Separating Heath Ledger's Rich Legacy From His Dark Fate

The actor died of an accidental overdose in 2008, leaving behind a prolific body of work but also so many laments about what could've been

By Natalie Finn Apr 04, 2020 4:00 PMTags
Watch: "10 Things I Hate About You" With Heath Ledger: E! News Rewind

More than a decade later, Heath Ledger's death still brings up the same futile thoughts about what might've been. 

About what sort of father he would have been, about whether he and Michelle Williams might have one day patched things up and, always and predominantly, about what sort of work he would've done.

Joaquin Phoenix, on the same awards season tear that Ledger should've been on in 2009 also for playing the Joker, paid tribute to his late friend and "favorite actor" while accepting his SAG Award in January.  

Ledger, who would've been 41 today, was only 28 when he died 12 years ago. On Jan. 22, 2018, his housekeeper and a masseuse who came to his SoHo loft for an afternoon appointment checked the bedroom when he failed to emerge and found him lifeless in his bed.

Cue the conspiracy theories.

Heath Ledger: A Life in Pictures
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Before calling 911, the masseuse called Mary-Kate Olsen, seeing her name on the actor's speed dial, and told her they couldn't wake Ledger up. Olsen was in L.A. but she alerted her security in New  York. The masseuse then called Olsen again to let her know she was calling 911. It was erroneously reported that Olsen owned the loft where Ledger was staying, but she did not, nor did her sister Ashley Olsen. The cause of death ended up being a toxic cocktail of prescription medications, including oxycodone and alprazolam (the anti-anxiety drug Xanax).

Ultimately the delay in calling 911 didn't matter, because authorities concluded Ledger was already dead when he was found. 

Even more bizarre, however, was the prevalent rumor that he had practically driven himself crazy playing the Joker in The Dark Knight, losing his way in a dark place that he never emerged from.

Though his performance truly was a singular achievement, earning him a posthumous sweep of awards season the following year, Ledger obviously had other issues that ultimately led to him taking too many substances and slipping away.

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"He had an amazing sense of humor and certainly playing the Joker, for him it was one big gag. He had so much fun doing that. It was actually the exact opposite," sister Kate Ledger said in the 2017 documentary I Am Heath Ledger, perhaps hoping to dispel the rumor of the Joker connection once and for all. "There was no doom and gloom...That was a shock to me that people even thought that, really."

"The last conversation Kate had with him was this discussion about his medications and she warned him, 'You can't mix drugs that you don't know anything about,'" Ledger's father, Kim, told in 2016. "He said 'Katie, Katie, I'll be fine.' Well, that's a cavalier boy's answer. It just put his whole system to sleep I guess."

"Mixed a couple of drugs together with sleeping tablets and he's gone forever," Kim said. "That's something we just have to deal with."

For the past decade, his family, closest friends and co-stars have done a tremendous job honoring his legacy, all determined to make the work that the Australian soap opera actor turned teen rom-com heartthrob turned adventurous, prolific artist left behind take center stage. No one who loved him—which may be everyone who ever knew him—wants to see him defined by his demise, but rather by the life he lived and the extension of himself, daughter Matilda Ledger, that remains.

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Still, part of what made Ledger such a passionate, curious actor, capable of reaching extraordinary emotional depths in his work, is inextricably linked to the sensitivity that left him vulnerable to addiction and shutting himself off from others, many of whom tried to help him.

About a week after his death, Us Weekly reported that his partner Michelle Williams had wanted him to go to rehab in 2006, when Matilda was 5 months old. The couple had fallen in love making Brokeback Mountain in 2004 and they looked and sounded head over heels for each other at every film festival and red carpet event they attended in support of the Ang Lee-directed epic. In April 2005, out popped the news that she was pregnant.

"I thought he was great," Williams said in 2005, talking to E! News but looking at Heath and positively glowing. "I though she was great," he countered. 

