rest of us
    with an open mind, we too are “guilty” of that
    association with Heath and his character but in an
    endearing way as if we had a long lost special friend
    that the rest of the world doesn’t understand.
    Secretly or not, we cherish Ennis as much as we
    cherish Heath because he played it perfectly and made
    it come to life. How else would Daniel Day Lewis who
    had never met him but had paid tributes to him not
    only yesterday at the SAG awards, but earlier on
    Tuesday’s interview with Oprah preferring to talk
    about Heath than his Oscar nomination. Gary Oldman,
    Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale
    all have spoken fondly of him too. As an actor, they
    know when a fellow actor has given his greatest
    performance and they are only left to marvel at his
    Though I’ve never met Heath, I thank you for your
    sincere article because it gave me comfort and
    assurance that I’m not alone in my thoughts and
    feelings about his passing and that their are writers
    like you who have something positive to say at a time
    when it’s needed most.
    He was a friend of mine.

  5. Deadbeat said on January 29th, 2008 at 1:19pm #

    Being a comic book fan, I was looking forward to Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker. That being said, I think from a DV point of view the issue behind Ledger’s death is the over use of prescription drugs by doctors and the connection to the pharmaceuticals companies. I don’t know exactly what Ledger was suffering from but from what I heard if he was having sleeping problems there are many homeopathic remedies that are much safer than pharmaceuticals. I think this angle into Ledger’s death need not be overshadowed.

  6. kate said on January 29th, 2008 at 4:33pm #

    very well written. completely agree with all, particularly the closing sentances. thank you.

  7. Adam said on January 29th, 2008 at 7:45pm #

    As much as I agree that this silence needs to be broken – if not by him, by his media people, the media is quite cruel, and will use any word, any gesture, any piece of clothing Jake wears against him. They will tear him apart at the slightest sign of weakness. Look what they do to Britney Spears.
    I am amazed by Jake’s talent. Donnie Darko meant so much to me, but BBM was his most superb movie, and it will probably be for a long time.
    I have cried copiously for Heath as if he had been a friend for many years. I never met him, though. I only know his roles (all of them). Someone like his girlfriend, his brother, or friend would be so devastated that their reactions cannot be predicted.
    Whatever reasons Jake has to keep silent I respect. Is that what I expected? Absolutely not.

  8. RS said on January 29th, 2008 at 8:56pm #

    Very lovely tribute to a wonderful actor who will be dearly missed. However, I don’t think Jake Gyllenhaal should be questioned as to why he has not made a statement. Michelle Williams has not issued a statement, neither has Naomi Watts and a few other of Heath’s friends, Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, etc. I think Jake should be left to mourn in his own way. Although it would be appreciated, Jake doesn’t owe us any explanation of his feelings right now. I am sure he will talk about it at some point.

  9. paul matters said on January 29th, 2008 at 9:01pm #

    Ledger opposed his country – Australia’s – involvement in the illegal and immoral war against the Iraqi people. He was a decent, humane and troubled young man. We have lost a brilliant artist and a courageous Australian. Thank you for the powerful and moving writing.

  10. brian a said on January 30th, 2008 at 8:47am #

    Very nice article and I love the comments from Robert and Neal. Its been over a week since this happened and I’m still sick over it. It wasn’t until I read these comments that I realized that perhaps my tremendous sadness comes from the realization that Ennis and Heath passed away on Tuesday. Daniel Day Lewis said it best when he called his performance in Brokeback ‘perfect’. Ledger made that role and created a relatable character. He wasn’t a gay cowboy, he was a person you wanted to know and someone you wanted to root for.

    Obvioulsy, the sadness stems from the fact that a family member, a friend, and a father was lost. But I (and many others I presume) are depressed at the realization that we will never have the joy of seeing Ledger totally immerse himself in future film roles. Sure, he will be in this summer’s blockbuster, but if anything, the previews, the hype, and the movie will only rip open old emotional wounds that may not totally heal by then. How depressing.

