Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Brokeback Got Me Good. (More on Heath Ledger)

I woke up this morning, hoping that I'd feel better but I didn't. Last night was painful in ways that surprised me. Joe wrote a spur of the moment piece I really related to which helped me feel not so alone in how I was reacting. Most people get inordinately attached to a celebrity or four (or 237) in the course of living their lives. It's a media saturated voyeuristic age and we are essentially encouraged from all sides to be interested in the lives of beautiful strangers. And the movies have always served as an enticing proxy, a heightened version of real life; Experience this story. Feel this catharsis. Relate to this performance.

As sad as I am from the news of Heath Ledger's death, I'm reminded of a bitter truth that the performance artists Kiki & Herb use in their stage show
Ladies and Gentlemen, people die. That's all you need to know.
Like a lot of black comedy, it's only funny because it's brutal. It stings. It's an unavoidable that we pretend we can avoid. Famous people die all the time. Excuse the inappropriate tacky media reference but it's like those stupid paparazzi pages of celebrities doing mundane tasks "Celebrities: They're just like us!"

Grief for a stranger --even one you are very fond of --is different than grief for someone we know deeply. But it still hurts. It's like a miniature more fleeting abstraction of the real deal (which hurts immensely and can last for you don't wanna know how long --if you haven't experienced it yet. If you have you'll know how relentless it can be). But I'm straying from the topic of Heath now...

It comes to this: I didn't realize that I was as attached to Heath Ledger as I was. But I understood this morning that it all goes back to Brokeback Mountain . Something about that movie settled deep inside me. I feel protective towards all involved. It must be part of the reason that I keep writing about Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal. It's why I feel all warm inside when I see Ang Lee smile. It's why I perked up so much when Michelle Williams wafted into frame in I'm Not There looking and feeling nothing like Alma Del Mar. It's why.

I had to move right on last night (had a work deadline) and it wasn't easy. I'll have to move on here today (awards season, new movies, etc). We'll all have to. But I expect this sense of loss will linger. He truly was an enormously promising rising star. And for little Matilda, Michelle, Heath's family, Jake Gyllenhaal (and Heath's other friends, with whom we are less familiar)... the hurt for them will be real and in no way miniature or abstract. My heart goes out to them.
To read earlier pieces on Heath or Brokeback Mountain or any topic, remember you can always click on the labels at the end of any post*


Glenn Dunks said...

Very moving piece Nat. It's all very true. I've been a fan since 1999 with Two Hands and 10 Things I Hate About You. I think because I have - in a sense - spent the last ten years or so with him there knowing that he's suddenly not is what's hardest of all. It's still hard to believe that he's no longer around. And also being Australian I feel even more connected to him. I remember him on Home & Away! The pain that his family will be going through is just horrific, and I hope I don't experience it for many a year.

The Australian film industry and the world film industry have lost a true actor's actor, a man who was going to be a legend. Unfortunately he'll become a legend with only a quarter of the performances he could have hoped to have given.

I've read that Jake Gyllenhaal (Matilda's godfather too) and Naomi Watts (his ex girlfriend) took it especially hard and were inconsolable.

Joel said...

I was upset, and now Im angry.
The Westboro Baptist Church want to picket his funeral because of his involvement in Brokeback mountain. I want post the link to the flyer they made because I dont want to promote it, but who the hell do they think they are!

Catherine said...

I keep replaying the scene in I'm Not There where he's in the New York coffee house with Charlotte Gainsbourg in my head. Eugh. I feel so weird and hollow.

