There is no point telling fans of the late Heath Ledger to relax. Six months after the actor's death in New York from a prescription drugs overdose, they are just days away from finally watching him as the villainous Joker in the latest Batman movie. And they know it will be wrenching. Their best hope must be this: that Ledger will be so seducing in his devilry they will quickly forget it is him and that he is gone.
The early word on Ledger – indeed on the film itself as delivered by British director Christopher Nolan – is good. Actually, beyond good might be more accurate. This, just the latest celluloid instalment in the Batman superhero franchise, is a "thunderbolt", says Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers, that will "rip into the blanket of bland we call summer movies". And Ledger, who was just 28 when he died in a SoHo apartment in late January, barely at the threshold of his career, is "mad-crazy-blazing brilliant".
That is a relief, although there was barely a soul in Hollywood who had been expecting anything less. Word was out even before he died, of the intensity of his performance as the mayhem-peddling Joker, nemesis of the caped crusader.
On this, his penultimate film, Ledger may have turned in the best work of his life, better even, perhaps, than his portrayal of a brooding, gay cowboy in the 2005 epic, Brokeback Mountain. If the final build-up to the film's release – this Friday in the US and on 25 July in Britain – seems at times to be all about Ledger, few people will complain. The studio, Warner Brothers, is playing right into it. Does it have a choice? For a few moments back in January, it seemed that the death of one of the film's biggest stars might cripple it. Instead, the tragedy is giving it extra octane as it looms as possibly the biggest box-office hit of the summer.
Thus, the red carpet at Monday night's world premiere in Manhattan was black. The film, The Dark Knight is, well, dark. But the charcoal pile was for Ledger. So as premieres go, it was surely different. The stars were not Armani-giggly and when they spoke to reporters it was about Ledger before themselves. It helps that everyone seems to be in agreement about what Ledger achieves in this film – his co-stars, the critics and his family. As he left the cinema on Monday night, the actor's father, Kim, who had flown in from Australia, flashed a thumbs-up at reporters.
Maybe the reaction of his family to his last complete acting effort would have meant more to Ledger than anything else that will be said of him in the coming days and weeks. "The Dark Knight is everything we hoped it would be and more," they said in a statement after the New York screening. "Heath loved the experience of creating this character and working on the film. We are so proud of our boy."
Less certain is what he would have made of the absence from the screening of his one-time partner, Michelle Williams, and mother of his daughter, Matilda. The pair met on the set of Brokeback Mountain and became darlings of the Hollywood gossip crowd after they moved in together on a leafy corner not of Beverly Hills or Malibu, but Brooklyn, to raise their little girl. But they had broken up just a few months before Ledger died – alone, naked on the floor in a rented apartment over a shop. The will he left behind seemingly was drawn up before Matilda's birth; all of his estate was left to his Australian kin.
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But any probate battles are for another time. The focus now is Ledger, the abyss of the soul that he takes us into as the Joker and a certain golden statuette. Call it hype spinning out of control if you like but suddenly the buzz on the Hollywood circuit is about Ledger and the Oscar he will win. He was nominated for best actor for Brokeback Mountain but, in the end, in spite of a devastating performance opposite Jake Gyllenhaal as the other sexually-conflicted cowboy, was passed over on the big night.
That Ledger will be nominated again for The Dark Knight in the supporting actor category – oh yes, don't forget the film's main star, as Batman, Christian Bale – seems to be beyond question already. Winning is another thing, however. Only one actor, Peter Finch, has received an Oscar posthumously, for his performance in the film Network. James Dean received two nominations after his death but never got the gong. Oliver Reed is another to get the nod but not the prize after death for his part in Gladiator.
Ledger is mesmerising in white-face pancake and scarlet-clown lipstick as he reinvents the part of the Joker that once belonged to Jack Nicholson (his version was less scouring but lots more fun). But would the Academy normally take a character role in a summer superhero blockbuster so seriously? "It's bullshit," one industry insider said yesterday, asking to remain anonymous. "He is good but not that good."
Don't argue the point with any of his co-stars from The Dark Knight, however. "I will be surprised if he doesn't get the Oscar," Michael Caine, who plays Batman's butler Alfred Pennyworth, said in New York on Monday. "He's got my vote anyway." Caine added that this Joker as created by Ledger is surely "one that will become a classic portrayal of the ages".
Gary Oldman, who plays Gotham City police lieutenant Jim Gordon, concurred. "I haven't seen a villain like this or a bad guy like this since Dennis Hopper played Frank Booth in Blue Velvet – this outscares Hannibal Lecter."
Batting for Ledger too is Batman himself. Happily, Bale is an actor for whom off-screen publicity, even glory, is more bane than boon. So there is no jealousy if Ledger-mania seems to be hijacking his newest film. Instead, the Welsh-born Bale is on the interview circuit knocking down the canard of trying to tie Ledger's death to the stresses of exploring evil and anarchy. It may have been an all-engrossing experience as an actor, but he remained just that – an actor. He still left the set as Ledger.
"I find it to be a complete lack of understanding of acting," Bale said on NBC's Today Show. "I also found it very rude to try to create some kind of a sound bite for such a tragedy. The man was a complex man, he's a good man. I saw him as having nothing but the best time playing the Joker." He went on: "He was somebody who immersed himself completely in his role – absolutely, as do I. But at the end of the day, he was having a wonderful time making this movie."
Oldman also warns fans off trying to find an explanation for Ledger's death in the film. "People want a dark story. You know, 'He was so obsessed with character', 'He was contaminated by the Joker', 'He couldn't sleep', that sort of thing. But, in between takes, he would sit on the kerbside, smoke a cigarette and have a laugh and talk about his daughter Matilda. I thought he was just a beautiful kid."
So if you loved Heath Ledger, do him a favour when you see him in The Black Knight. Mourn him for the first few minutes but then give in to his work and let him be the Joker. It will be less painful that way.
What the critics say
'With all due respect to the enjoyable camp buffoonery of past Jokers, Ledger makes them look like – well, clowns'
'The director wants viewers to stick their hands down the rat hole of evil and see if they get bitten'
'Heads up: a thunderbolt is about to rip into the blanket of bland we call summer movies'