    The power of the internet allowed me to find this article, as well as come accross old tv interviews Heath was in. When watching these interviews, he came accross as uncomfortable and nervous. Its obvious he didn’t care for the spotlight. This made him even more real to me, and ultimately, makes me sadder.

  11. Nadine said on January 30th, 2008 at 10:58am #

    Thank you so much for writing this Professor Leupp. You could have been transcribing my thoughts as all you have said here about Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal reflect thoughts I have often mused upon or views and opinions with which I wholly concur.

    I became a devotee of both these marvellous young actors as a result of their emotional pas-de-deux in “Brokeback Mountain” ,a film which for me will never be surpassed,and I have sought to learn as much as possible about them and their work,past,present and future.

    Sadly there will be no future work for Heath now and for Jake,a future,I’m sure. changed for ever by Heath’s passing, a heart and soul which will ever carry the scars of losing someone with such deep personal and professional significance.

    Like many of my fellow “Brokies” as we affectionately call one another in cyberspace,I have been really distressed by Heath’s tragic death,made heartsick by Jake’s obvious devastation at his loss and sickened by some of the bigotry peddled in its aftermath. It is with some relief,therefore, and much gratitude that I found,via one of those aforementioned “Brokies”, this wonderful,thoughtful,balanced,sensitive and poignant article. Again,thank you so very much for publishing it.

    Nadine, England.

  12. RS said on January 30th, 2008 at 11:00am #

    For those of you demanding Jake make a statement you should check this out http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20174820,00.html I really think it is unfair to expect him to say something right now. Again, I am sure he will say something in his own time.

  13. Deidre said on January 30th, 2008 at 11:24am #

    I am very saddened and shocked by Heath’s death. He was a great actor, and from what I have read, a loving father. I am a Christian who doesn’t believe that homosexuality is right. That is my belief though, and I do not judge others who support it or live it. I absolutely am disgusted at those who would say things like “Heath’s in hell” or who would hang around outside of his funeral adding to the overwhelming sadness his family and friends are experiencing. Shame on them. Shame on you also, for your judgemental comment on Joe Scarborough for expressing a true sentiment. Just because he isn’t “politically correct” and doesn’t agree with your political views doesn’t mean he can’t see the wrongness in what John Gibson did and make comment on it. As far as Jake Gyllenhaal is concerned, he doesn’t owe you or anyone else any comments. While his and my political views aren’t the same, I feel great heart ache for him because losing a very good friend is hard. Speculation about his and Heath’s relationship serves no purpose except to fan the fires of the gossip mongers.

    This is one Republican, Christian, Conservative who feels great sympathy for his family and friends and will miss Heath Ledger and his work.

  14. Nadine said on January 30th, 2008 at 11:53am #

    Hello RS and thank you for that link,although perhaps we can’t take everything printed in “People” as the Gospel truth.

    I share your incredulity at the attitude of certain members of the press and public.It amazes me that anyone thinks they have the right to demand a public statement from Jake on the death of someone so dear to him. Anyone who has seen heart-rending recent Pap pictures of him, taken a few days after Heath’s passing,it doesn’t take a body language expert to imagine the depths of his inner devastation.

    The public should not feel they are owed any kind of soul-bearing from Jake on any issue,let alone on a tragedy which has so obviously affected him very badly. If he chooses never to describe his feelings or pay tribute to Heath in public then that is up to him. I for one would shudder to see him run the emotional gauntlet any time soon,trying to articulate his sorrow.


  15. brian said on January 30th, 2008 at 3:23pm #

    What is being ignored in this story is the deadly effects of prescription drugs like Ambien, which Ledger had been taking, and which still the ‘regulatory’ agencies are not banninng. How many more have to suffer and die just to get a good nights sleep!

    ‘Bizarre sleepwalking linked to sleeping pill
    Friday Feb 2 04:00 AEDT
    By ninemsn staff

    A suspect sleeping pill is causing Australians to paint the front door, binge-eat, and drive while still asleep, a new study reveals.