Lucas Dantas said...

i spent last night reading, thinking and writing about this whole thing. what it meant to me, why i was so affected. i felt like crying but my ego kicked my stomach as if saying "you never knew him, why should you be sad?" so i couldn't cry, but at the same time all i wanted was cry.

reading yours and joe reid's piece made me finally go through it and understand my feelings about this. it made me even understand better the things i wrote about him last night.

maybe for me, ledger was the first celebrity of my generation that died. i'm sure there were others but most of them were junkies that weren't doing much of meaningful with their current lives. what's shocking about heath's death is that he felt like real! he was someone whom i was about to become: a young man doing something healthy with his life, having a family, a career etc. it's like [and this will sound tacky] a guide star suddenly extinguished in the sky.

as nate said, with time this will go and we'll live mostly with the memory of his great deeds than what he was to do. but for now it hurts... and i guess we just have to let it be.

lawyer tony fernando said...

Brokeback got all of us good, you know? I remember feeling personally hurt in 2006, by that horrible oscar night, and of course the actors became closer to us, cause we all shared a lot of our souls, intimate passions and a mix of feelings that I can´t properly express in english or portuguese or even throught art. It just got me good,like yo said.
I´ve been reading a lot about Heath´s last days and Jake and other friends´p worries about him, but all I think that I really wanna say is that: Heath, God is with you know and I´m so mad at lifa and at U cause you had so much too achieve and it´s like losing Ennis and Jack all over, it´s like realize that I will never meet you, never will read or listen to interview with you.
About that awnful Westboro Church, well he´s dead, don´t you respect other peoples grief? I really think that people that do such thing have a safe place in Hell!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Nat. You have no idea how much that helped… thank you.

VampireFaust said...

Very well written and very sad...Such a tragedy...

E Dot said...

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Deborah said...

I'm feeling exactly the same way. Like I woke up this morning thinking I'd feel better but I didn't. I spent last night reading all the TMZ stuff and looking at pictures of him.

And I didn't know I was attached. He might not have made it onto my list of great young actors if I'd been spur of the moment and not carefully combing through performances.

But Brokeback got me hard. Brokeback ripped through me and haunted me and made me weep, not "like a baby," but like the walking fucking wounded. I don't know that I can name 10 performances in the history of cinema that have broken my heart the way Ledger's Ennis did.

I feel...personally hurt. As if I lost someone. Which is stupid and foolish and childish. But it's what I'm thinking.

Anonymous said...

Great article Nathaniel. I think it's that performance - as well as the promise of his DARK KNIGHT turn - that has us just so devastated. There are so many worthless actors out there ... why did it have to be him???

I posted a pretty revealing youtube video of his appearance on ELLEN in which he talks about his method in creating the Ennis character. What an unbelievable and intelligent talent.

What a tragedy.

adam k. said...

I hate how people are comparing it to the Anna Nicole Smith death and other things like that. It's an entirely different thing when some generic tabloid celebrity dies after years of hard living. This was an up-and-coming actor who'd given performances that touch people's lives, and could've given more. What a shame. I would hate to be Naomi, Jake, or Michelle.

And any group that would protest the funeral of someone like this, a good person who was young and died so unexplectedly, has no business calling itself a church. Hearing about this picketing just made my stomach churn. They'd better not do it.

Julienne said...

i know exactly what you mean! I have just been recovering from Renfro's death and a week later, another one of my favorite actors died. With them, it's like an old friend died, like they've been with you forever. I have been a fan of both since the 90s. Maybe that's why I'm attached. I'm a sucker for talented actors who are not after fame and who are really good-natured little rebels. True artists.

Lucas Dantas said...

there you go adam k! i totally agree.

i have friends here already saying that his death is due to fucked up hollywood life, that he was junkie and depressive; that pills necessarily MEAN he was AT LEAST depressive... and i can't help feeling nauseous and a bit angry with such bullshit.

i'm not saying that heath wasn't depressed, that we don't know; but people can't start taking conclusions just because there are certain evidences that lead to one or that thought.

the more i think about all of this, the more saddened i am for his family and friends, but also for what he represented to me.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how I'll watch "The Dark Knight" now without thinking about what could have been and so saddened and disturbed by Heath's death. Who knows when I can watch "Brokeback" again. Heath was only like three weeks older than I am. I'm heartbroken. :(

Anonymous said...

