When Heath Ledger died, I attempted to temper the hyperbolic eulogizing with a post of my own. To summarize: Heath Ledger was a bad to terrible teen actor who (despite every obit mentioning his insistence on only making good movies) seemed to seek out bad projects like they were his life's goal, and then, once acting in them, did everything to ensure that they remained bad. Finally, a single movie brought out the very best in him, and in Gay Cowboys Eating Pudding (er, I mean, Brokeback Mountain) he delivered the performance of a lifetime: a subtly intense, soulful portrait of a man who lived a life of conflict, deceit, and passion underneath a stoic, all-American exterior.
Bottom Line: Just because Heath Ledger died didn't mean that the obituarists should whitewash a single good performance into a tragic tale of brilliant actor cut down before his potential could be realized.
Luckily for myself, I included this line in that original post, which I called The Dark Knight Proviso: If indeed he is excellent [as the Joker], I will consider amending my evaluation of him from "even a broken clock is right twice a day" to "many truly excellent actors start off crappy and hone their craft."
So, I'll be the last to say it, but I'm saying it now: with the death of Heath Ledger, we lost a truly gifted performer. But it's more than that. We lost a man whose range may have been greater than any other actor who ever lived.
I don't say this lightly. And it's really not fair to trot out the many, many roles of range-meisters like Paul Newman, Gary Oldman, John Turturro, and Tony Shalhoub to show that they can perform across multiple dimensions. But with Brokeback Mountain's Ennis and The Dark Knight's Joker, Ledger has given us two performances that are both among the best I have ever seen and as different from one another as possible.
As I said before, Ledger's Ennis is a repressed modern day cowboy. Every one of his desires is tamped down, restricted, shunted out of the way. His accent and mannerisms fit perfectly with his workman's clothes; Ennis is, by all appearances, just another sheep herder. But in Ledger's eyes, and in a few other, rare gestures, we can see beyond the surface into wells of passion and pain. Unlike the flashier Gyllenhaal character, Ennis is just an ordinary guy trying to keep a forbidden passion inside. And Ledger accomplishes the near impossible feat of letting us see that passion, in every single scene, without ever looking or sounding like anything other than the heterosexual man's man he seems to be.
Ledger's Joker, by contrast, gives us an equally inexplicable performance: a man who hasn't ever repressed a desire in his life. If Batman is like Ennis, a good man trying to hold down some dark desires, the Joker is his Id-tacular opposite, pure hatred and lust and passion let loose on an entire city. He minces, he slurs, he taunts, and he slices people open. He lets every desire take him wherever it wishes; he lives to follow every psychotic whim. Indeed, without spoiling anything, the Joker's ultimate goal seems to be unleashing Gotham's Id upon itself; everyone, from Batman to the ordinary people to the mob itself, is too tamped down for him, too covered in the veneer of civility which indicates repression. As the Joker, Ledger is King ID, smearing the dark side of human nature over all of Gotham City, reveling in it, and asking us to take part in it ourselves.
Ultimately, the Joker and Ennis do have a few things in common - only two, by my count. First, they both have deep, dark desires. And second, they both represent extreme ways to deal with those desires.
So, here's my final gloss on Heath Ledger: He wasn't an actor who could do anything. And with a character bound by mediocrity, or even normalcy, he seems to have unfailingly responded with a mediocre performance. But with Ennis and Joker, he's taken two of the furthest extremes of human nature and worn them so well that the actor disappeared and the character will probably live for all time. The tragedy is not that we lost an actor with a spotty resume and a few great performances. The tragedy is that we lost all the potential characters he could have brought to life, characters who would have represented, in one extreme or another, a new branch of the human experience. We'll never get to see the places he could have taken us; we'll just have to be content with exploring the ground he opened up in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight. That will never be enough. But it's all we have.