    The Federal Health Department has received 16 separate reports of odd “sleepwalking” behaviour caused by the drug Stilnox, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

    A woman taking the drug “woke with a paintbrush in her hand after painting the front door while asleep,” the Adverse Drug Reactions Advisory Committee said in a bulletin published yesterday.

    Another patient reportedly gained 23 kilograms over seven months while taking Stilnox.

    “It was only when she was discovered eating in front of an open refrigerator while asleep that the problem was resolved,” the bulletin said.

    The committee also received two alarming reports “which suggest the possibility of driving while asleep.”

    The new study marks the first time “inappropriate or strange automatic behaviour” related to Stilnox has been noted in Australia since the drug was introduced here in 2000, although cases have been reported overseas.

    The health department also received 104 reports of hallucinations and 62 of amnesia relating to the drug.

    Alan Brindell, a spokesman for the manufacturer of Stilnox, Sanofi-Aventis, told the Herald it had not been proven that the drug was causing the disturbed sleep behaviour.

    Brindell could not provide an estimate for the number of people in Australia using Stilnox, which is only available on prescription and attracts no subsidy.

  16. Gary Leupp said on January 30th, 2008 at 9:18pm #

    In response to RS and Nadine:

    I am of course not “demanding” a statement from Jake Gyllenhaal, and agree that it’s “unfair” to expect a statement from him immediately. As I said, I respect his silence. He will no doubt share his pain when he can. The reason I wrote my peice (thinking aloud for the half hour it took me to compose it) was merely to express my own pain and anger. I’m gratified that it’s apparently moved some people and stimulated them to express their own thoughts. But please do not interpret it as an effort to pressure Gyllenhaal, for whom I in fact feel nothing but admiration and compassion.

  17. RS said on January 30th, 2008 at 10:08pm #

    Thank you for your response Professor Leupp. Your thoughtfulness and understanding are greatly appreciated.

  18. RS said on January 30th, 2008 at 10:10pm #

    Sorry that should be “your thoughtfulness and understanding is greatly appreciated.”

  19. neal cass said on January 31st, 2008 at 9:28am #

    In response to the newly surfaced “drug video” of Heath at a celebrity party and of a police cover up of his drug use, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it was the cause of his death. Whether he had drug problems, it doesn’t change what I feel about him. I mean we all have our personal demons to conquer. It doesn’t make him less special than he already is.
    In the end it’s not about what a person did in his life that makes people remember.
    It’s what he makes us feel about him and what it means to us.

  20. Nadine said on February 1st, 2008 at 12:02pm #

    Thanks so much for your reply ,Professor.

    My exasperation and venom in my second post was not directed at you in the slightest,your respect and sympathy for Jake was self-evident!!
    It was the more ruthless sector of the gutter press,who never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and those more misguided and demanding “fans” who feel entitled to a piece of Jake, who were the target for my tirade,although such unfeeling creatures would probably be impervious to my disapproval.

    I hope you’ll go back and read my first comment on your article as I feel you might have missed it,as in it I was fulsome in my praise and gratitude for your article.

    Once again,may I thank you for a wonderful essay,sensitively written in really sad circumstances.

    Regards,Nadine England

  21. Kim Raikes said on February 1st, 2008 at 4:12pm #

    I too join Nadine in thanking you for your essay, “sensitively written in really sad circumstances.” One hope is that, in the aftermath of Heath’s death, we will all find our way down a new path, one leading to a society in which the “love story” your son had the ability to see can be lived out with freedom and dignity.

    For those interested in pursuing some of the points raised by your essay, including those revolving around the role of the media, let me link you to a global forum, Strike Me Gyllen: http://gyllenhaal.suddenlaunch3.com/.

  22. Gary Leupp said on February 1st, 2008 at 7:59pm #

    Thanks Nadine, RS and Kim.