Did anyone see Jack Nicholson's reaction on TMZ? What an insensitive jerk!

Beau said...

Beautifully put. Text messages and phone calls were happening all day yesterday between my friends and I (and their friends). I don't think an actor's death has had this much effect on my generation so far. I was barely seven or eight when River passed on, so that was before my time. This is no less.

We've all grown with this man, really. Yesterday, I think my dad got some amusement from my brother and I that we were calling everyone over the death of an actor/celebrity. I felt somewhat trivial for doing so, but really, it's not. Whatever arena you may enter in, it doesn't necessarily need to be art, you'll always have those idols and those individuals you heavily admire, and when something like this happens to them, it hurts. It stings and it shocks. Because it feels like it happened to you.

Me? I will always be thankful for 'Brokeback' and that performance. Thankful for his effortless charm in '10 Things'. Thankful for his memorable work in 'The Patriot'. Thankful for his sympathetic version of Dylan in 'I'm Not There'. I'm sure I'll be thankful for his work as 'The Joker' too. That's all a person can do in a time like this, anyone who cared at all about the person even if they didn't know them.

Be thankful for what you remember and what you'll always have. We may no longer have Heath, but we have his work.

And that's more than enough.

Anonymous said...

Fine piece Nathaniel. Makes sense to me.

I'm puzzled by own response to all this. You're so right about the attachment and truly I'm not sure why. Brokeback broke my heart and I have no connection with those characters other than their sheer humanity.

Sometimes there really are performances that allow us to connect as humans beyond any reasonable expectation. Brokeback had those and as humans we all relate and we all attach. Such a sublime achievement and so much more poignant that it already was with Heath's death. I don't remember where else the grief of parting was more nakedly and honestly portrayed. And don't we all know it again now.

I'm so sorry for his family and friends and will be sorrier still for them in the next few days I expect as the media stupidity really gets going.

I'm sorry for all of us attached ones too, but I'm glad we had the opportunity to share the Brokeback transcendance.

Amy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Did you see the online video of Ledgers’ parents making a statement to the press- there are few things more devastating in life than hearing a father’s voice crack while telling the world how much he’ll miss his son.

Seriously, hearing him took a piece out of me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your essay Nate. I don't think I can say anything that hasn't already been said.

I had no idea how much I respected him, how much I looked forward to watching Heath's performances for years to come, until I helped my landlord hook up his DSL last night and saw the news. I was certain, like many others, that it had to be mistake. It could NOT be true - a man who went from being just another pretty face to the best actor of his generation - gone.

I cannot get that last image of him in Brokeback out of my head. I am grateful I finally got around to watching it with my partner just a few months ago, and remember thinking at the time "tell me again why he didn't get an oscar?" (Oh, yeah, PSH in Capote. Which was a fine film, a fine performance - but Ennis Del Mar is a GREAT performance, one that would have become classic even if Heath had lived to a ripe old age. Now it will haunt us forever. There should have been so much more.)


lylee said...

A.O. Scott wrote a lovely tribute to him in today's N.Y. Times - for those who haven't seen it yet:

Um, I hope that link works. If it doesn't, the article is easily accessible from the NYT web site.

lylee said...

And Nat, your tribute was lovely, too.

Anonymous said...

It's sad yet wonderful in a way the confusion people feel towards their own reactions to Heath's death. It's wonderful because it is proof that Heath truly touched people because everybodies response, from his family and collegues to complete strangers is heartfelt and honest. Yet those that never really knew him cant quite put their finger on why they feel the way they do.

For me personally I have been a fan of Heaths since Two Hands. I walked out of that movie and said that young man will win an oscar one day. He went off to Hollywood and continued to shine doing the one teen heartthrob thing (which I loved) but then going on to choose gutsy roles and make minor characters stand out. I said much the same on this blog last year and felt he should have won for Brokeback.

