Heath Ledger’s arrival in Hollywood gave little indication he would become a transformational actor whose short career would leave such an indelible impression. Tall, blond and surf-buffed, just barely out of boyhood but already a TV star at home, Ledger hitched a ride from Australia on the arm of an alluring older woman and quickly made his big-screen debut at 19 as the bad-boy heartthrob in 1999’s “Ten Things I Hate About You.”
The role was catnip for commodification, a potential trap that in less searching hands could have consigned Ledger to a career as the pot of gold at the end of every rom-com rainbow Hollywood plotted over the next decade.
By the time of his abrupt departure, though, Ledger was something else entirely. His Oscar-winning performance as the Joker in ”The Dark Knight” not only set a new template for villainy (Steve-Bannon-as-the-Joker is the new Dick-Cheney-as-Darth-Vader), but also managed to personify our social disorders in a way that captured the paranoid zeitgeist of 2008.
Similarly iconic was his turn just a few years before as cowboy Ennis Del Mar in “Brokeback Mountain,” through which Ledger offered up an allegory for the minefields of hyper-masculinity at just the right time.
When Ledger died at age 28 on Jan. 22, 2008, from a fatal overdose of prescription pills, the loss was compounded by the sense that a potentially generational figure was just hitting his stride. For family, friends and fans, Ledger exited too soon and without fair warning. Those nearest to him closed ranks in the lurid aftermath of his overdose. A filmic reckoning with his death and the questions of what might have been has been a bit of unfinished business for nearly a decade now.
Whether or not “I Am Heath Ledger,” the documentary that debuted Wednesday on the Spike Network, satisfies your desire for such a reckoning probably depends on who you are and what you’re looking for. Those craving insight into the things that trouble even the most alighted among us may go wanting. On the other hand, his family, friends and the Merry Prankster-ish creative coterie that gravitated toward Ledger — the bulk of the documentary’s sources and subjects — will likely see this film as a fitting eulogy for someone who appears to have been adored by just about everyone who got to know him.
“It’s been quite a cathartic experience in many ways,” says Ledger’s older sister Kate, calling from Perth on the eve of the doc’s debut. “Heath was a soul mate of mine, and we were incredibly close. It has brought a bit of closure for me. I’ll never forget him and I’ll never be the same … but it’s helped me, in a way, to move on.”
Kate Ledger says the family rebuffed requests to do a documentary from filmmakers in the past, including those made by Network Entertainment, which produced “I Am Heath Ledger.” She says they finally agreed when Michelle Williams, Ledger’s former partner and mother of his daughter, gave her blessing, and when Matt Amato, Ledger’s longtime friend and creative partner in their production company, the Masses, got involved with the project.
Network Entertainment is the outfit behind “I Am Bruce Lee,” “I Am Chris Farley,” “I Am Steve McQueen,” “I Am Evel Knievel,” “I Am JFK Jr.,” and now this. Founder Derik Murray, who produced and directed “I Am Heath Ledger,” said he keeps a vision board in his offices with the names of iconic personalities on it and that “Heath was up there.”
Murray eventually met up with Amato in St. Louis, Amato’s hometown, and discovered that Ledger’s friend had an archive of unseen footage. The images dated back to when Lisa Zane returned to Los Angeles from the Australian set of “Roar,” a “Xena: The Warrior Princess” knockoff, with her still-pimply but obviously charismatic costar in tow. Ledger moved into the boho Hancock Park house Zane shared with Amato and the cameras started rolling.
“We started to understand [Ledger] was a filmmaker at heart, and that was the direction we wanted to go,” Murray says. “We were just fascinated by that story.”
The footage, much shot by Ledger or his closest friends with themselves as the subjects, works as a sort of time-capsule reverie of innocence and optimism for a cohort of young artists and musicians and other creative types who revolved around Ledger. The core would attempt to give life to their aspirations with the Masses, the DIY production company started by Amato in 2002 and joined by Ledger as a backer and collaborator. With the Masses, whose story has been told well by The Times’ own Randall Roberts, Ledger found a safe space to develop his off-camera interests in photography, art, music and filmmaking.
“That was the door opener. It’s like Heath is the co-director of this movie,” Murray says. “In many ways, he was leading us down this path.”
