Thursday, January 24, 2008


You know the old Oscar Wilde saying, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’? The meaning behind it seems to get grimmer and more perverse as we continue to watch train wrecks like Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears careen along in their lives – and into ours. The more voyeuristic our culture gets the less compassionate we become as a society. It takes a death to soften us again, to wake us back up. It takes a death to remind us of the human stuff buried at the core of our entertainment machine.

And yet as soon as I read of Heath Ledger’s death my feelings for his loss went far deeper than usual. The morning here in Sydney was a little overcast when I took in the news, before the clouds broke with sun, covered over again, then broke with light at last in the afternoon. The day seemed to taking on his spirit, as it were, all the while the information kept filtering through online.

Inevitably I started thinking about the deaths of other people ‘just like him’ and how they marked significant days in my life. Moments when a distant event on the cultural map and how you simply feel about someone famous becomes personal and connected: Kurt Cobain and his suicide; Jeff Buckley and his drowning; River Phoenix’s drug overdose; Michael Hutchence’s lonesome, ambiguous farewell in a Double Bay hotel room; the similarly shadowy end of David McComb of The Triffids, whose greatly under-estimated music was recently revived and celebrated in ‘A Secret in the Shape of a Song’ at the Festival of Sydney.

Isn’t that a fine title, ‘A Secret in the Shape of a Song’? Isn’t that what all these people were to us, even if they weren’t musicians – living songs, human poems?

“I have a public life, a private life and a secret life,” the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said. “And of my secret life I have not revealed a word.” I’ve always taken that to mean there is a mysterious and unknowable core in people that cannot be easily known or given away or summed up. Maybe our families or closest friends or lovers glimpse it. Artists more than most suffer nonetheless from an illusion of familiarity, a fake intimacy, particularly in these highly mediated times. The kind of tick-a-box pop psychology that people swallow whole from self affirmation books these days makes this phenomenon even worse – glib summaries accepted as insights on someone’s soul. It’s the bedrock of the modern celebrity interview and I’m sad to say I’ve been sucked into its maw like many other jobbing journalists.

Ledger was known to hate this stuff. I actually interviewed him once on the phone. It was well over a decade ago, when he was making the move from Perth to Sydney, a hot young talent on the go – or so I was so told back then. I didn’t really give a damn. I resented being forced to talk to some guy who was barely more than a teenager, a kid who had done nothing to warrant a conversation for a magazine story other than be good looking and have some hype behind him. As it turned out he was equally embarrassed about doing the interview so prematurely, even apologetic. Sorry you got pressured into this. Let’s have a drink some time. Yeah sure, sure...

He seemed like a nice guy, like someone straining to be real. That’s what I remember anyway.

You look back over someone’s career at times like these, rake over the coals. It’s hard to miss certain qualities: Ledger’s pained smile and interior gaze, as if you can sense him watching the world and turning it over hesitantly in his mind (a quality the camera loved); his ability to suggest an ironic view of his own good looks (the Errol Flynn raised eyebrow and lithe skip he used in more fun or light weight leading roles for A Knight’s Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You), the shadows of hurt and confusion and repression he summoned up in his greatest roles: the gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain and the junkie in Candy.

There was the off-screen stuff too of course. Notably the reticent and sometimes weird or rude behaviour he exhibited with journalists and at public events – peeling an orange obsessively throughout an interview, giggling non-stop while presenting an award – along with a larger feeling that all the attention was like a rock he’d like top crawl out from under. That hunched slouch of his whenever he hit the red carpet. The hurt and anger he felt at not being able to drift around unbothered by paparazzi on the streets of Sydney any more. I’m going back to New York, man, where people will leave me alone. I feel driven out of Sydney…

It’s not clear yet whether Ledger killed himself - or if the more likely conclusion will be ‘death by misadventure’. All that’s known so far is that his relationship with his fiancee Michelle Williams ended last year, that he’d been suffering from pneumonia, taking pills for anxiety, using Ambien tablets to help fall asleep, and talking about his relationship to death and his two year old daughter Matilda in a recent interview: “I feel good about dying now because I feel I’m alive in her. But at the same hand, you don’t want to die because you want to be around for the rest of her life.”

Who really knows what that all adds up to? That he was struggling to keep his head afloat, well yeah, clearly that’s there to be interpreted. That his relationship had ended and it hurt, that he loved his daughter madly, that he worked way too hard on his last role as The Joker in the new Batman film Dark Knight, that he was sleeping badly… It’s all there I guess, somewhere between the lines.

Skimming through news on the internet there are photos of him everywhere. It seems to increase the loneliness surrounding his departure, the sense of waste amid the prevalence of his curiously tired smile. No one should die when they’re 28, it’s too young. No father should leave a young daughter behind to wonder what he was like. But I don’t have any grand theories to paste over his death. Any instant insight or false intimacies to assume. Like I say, the guy brushed past me once in a nice phone conversation a long time ago. I loved his acting in a few fine films. I found his uneasiness with fame interesting, and, I guess, unnecessarily tormented when I saw him being interviewed on TV. Now I’m just sad he has left this world too soon; that his family and friends are in so much pain. That there was so much good work still left to do. Like Michael Hutchence, who Australians have a particularly sad affection for, Heath Ledger might be surprised to wake from his sleep and discover just how well loved he was at home today – and as he sleeps how we have been awoken to that love.

- Mark Mordue
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