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The unexpected death of twenty-eight-year-old Hollywood heartthrob Heath Ledger in 2008 recalled that of River Phoenix some fourteen years earlier, in which a popular and talented performer was cut down in their prime and served as a tragic reminder of how delicate and brief life can be. Born in Australia and first rising to fame in his homeland through the daytime soap Home and Away, Ledger was introduced to international audiences with the 1999 American comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, a loose reworking of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew that also marked the big screen breakthroughs of Julia Stiles and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Following an acclaimed performance as Mel Gibson’s son in the historical drama The Patriot, Ledger earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as a modern day cowboy embarking on a homosexual relationship in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.
But it would be his sinister and animated interpretation of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated sequel The Dark Knight that would come to be his defining role. Released six months after his death, the movie received unanimous praise, with almost every review focusing on his devilish adaptation. ‘…his Joker is a creature of such ghastly life and the performance is so visceral, creepy and insistently present that the characterisation pulls you in almost at once,’ declared Manohla Dargis of the New York Times. ‘When the Joker enters one fray with a murderous flourish and that sawed-off smile, his morbid grin a mirror of the Black Dahlia’s ear-to-ear grimace, your nervous laughter will die in your throat.’
In February 2009, a little over a year after his passing, Ledger became only the second actor in history to receive a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, following Peter Finch’s win for Network thirty-two years earlier. A few weeks after Ledger’s death the cause had been revealed as an accidental overdose of prescription medications, which had included sleeping pills, anti-anxiety tablets and painkillers. ‘Mr. Heath Ledger died as the result of acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine,’ revealed the New York City medical examiner’s office.Prior to the results of the autopsy being revealed there had been much speculation in the media as to why a young actor had suddently passed away. ‘Some signs pointed to an accidental overdose or a suicide, although no note was found, police sources said,’ claimed the New York Times on the day his death had been announced. Earlier this year the actor’s father, Kim Ledger, told the Daily Mail Australia that the responsibility for the tragedy fell solely on Heath. ‘It was totally his fault. It was no one else’s – he reached for them. He put them in his system. You can’t blame anyone else in that situation,’ he admitted. ‘His sister was on the phone to him the night before telling him not to take the prescription medications with the sleeping tablets. ‘He said, ‘Katie, Katie, I’m fine. I know what I’m doing.’ He would have had no idea.’
Kim Ledger, who remains proud of his son’s achivements almost a decade after his passing, has been working alongside the Art Gallery of Western Australia to develop an exhibition in the late actor’s honour, which will include the Oscar statue that he received for his work on The Dark Knight. In a new interview with BBC Radio 5 he discussed the true Heath Ledger, the man away from Hollywood and what he meant to his family. ‘The best way to describe Heath was somebody who never slept. He was infectious, curious, engaging and fun, but never demanding of anybody else, only himself. As a young guy he was very spiritual and soulful from an early age. It was kinda like he had been here before.’