Published February 20, 2009
NEW YORK – It was a decade ago, and director Gil Junger was seeking fresh talent for his upcoming movie, "10 Things I Hate About You." He'd already seen 250 or 300 kids. In walked a young Australian TV actor looking for work.
After a quick line reading and a bit of improv, "I was stunned," Junger says now. Certain he was looking at someone with enough raw magnetism to be a movie star, he turned to his casting people. "Hire him immediately," he recalls saying of Heath Ledger.
Ten years after that teen flick launched his brief but hugely promising film career, Ledger is an overwhelming favorite to become, on Sunday, only the second actor to win a posthumous Oscar. If he does, the words "Oscar-winning actor" will doubtless precede each mention of his name forever.
But beyond that, what will his legacy be?
Will he be remembered by future generations simply as the talented, versatile young actor he was? Or will his sex appeal endure, lumping him with cinematic heartthrobs of the past? Will he be remembered for one role, his leering Joker in "The Dark Knight"? Or will his premature death be the defining memory, making him this generation's version of '50s cult icon James Dean?
It's easy to see why the Dean comparison has been so tempting. Both actors died in their 20s -- Dean in a car crash at age 24, Ledger of an accidental prescription-drug overdose at 28. Like Ledger, Dean was known for a provocative kind of charisma, embodied in the famous photos of his misunderstood teenager in "Rebel Without a Cause."
Both were recognized with two Oscar nominations -- Dean's were both posthumous, for "East of Eden" and "Giant." And both will remain forever young, with no inkling of how they would have aged or how their careers would have fared.
But in many ways, the two weren't alike at all.
"Dean was a whole different animal," says film historian Leonard Maltin. "He became a cultural icon because of the rebel role he embodied, and even the sort of glamorously grisly way that he died. I'd wager that many young people who have posters of him on their walls haven't even seen his movies."
Ledger, on the other hand, had no singular screen persona -- it was in large part his versatility that set him apart. Imagine another young actor playing Ennis Del Mar, the taciturn, confused cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain," or the menacing Joker of "The Dark Knight," with the heartthrobs of "A Knight's Tale" and "10 Things I Hate About You" thrown in.
"There wasn't a Heath Ledger personality," says Maltin. "Ledger was a serious actor who will be remembered because he gave several indelible performances. He inhabited each role."
Maltin hopes Ledger will also be remembered for the creative risks he took -- for example, taking a small role as a prison guard in 2001's "Monster's Ball," a choice that showed his reluctance to be typecast. "That sent a signal that this was a serious young actor, not a pretty boy looking to score points," Maltin says.
For some fans, it will always be Ledger's Oscar-nominated performance as the tortured ranch hand in Ang Lee's 2005 "Brokeback Mountain" that remains his defining performance, his diabolical Joker notwithstanding. Screenwriting professor Richard Walter hopes that role will be a central part of his legacy.
"He might indeed be a kind of James Dean figure, but I think he was a far, far superior actor to Dean," says Walter, who runs the screenwriting program at UCLA's film school. "Dean's whole persona was kind of a cartoon character." He predicts Ledger will remain a major name in cinema -- "maybe not for as long as 20 to 30 years, but for a long while."
Ledger has now won a slew of awards for "The Dark Knight," including the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award, and it would be a surprise if he didn't capture the supporting actor Oscar. The award would be a fitting yet bittersweet bookend to his career.
"Winning an Oscar would go a long way toward solidifying the actor's legacy," says Todd Boyd, professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.
But will that legacy be one of an enduring cultural icon like Dean? "I think any time you have a celebrity who dies young while seemingly on the way up the ladder of success, comparisons to James Dean are inevitable," says Boyd. But Dean remains alive in our minds, he adds, because generations born after his death found his rebel image relevant to their own era.
"If future generations discover Ledger and find ways to make his image applicable to their times, then people may one day be asking whether a future celebrity who dies prematurely while on the way up is akin to Heath Ledger," Boyd says.
Ledger's family is celebrating his legacy in its own way. A dozen family members were in Hollywood this week, attending a party thrown by Australians in Film to honor the first recipient of the group's Heath Ledger scholarship, a 29-year-old Australian actor named Oliver Ackland.
It wasn't known who would accept the Oscar on Ledger's behalf should he win, but the Academy has said the statuette will be given to his daughter, Matilda.
For the many still aching to see more of Ledger, he has one movie yet to be released. He died in the midst of production on "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," and director Terry Gilliam has salvaged the unfinished performance by enlisting three other big-name actors -- Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell -- to complete the part.
After that, Ledger's fans will be left to wonder what else this hugely talented actor might have had up his sleeve.
"The worst thing is we don't know what he would have done," notes Walter, the screenwriting professor. He points out that a similarly magnetic presence in his youth, Marlon Brando, is now remembered for a whole range of performances -- the good, the bad, and the bizarre.
Junger, the director, now working on a TV version of "10 Things I Hate About You" for ABC, finds the comparisons to other actors, like Dean, of little value.
"I just think he was an extraordinary young talent whose life was snuffed out way too early," the director says.
"He would have had a shockingly good career."