Saturday, April 4, 2015

Birthday Take: Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight" (2008)

Heath Ledger
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Heath Ledger
Born: April 4, 1979
Died: January 22, 2008 (28 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actor - The Dark Knight (won) as The Joker

The Take

While Heath Ledger only received two Oscar nominations in his career, he became somewhat of an anomaly upon the release of The Dark Knight. Joining a small range of actors to be awarded the statue posthumously, he was a person who embodied his roles with a vengeance and left many to consider him to be one of the best of his generation. Between Brokeback Mountain and the film that he became best known for, he left an impressive body of work with a range that leaves many to wonder what the success that hypothetically would have followed would deliver.

To remove his death from the equation would still make the film into something of a wunderkind. Over the summer of 2008, The Dark Knight was everywhere and it constantly topped the box office while becoming one of the few films to gross over a billion dollars worldwide prior to inflation from 3D and other growing gimmicks. It was also the film that managed to take the superhero films out of the familiar comical fashion that Marvel had been developing for most of the decade. While director Christopher Nolan had been practicing these ideas in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight was the fully realized transition into a phase known as "gritty reboot." Nolan also became a household name, and his work has only gotten more acclaimed.

Still, if one was to simply dissect what makes The Joker an iconic performance, capable of stripping any comparisons to Jack Nicholson and Caesar Romero within minutes of his entryway. He was a new and anarchic villain that didn't follow the rules. He was darkly comic and did something that great performances could do. His presence was felt when he wasn't on screen. He was the delusional next step to a genre of film dedicated to stylized fights and goofy outfits. He had his foot into realism in a way that made The Joker more a victim of mental illness than a bother without a motive.

In fact, Ledger holds the record for being the only actor to win an Oscar for playing a comic book character. While it may have also been a tribute award, it was also a performance that escaped the cracks of familiar prestige actors taking on challenging roles. While actors would continue to play these roles, often overacting, none have been nominated or likely remembered within the same reverent tone. The Dark Knight was somehow a zeitgeist film that lingered largely on a performance that wasn't just a good villain, it was a great performance. He convinced the world that these type of performances could be taken seriously.

There's some unfortunate tie-in to the film with Ledger. While he had completed filming of the project and was working on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus at the time, he had grown to suffer from some psychological problems, causing him to once overdose on medication. It left his career short and unable to reach new heights with the privileges that would have followed. In the process, he joined a small camp of actors who died too young, including James Dean. Some would make it a testament to his performance that it took his life. There could be personal reasons, of which won't be explored here, but it still is one of those notes that turned an actor into a legend.

It was tough to choose a Birthday Take selection for today largely because fellow guest Robert Downey Jr. (who was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 2008 for Tropic Thunder) has also come back from the brink of destruction and turned in a uniquely subversive role in black face. He likely wouldn't have won if Ledger didn't qualify, but it was an interesting time for the Academy in which two summer films overtook two acting nominations. It is a thing that unfortunately doesn't seem likely today. It even seems less likely now that anyone would ever be nominated for a superhero film ever again. That may be Ledger's biggest achievement in the midst of several. If only he was around to do more.

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