Published July 21, 2008
Critics and audiences agree that Ledger brought life to the Joker as no one has before, making a comic book character seem real. That's good news for Warner Brothers, the studio that made the movie.
That is good news for the movie industry, in general. And it is touted as good news for the Ledger family-whose grief might be tempered with understandable pride for an actor whose gifts will likely now be compared with another great artist who died tragically - James Dean.
There is one problem, however, with all of the excitement. Ledger didn't do nearly as good a job in his real-life role as a boyfriend and father, it turns out, as he did as an actor. His death has been ruled an accidental overdose of the anti-anxiety agents Valium and Xanax, the sleep aids Restoril and Unisom, and the painkillers OxyContin and hydrocodone (the active ingredient in Vicodin). This accident took place in the setting of Heath reportedly abusing these drugs-kind of like crashing into a wall while driving 100 miles an hour.
We don't know why. We don't know the demons that inhabited the conscious and unconscious parts of Ledger's mind. But those demons require real courage and character to face and overcome. You can't act your way around them.
Whatever painful dramas roiled Ledger's psyche, he wasn't willing or able to insulate his little daughter Matilda Rose from the grief now written into her life story. And there will be no audiences to applaud her performance in dealing with the loss of a parent, no Academy Award for how well she plays the role of brave girl and young woman, no $155 million in tickets to her wedding without a dad to walk her down the aisle.
In real life, you have to own your own suffering and come to terms with it in order to win the awards really worth winning - real self-possession and self-esteem and the certain knowledge that you have brought the best of yourself to those you love.
The entertainment industry understandably wants to turn Heath Ledger's death into a kind of heroic poetry, a journey through a hall of mirrors in which an actor with demons plays a villain with demons and is lost forever in the maze. But that poetry misses one critical fact: In his role as a father, Heath Ledger walked off stage a long time ago, leaving a little girl to cry tears of grief that not even a Joker's palette of makeup could turn into a smile.
A DVD of her dad's full-screen image, maybe one with a colleague tearfully accepting the Oscar for him, might be something she can hold onto - but it won't be the same. She won't have a dad to hug and to hold.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website at livingthetruth.com