    I suppose that in reading RS’s observation that it was unfair to expect Jake to make a comment immediately, I responded with some defensiveness. No, of course I don’t want to pressure him to speak; I don’t want to feel guilty that I intimated that I did. But on the other hand, in all honesty (since this is the sort of situation which justifies honest, emotional talk) I want to believe that Jake grieves Heath’s death as much as Ennis grieved Jack’s in Brokeback Mountain. I think I’ve figured out why: it’s because I want the emotions I felt in watching that film validated as much as possible in real life. That is selfish of me, and irrational, but I confess it’s how I feel.

    I listen to Santolalla’s “The Wings”—different interpretations on youtube, some recent, amateurish but heartfelt. An uplifting melody, but also one that breaks my heart. I look at the photos of Jake and Reese in the LA park last week. I read the report about Jake’s reaction to the news of Heath’s death on the set in New Mexico…with that melody in the background.

    Why as a grown man with a busy career do I spend time on this? Is it a morbid preoccupation? I’d like to think instead that my sadness pays tribute to a man who challenged and changed attitudes with his courage, skill and beauty. And I’m hoping Jake’s sadness will sometime acquire articulate form and further change how people think about love.

  23. Mayalakshmi Rao, Kolkata-India said on February 2nd, 2008 at 2:30am #

    Dear Professor Leupp,

    It has taken me a while to articulate a meaningful response to your heartfelt and thought-provoking post. You have spoken for many people in your position who may never otherwise open up.

    I have been caught up helping a dear young friend in my own city with mourning the loss of his mother and returned to read your response to RS, Kim and Nadine. The words that have instantly struck me and made this response flow out are “Why as a grown man with a busy career do I spend time on this? Is it a morbid preoccupation?” Quite the contrary Professor! We, as grown people with our own pressures at work, applaud you for your courage in “going there” , for feeling impelled to explore the reasons and for taking the time to share . Your sadness which is ours, indeed “pays tribute to a man who challenged and changed attitudes with his courage, skill and beauty”. Happenstance brought me face to face with the Brokeback Mountain phenomenon at a time when I was at the crossroads and bewildered about the direction my own life would take. I was drawn as if by a magnetic pull, to take the road “Up The Mountain”. As a person who was led to Brokeback Mountain via my “cyber-discovery” of Jake Gyllenhaal, I believe that Jake will articulate his sadness, not necessarily in ways that he may be expected to but in ways that will surprise us, give a keener voice to our quest and “further change how people think about love”. Thank you for speaking out your mind and opening a channel for more of us to express ourselves.

  24. bella said on February 15th, 2008 at 11:47pm #

    GIBSON SHOULD OF BEEN FIRED BY NOW! Absolutely ridiculous!! – And how funny – Imus was fired for a far less malicious intended comment utilizing a word which one half of American culture in the African American race utilizes on a daily basis – just don’t be white and say it… Such lunacy – What Gibson did… Again, far more RIDICULOUS!!! Pathetic, disgusting, insane – who gives these people these jobs! That’s who should really be fired first- why do we have to listen to these idiots anyway!

  25. hiho said on July 30th, 2008 at 7:41pm #

    Heath Ledger is NOT dead!

    It was reported on CNN.com, that investigators were under the impression that the body that was found in the hotel could be the body of Heath Ledger’s brother who convieniently had Heath’s ID card on him. The report also stated that witnesses in New York city saw Heath Ledger at a bar earlier that night drinking. Ten minutes after the article covering this situation appeared on CNN.com, it was taken off. Sound fishy?

    Heath had arranged a massage later that afternoon, and was also currently filming a movie in England. He was a successful and low-key actor that preferred to stay out of tabloids. That type of fame does not drive someone to kill themselves. There are no motives behind the suicide.

    It can be assumed that Ledger was using certain drugs and who knows- he could have seem some crazy drug shit go down and is now in the witness protection program. It’s all a scam. There’s no solid evidence that the body found is actually the body of Heath Ledger. When people are involved in government programs, their future as that person is completely erased. The only evidence that the American public has seen was something in a black body bag.

    Yea, that’s basically my rant on how the death of Heath Ledger is a conspiracy and never really happened.