I’d just like to see people get a more true understanding of whom Heath was and his true soul. He was so much more than an actor. "
— Kate Ledger
Kate Ledger is happy the world now has a chance to see this side of her brother. “I’d just like to see people get a more true understanding of whom Heath was and his true soul,” she says. “He was so much more than an actor. He was interested in the whole craft, the photography, the cinematography, the music, behind the scenes, the editing, the directing … what interested him was how the whole package came together. He wasn’t interested as much in celebrity as what brings the film together.”
“I Am Heath Ledger” tries its best to make the case that Ledger was a budding auteur, but it’s one of the tragedies of his story that he didn’t get the chance to provide sufficient evidence. Instead, what we see from the photography, music videos and guerrilla shorts made available is pretty much what you would expect of an artist still seeking his voice. Richer, perhaps, would have been taking a franker look at Ledger’s struggle to come to terms with his freakish acting gifts, which some say was the root of much of his unease.
Poet, novelist and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Luke Davies (“The Lion”), believes this is the source of much of the tension in Ledger’s life.
“He was sweet and he was incredibly insecure in the face of his own talents,” says Davies, who got to know Ledger on the set of “Candy,” which Davies and director, Neil Armfield adapted from Davies’ novel. “I think he was bumbling through his bewilderment about his own talents, which seemed like a great mystery to him. He didn’t know where they came from and he didn’t know why he had them and he was incredibly humble about having them. ... Humility was a huge quality of Heath’s that was very endearing.”
The film glosses over the discomfit Ledger struggled with behind closed doors, with a brief mention of the actor’s “demons” — a catchphrase that’s meant to say enough so no more is said but really doesn’t say much at all. Perhaps, though, “I Am Heath Ledger” is wise not to be too explicit in this regard. The precarious molt of one’s mid-20s is always fraught and comes with no guarantees of what waits on the other side. How much more, really, is there to say?
“People think that infancy is so fragile,” says Ben Harper, a friend of Ledger’s who figures prominently in the documentary. “The 20s are as fragile as infancy. Especially for artists.”
Harper met Ledger at Sundance. “We were in a roomful of … mooks, and we were, like, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ ” Harper recalls. “We just bounced and cruised around in the snow.”
The friendship stuck and Ledger ended up filming the video for Harper’s gorgeous “Morning Yearning” single from his 2006 “Both Sides of the Gun.” The video is one of Ledger’s more realized efforts behind the camera.
Harper was deeply touched by his relationship with Ledger, and for him, “I Am Heath Ledger,” he says, “is a great document of a life lived fearlessly.”
Certainly, it does a fine job of persuading the viewer that Ledger was as good a guy as he was gifted. “I think it would be literally impossible to find anyone to say that Heath had a bad bone in his body,” Davies says.
It has brought a bit of closure for me. I’ll never forget him and I’ll never be the same.
— Kate Ledger on the new documentary about her brother Heath Ledger
Skip Engblom, whom Ledger uncannily portrayed in “The Lords of Dogtown,” likened getting to know and trust the actor to going on a surf adventure with a stranger to Baja. When Engblom asked Ledger what he’d do if the car broke down during such a trip, the actor said he’d fix it, of course. Engblom was smitten.
“When you drive someplace like that, you better kind of get along,” Engblom says, “but you also better have confidence that if [something] goes bad, they are not going to bail out on you.”
Engblom, who talked with Ledger every few months, had spoken with him while the actor was in Australia visiting his family over the Christmas holiday before he died. During the conversation, the two made tentative plans to go on a surfing trip to the Channel Islands the following March, when Ledger was scheduled to return to Los Angeles.
“All of a sudden, a couple of weeks later, he was dead. It was a shock. He really was just a great person, and I’m sure you’re gong to hear that from everybody,” Engblom says. “I think he had an ultimate game plan. He liked acting and he was such an artistic person, taking photos, music, but the other stuff didn’t sit well. … When we did press tours, he’d say, ‘You do the talking. I’ll just do a little something now and then and it’ll be fine.’ ”
Harper says participating in the documentary has been therapeutic, that it’s brought with it “a certain amount of talk therapy” just by default.
“Heath’s success was a byproduct of his humanity. If Heath stood in a field in Nebraska and faced East, in six months that field would have been filled with humanity,” Harper says. “They got to the heart of who he was. … Maybe some documentaries should be love letters.”
‘I Am Heath Ledger’
Where: Now streaming on Spike, on demand, and available on iTunes, DVD and Blu-ray on May 23.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes