Heath Ledger is just one of those names that the world can’t forget. He was a talented actor who left behind a powerful legacy. He cultivated his craft over the course of his career and his dedication was inspirational and everlasting. Today, the film world still grieves the Australian actor and his unmatched talent. Despite the relatively short length of his career, Ledger embodied each role he played.
Though many of his endeavors began as smaller projects, his immense presence and influence on each film contributed to the legacy he created. Ledger was in 19 films, and to this day, his films are still widely appreciated and the roles he played continue to be admired. Here are seven movies, in reverse chronological order, that demonstrate Ledger’s undeniable talent and personality.
1. “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (2009)
This film was released after Ledger’s passing and typifies the creative sensibilities of the projects he took on. He was known for his dedication to each role (like not acting for an entire year to avoid typecasting), and his portrayal of Tony was no different. After his passing, Tony was rewritten as a shapeshifting character played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. His last film — one of an imaginary, colorful world — was the most fitting to honor his memory. The film has left viewers with an everlasting impression that will continue for years to come.
2. “The Dark Knight” (2008)
The Joker became an absolutely thrilling character when Ledger took on the role. There would have been no “Dark Knight” without his attachment to the film. Ledger posthumously won an Oscar because of his incredible interpretation of the character. From improvised scenes to his nuanced approach to the famous comic book character, Ledger added layers to the Joker, making him more than just a villainous, gangster clown. This was a role that required extensive preparation on the actor’s part, including a “Joker diary” among his unique method acting techniques. Though many die-hard DC Comics fans initially doubted his casting, Ledger’s dedication and his execution of one of the best roles of his career won them over.
3. “Candy” (2006)
The characterization of Dan, a heroin addict willing to do anything for another quick fix, is exactly what Ledger embodied in this soul-crushing film adaption. Ledger and his costar, Abbie Cornish, carry the entire film as two addicts in love who spiral downward due to their reliance on drugs. In a 2006 red carpet interview, Ledger commented: “I like the fact that the film doesn’t glorify heroin.” He realistically portrayed the gruesome toll that drugs take on lives. To immerse himself in the role, he spent time with a gentleman who’d been an addict for 25 years. By understanding an actual person who led this type of life, Ledger was able to master the intricacies of the character.
4. “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
This project, adapted from a 1995 short story, quickly transformed into a controversial, neo-Western romantic film. Ledger’s contribution to this film is one that is still famous today for many reasons. At the time of the movie’s release, two gay cowboys in love with each other was as taboo as it could get. Once again, Ledger’s role as Ennis Del Mar was performed very well. It is a bittersweet love story in which he plays opposite Jake Gyllenhaal (who plays his lover, Jack Twist) and is still famous for its uniqueness and for being ahead of its time. Ledger’s passion — which led him to almost break Gyllenhaal’s nose while filming a scene — is palpable onscreen. The movie would win 141 awards and earn 133 nominations.
5. “Monster’s Ball” (2001)
Although the character of Sonny is not a role that is widely talked about, Ledger’s involvement with such a moving film speaks to the projects he sought out. His character is the son of a racist prison guard, Hank, whose growing capacity for compassion contributes to the narrative that individuals are capable of change. Their dysfunctional father-son dynamic leads up to a fight scene that deeply involves Ledger. In fact, the fight scene was authentic; the late actor requested that his costar actually hit him. Though Ledger plays a short-lived character in the film (spoiler: Sonny dies by suicide), his immense enthusiasm for any role was obvious in his dedication to his part.
6. “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999)
Ledger just about mastered every film genre by the end of his life, and this rom-com is one of the finest. Famously known as his Hollywood debut, this Shakespearean-inspired plot (“The Taming of the Shrew“) made for a memorable, light-hearted blockbuster. His role as Patrick Verona, a high school student who sweeps Kat Stratford off her feet, is both charming and inviting. Though Ledger was initially skeptical about accepting the role, he felt the story had a surprising amount of depth after reading the script. Still widely loved by romance fans today, this iconic film and Ledger’s edgy role are unforgettable. Today, this is a comfort film for many and Letterboxd users rank it 4 out of 5 stars.
Honorable Mention: “I Am Heath Ledger” (2017)
This documentary, which was produced after Ledger’s passing, not only reflected on his acting career but also on who he was as a human being. The archived footage, captured by Ledger himself, gives an intimate look into his life. His passion for photography and cameras was apparent through the featured clips and shots. Ledger’s charismatic nature and ability to embody any role were deeply understood by the people who knew or worked with him. His unique acting methods and creative expression set him apart and summed up who he was. Ang Lee, Ledger’s director on “Brokeback Mountain,” said, “Even as a supporting actor, he would steal the whole show. That was the power of Heath Ledger.”
The phrase “gone too soon” applies perfectly to Heath Ledger. His legacy continues to live on through his films and the unique forms of creative expression that he poured into each one of his characters. Even 14 years later, his films continue to be treasured and his presence continues to be missed.