I've been mulling over my reaction to the death of Heath Ledger, and reading the heart-felt responses from many in my blog family. Brokeback Mountain obviously struck a deep chord with a lot of people, as it did with me. In one of my earliest posts, written just after seeing the movie, I talked about how connected I felt culturally to this particular story in ways that didn't make sense. I had privileges Ennis never dreamed of, yet I still see how easy it would have been for me to become him. For an interesting interview with Ledger on his experience working on the film, go here. The skill and emotional insight Ledger and Ang Lee brought to this character created a resonant performance, one that deserves all the accolades and awards it received. I think it may go down in history as one of the great film portrayals. I was inspired in deep ways by the beauty and commitment of Ledger's work, and it's obvious I was not alone.
Ledger -and in fact, Gyllenhaal as well- impressed me in another way. As is still the case whenever a straight man plays a gay role, members of the press, particularly the gay press, often feel compelled to ask if the decision to take the role was 'scary'. It's not uncommon for there to be a fair amount of thanks given for an actor's willingness to play gay, like he is doing us some kind of favor. Read Ledger's response to a variation on this question in one interview (see above link).
Question: Who was the biggest supporter and biggest detractor in you playing this role in regards to the gay aspects?
Heath Ledger: No one was trying to detract me from it. Everyone was very supportive of it. I understand everyone else or people found it risky. I hate to call it "daring" or "brave"; firefighters are daring and brave. I'm acting. I didn't get hurt and I'm not mentally wounded from this experience.
I love him for this response, and I love what it tells us about the present landscape in Hollywood. I am even more encouraged by comments he makes later in the same interview.
Question: Why did you take the role when others in the past had said no?
Heath Ledger: It was a beautiful story. It was a story that hadn't made it on the screen; which is rare to come upon a script so beautifully well written and hadn't been told before. It was very exciting to tell a new story. Ang lee is attached to it. I don't think I would have done it if it were in anyone else's hands. He was the perfect director for it and that's really [it]. I looked at it as a wonderful opportunity to get in the head of this character. I never saw it as a huge risk that everyone else was seeing. It's all relative to the person you are and how relaxed you are with people and the people around you. I was very happy to tell a story that hadn't been told and I thought it should have been told.
This response reveals to me both a sensitive artist and an astute businessman. He recognized the challenges of the role -playing gay was not one of them- and saw the potential for a rewarding project and improved career. No one can know in advance if a film is going to be a critical or popular success, but part of being a successful actor is learning how to pick projects wisely, to weigh the potential risks and benefits, and to strike a balance between personal challenge and box office success. It seems to me that Ledger recognized the benefits far out-weighed the risks, especially for him.
It's easy to forget now, but before 2005 (when Brokeback came out), Ledger's career appeared to be on a downward spiral. After making a big splash with his Hollywood debut, being identified as a hot up-and-coming actor, Ledger had four commercial and critical flops in a row, and in Hollywood that is often the kiss of death. At this point he was in the papers more often for his high profile romance with Naomi Watts than he was for his work. People were already looking at him as one of those 'where are they now' stories. His response to this career crisis was that of a talented artist (as opposed to determined star); he looked around for projects that would, yes, improve his professional standing, but do so by connecting him with artists he admired (he wouldn't have taken the role without Ang Lee, remember), in challenging, well-written material, and as he says, a story "that hadn't been told before."
Don't misunderstand me. I am not discounting Ledger's achievement in this role. I applaud Ledger for insightful, detailed, captivating work with a character who was as different from him as he could be, but was also a difficult person to portray on film. Lee told him the thing to keep in mind in portraying Ennis was 'stillness'; between the two of them, they did just that, and it worked brilliantly. Ennis' clenched jaw, physical awkwardness, and flattened speech showed us a man at war with his feelings, the demands of his culture, even his own body. Ledger deserves all the praise he received for this work, and more. I simply want to counter-act the idea that he took a huge gamble to play gay, or did so as a favor to us. To his credit, he never made any such claim, in fact he denied such claims when others suggested them. There was a time when playing gay could seriously damage a career even for a straight man, but Ledger, perhaps in part by looking at the list of actors who had done so with great success before him (a partial list, off the top of my head: Tom Hanks, Antonio Banderas, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Kirk, Campbell Scott, Dermot Mulroney, Daniel Futterman, Daniel Day Lewis, Ewan MacGregor, Christian Bale, Jude Law, Matt Damon) realized that risk was now pretty minimal. He saw an incredible opportunity, and he leapt at it.
Then of course, I began to hear the ugliness -John Gibson's reprehensible response, Fred Phelps desire to picket Ledger's funeral- and I thought, maybe I was dismissing the risks of playing gay too quickly. Further examination though leads me to believe I am not. Yes, horrible things are being said in response to his death, making it clear (surprise!) homophobia is alive and well. More than one whack-job is suggesting Ledger's death is God's punishment for his involvement with Brokeback Mountain. Gibson may have been ridiculing him as a 'weirdo' with a 'drug problem', but his exclusive use of Brokeback Mountain quotations tells us what really bothered him.
The fact is though, this stuff came out in the open again only because of Ledger's death. It wasn't stopping him from working while he was still alive. His career was not damaged by Brokeback, in fact it was significantly improved by it. He had gained A-list status in Hollywood and remember, and this was not a status he had ever had before. I honor Ledger for his work on this role, and for the respect he gave to Ennis and the film as a whole, and I honor him even more for his clear-sightedness on how little a gay role threatened his career. Neither he nor Gyllenhaal were the first actors approached for these roles; men with bigger names were approached first, and all of them passed. I hope at least some of those actors are now realizing what an opportunity they missed, and that their fears were unfounded, or at least archaic. And those folks spouting such poison about this man's death and his career choices, I think that's just further evidence that this film struck a nerve. If I had been involved, I would be taking almost as much pride in the viciousness, as I would in all the accolades.
I could easily start writing more about related issues (gay actors being cast in gay roles, gay actors being cast in straight roles, lesbians getting cast at all), but those seem topics for another time. Ultimately I just want to acknowledge that I am greatly saddened by Ledger's death, not only because I find it horrible when anyone fails to make it past thirty, but also because he was clearly a great artist whose best work, I can only assume, was still ahead of him. I am sorry for the grief his loved ones are now experiencing, and I regret the work that we will never see now. Most of all, I am grateful to him for the gift he gave us in Ennis Del Mar, and for making it clear that playing gay was a risk only if he let it be.