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But apparently just weeks after the Oscars in 2006, where they both were nominated and looked as happy as ever, Williams drove Ledger to the celeb-friendly treatment facility Promises in Malibu. He refused to go in, instead promising her that he'd clean up.

They made it work for awhile, living together in Brooklyn, away from the Hollywood and Manhattan madness, but they split up in September 2007.

When Ledger died, Williams was devastated. She needed a break from the film she was shooting at the time, Blue Valentine (ironically about a passionate relationship gone miserably wrong), and her co-star Ryan Gosling wore a black ribbon days later to the 2008 Screen Actors Guild Awards, as did his sister Mandi Gosling

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"Mandi made them for Heath," Gosling explained to E!'s Giuliana Rancic on the red carpet. "We had to mark, somehow, that something really significant has happened," Mandi added. "It's such a loss, a terrible loss."

"And they should leave all the people in his life alone, too, you know," Gosling said. "It's a hard enough time for them as it is, I can't even imagine what they're going through. I admired him a lot." (When Blue Valentine was eventually finished, Williams earned her second Oscar nomination in 2011.)

Daniel Day-Lewis dedicated the SAG Award he won that night for There Will Be Blood to Heath. "It's always been the work of other actors...who've given me that sense of regeneration. Heath Ledger gave it to me. In Monster's Ball, that character that he created seemed to be almost like an unformed being, retreating from themselves, retreating from his father, retreating from his life, even retreating from us and yet we wanted to follow him, and yet we're scared to follow him almost. It was unique. And of course in Brokeback Mountain he was unique. He was perfect. That scene in the trailer at the end of the film is as moving as anything I think I've ever seen, and I'd like to dedicate this to Heath Ledger."

Focus Features

The ensuing year would bring a series of tributes and remembrances of Ledger, with the underlying thread being that he was a uniquely talented, generous actor; a sensitive soul; and an all-around amazing person to know. There was still a relentless slew of headlines about drugs and his downfall, but Hollywood was awash in mourning for a truly respected peer—one whose youth, looks and dating history happened to have made him a tabloid magnet, despite his lack of interest in the fame game once he had acquired the fame he set out to achieve as an actor.

He was called "one of a handful of the most daring and watchable actors on the planet." Honoring Ledger at the 2008 Australian Film Awards, actor Michael Caton said it was "a tribute we all wish would've come in the distant future, with the man himself in the audience, basking in the glory. Except he wouldn't, of course. He'd be embarrassed."

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Kate and Kim Ledger were thrust into an unwanted spotlight when Heath died, but both spoke openly and elegantly about their beloved brother and son. 

On the one-year anniversary of his death, in 2009, Kate spoke at a memorial, saying, "To us, his family, it seems like merely yesterday and we are all still nursing broken hearts. Like anyone who loses a family member, it has opened our eyes to the intense suffering and painful journey that is death."

Ash Knotek/Snappers/ZUMA

Ledger's family was in attendance when he won the Oscar a few weeks later.

Calling it "every so humbling," Kim Ledger thanked the Academy, the studio and director Christopher Nolan "for allowing Heath the creative license to develop and explore this crazy Joker character." 

"This award tonight would've humbly validated Heath's quiet determination to be truly accepted by you all here, his peers, within an industry he so loved," Kim concluded. Heath's mother, Sally Bell, called her son "a compassionate and generous soul who added so much excitement and inspiration to our lives. We have been truly overwhelmed by the honor and respect being bestowed upon him with this award." 

"Heath," Kate Ledger added, "we both knew what you had created in the Joker was extraordinarily special and had even talked about being here on this very day. We really wish you were but we proudly accept this award on behalf of your beautiful Matilda."

Nolan had previously accepted the Golden Globe for Ledger earlier in the year, and co-star Gary Oldman accepted Heath's SAG Award.

