Critic at Large: Watching Ledger, other gifted actors after they die is sad

Already you may have begun to hear and read about Heath Ledger and a possible posthumous Oscar for h

Already you may have begun to hear and read about Heath Ledger and a possible posthumous Oscar for his performance as The Joker in “The Dark Knight.”

Ledger does indeed turn in a performance that is as rich as it is eerily disturbing; he is the one reason to see this latest Batman epic, and, yes, right now odds are good that his name will surface when pundits release their Oscar hopes and predictions in the early winter of 2009.

But no matter what happens when a movie star opens the envelope, one distressing fact remains: Heath Ledger is no longer with us. The rest is hype, fodder for us journalists who will look back and reflect on the lives and times of other actors who died before their last movie was released.

We will remind you of James Dean, who died at 23 before the release of “Rebel Without a Cause,” and Jean Harlow, then America’s biggest movie star, who perished from uremic poisoning when she was 26. Her last movie, released after her demise, was “Saratoga.”

Like Ledger, Brandon Lee was 28 when he died on the set of “The Crow,” a film released after his death. It was a quirk of fate, considering that Brandon’s father, the iconic Bruce Lee, died when he was 33, before the release of “Enter the Dragon.”

Talented River Phoenix

I still am sad whenever I see River Phoenix onscreen. More than once, I stayed at a hotel next to the Viper Room, where Phoenix collapsed from a drug overdose. I cannot pass by it without thinking of him and his promise as a truly gifted performer. When he died at 23, one last film was in the can. It was the forgettable “Silent Tongue.”

When I reflect on Phoenix’s films, I think of “Stand by Me,” “Parenthood,” “Sneakers,” “Dogfight,” and above all, “Running on Empty,” an extraordinary film about a family running from the law because the father (Judd Hirsch) bombed a government center during the Vietnam War. The film was Phoenix’s, and for his work in the drama, he was nominated for an Oscar. See it and you too might feel a little sad about what might have been had it not been for one unfortunate night in a club then owned by Johnny Depp.

Sadder yet is that when I recently introduced the movie to college students, Phoenix was an unknown entity. Not forgotten but unknown, 14 years after his death. Even those who saw him as a young Harrison Ford in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” did not make the connection.

Lost promise

This all brings us back to Ledger. Now, as millions of moviegoers flock to see him in “The Dark Knight,” he is in the news. Every newspaper in the world will display his image along with a review. His name resonates, and if a shiny card bearing it is yanked from an Oscar envelope next winter, we might feel chills and perhaps tear up when one of his friends or relatives invokes his memory.

But in a fickle world, his brilliant performances in “The Dark Knight” and “Brokeback Mountain” will fade with his memory. Does it do any good to speak of his promise as a great actor? The reality is that he is gone, and with his demise so, too, is the promise of greatness to which he aspired. That is why each time he appeared in a scene from “The Dark Knight,” I felt a sadness more haunting than the character he portrays.

Categories: Life and Arts

Leave a Reply