But all the awards in the world really mean nothing. I knew he had plenty more in him. Nominations wins who cares I least we will have more of his work... we thought last year...

Just doesnt seem right.

RIP Heath

Anonymous said...

The photo of Ledger with Gyllenhaal and Hathaway is particularly painful for me. I was in the same room where this photo was taken (after the Venice Brokeback Mountain press conference) and actually standing a few feet from them.

R.I.P. Heath

SusanP said...

Beautifully stated, Nat.

I think you get at the connection we can feel for "beautiful strangers" like Heath Ledger.

I also think, that the tragedy of losing a bright star is magnified by the fact that it is "shared grief." Obviously, we share grief with family and friends when we lose loved ones, but when a celebrity dies--and especially a case like this, where they were so loved, admired and young--fans participate in a kind of massive group hug to console each other.

Thanks for being a part of that, it means a lot.

Glenn Dunks said...

Adam, these people picket the funerals of soldiers returning from Iraq so I have no doubt that they would do it to Heath. I didn't know they had an Australian segment though because he's going to be laid to rest in Perth, not anywhere in America.

I rewatched Brokeback Mountain last night and I think it shows the power of that film and of Ledger's performance that I wasn't overcome with "he's dead!" grief. But in many scenes I did just think to myself "wow, he'll never make anything ever again" and it was sad. So much untapped potential. But, as they say in the movie, we'll always have Brokeback and I like knowing that we're in a world where we do have Brokeback Mountain and Ledger's performance in it than not.

Middento said...

Nat: A beautiful piece. I haven't written anything mainly because I don't know how to say what has already been said. (I found out right before I walked into my film class and, oddly enough, broke it to my grad students who were all rather painfully shocked.) While I don't think this has affected me as much as some others (River Phoenix's death affected me more, perhaps because he was only a little older than me and perhaps because I was only just becoming a full-out film geek when he died), I was also surprised at how I reacted to the news.

Anyway, lovely piece.

Anonymous said...

A genuine, heartfelt piece by Nathaniel. Thank you.

But must we really compare one death to another in an unfavorable manner? Adam, Anna Nicole Smith's death is an enormous loss to her child and to those who loved her. I daresay it is even a loss to those who follow gossip rags. To imply that Heath Ledger's life was worth more than hers- or more than any person's- is really not called for.

While we're all mourning the loss of Heath Ledger, please let's keep our humanity intact and not lose perspective. It's the decent thing to do.

Catherine said...

I have been staying up late and getting up early reading, thinking and writing about all of this. I have no idea why I am so affected by his death. I will start crying about this and then think how stupid I am because I never knew him. I don't understand why I am so sad.

I am trying to make sense of my feelings and I can't. It is the strangest thing because the grief I feel is as if I knew him.

I cannot begin to imagine the pain his family is going through.

bc said...

Boy, its good to hear I'm not the only one going through this. Its been over a week since this happened and I’m still in a fog. It wasn’t until I read these comments/article 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.

Yes, my 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 across 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.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog while searching the Internet about Heath Ledger. It's been over a week since he died and I am still very sad. I really appreciate your post. Reading it and the many comments helps me to know I am not the only one. I was moved by him as an actor, especially his role as Ennis in Brokeback. As a mother of a two year old little girl just one month older than Matilda, I am moved by the love he had for his daughter. I cannot imagine having to part from my daughter. He will be so missed by his family and friends and by all of us who were touched by the roles he played and his efforts to remain humble and appreciative of his successes.

Caroline said...

This was from so long ago, but I stumbled upon it while looking for Gyllenhaal posts (in anticipation of Love & Other Drugs!) and am sorry that I never read this at the time. All these comments reflected my exact feelings at the time - confusion at discovering the depth of my attachment to Heath Ledger, the inexplicable heartbreaking business of it all. At the time I wrote a four-page diary entry in an attempt distill my feelings and make sense of my thoughts, but was not nearly successful or succinct as yours. Thank you.