"After Heath passed on," Nolan said, "you saw a whole rift in the future of cinema, but with the extraordinary response to his work that we've seen all over the world, I for one started to be able to look a bit less at that gap in the future and a little bit more at the incredible place in the history of cinema that he built for himself with his talent and his dedication to his artistry...He will be eternally missed, but he will never be forgotten."

Touchstone Pictures

Indeed, Ledger's movies, from 10 Things I Hate About You to A Knight's Tale to Monster's Ball to The Dark Knight, remain in heavy rotation—and Brokeback Mountain remains a seminal piece of filmmaking, eminently watchable and still heartbreaking.

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In an appearance at the MTV Movie Awards in 2012, Christian Bale got choked up seeing Ledger in a clip montage before introducing a preview of The Dark Knight Rises. "Man, great to remember Heath in that one," he said, rubbing his forehead to compose himself. "Wonderful to see Heath Ledger there." 

And the Heath Ledger onion is still being peeled, with I Am Heath Ledger a particularly intimate look at the man behind the characters, including the character of celebrity that tends to be thrust upon a person once they're in the public eye.

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Talking to E! News about Brokeback in 2005, he said, "Unlike my character, I'm a huge fan of love. I'm in love with love, I'm investigated love, I'm very expressive, and so I know how to feel love, whether it's love that's trapped and unable to be expressed, I have a thorough understanding of it." Asked about Michelle Williams, he called her a "phenomenal actress."

"It's so boring to say she's at a turning point," Ledger said. "I think she's always been turning a corner and I think she'll continue to turn corners, and she's incredibly talented and beautiful and her performance in this movie is incredibly controlled and deep, and full of emotion. I'm incredibly proud of her."

Focus Features

"Well, that was happy," Williams told ABC News in 2010, recalling the Brokeback Mountain shoot. "That was happy at work." She acknowledged falling in love with Ledger on set. "Maybe that's the secret."

Asked if she understood why people remained so curious about how she was doing, Williams said softly, "Do I understand? Sure." She looked up, her eyes gleaming with emotion. "Yeah, I do. I relate to it."

After Ledger died, Williams read The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's 2005 memoir about the experience of suddenly losing her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, to a heart attack and the grieving that followed.

"In a strange way, I miss that year," Williams mused. "Because all those possibilities that existed then are gone. It didn't seem unlikely to me that he could walk through a door or could appear from behind a bush. It was a year of very magical thinking and in some ways I'm sad to be moving further and further away from it."

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Regarding the notion that life can change in an instant, "I got kind of obsessed with that for awhile, before and after. I mean, a lot of things died. There's a line from a book that gave me so much comfort and it said, 'when you've truly lost everything, then at least you can become rich in loss.'"

Any sort of rationale, however, proved elusive.

"I've found meanings around the circumstance but the actual event itself, still doesn't...I can't find it," Williams concluded. "I can't find a meaning for it. I can find meanings in things and people and relationships that have sprung up and friendships that have strengthened, I can find a lot of meaning in that. But not in why."

And nothing about that changed, for her or for anyone else who knew Heath well. Williams told Porter magazine in 2016 that she was pretty adept at accepting things as they are, except when it comes to losing Ledger. "It just won't ever be right," she said, about raising her daughter without Matilda's father.

Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Her utmost concern being maintaining Matilda's privacy and revolving her life around her daughter's for the time being, Williams did not participate in I Am Heath Ledger.

But a number of family members and friends did, resurrecting the best of Heath to paint a fuller picture of the man they knew, who one shocking day in 2008 unfathomably just wasn't there anymore.

"Heath was the most alive human," musician Ben Harper remembered his friend. "And if it wasn't on the edge, it didn't interest him."

Ledger's death was of course a life-changing instant for those who loved him, as well as a troubling, tragic turn of events that sent minds racing to the gutter and thoughts spiraling to the dark side. But in the end, that deserves to be a footnote. It's Heath Ledger's life that remains something to be remembered.

(Originally published Jan. 22, 2018, at 5:30 a.m. PT)

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