Heath Ledger: An Appreciation

PEOPLE's movie critic reflects on a memorable career cut tragically short

Photo: Focus Features

Following his untimely death yesterday at age 28, Heath Ledger is likely to be best remembered for his role as a taciturn gay cowboy in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. It was a performance so spare that when Ledger did allow his repressed character to express emotion, it reverberated like a seismic wave.

The role earned the Australian-born Ledger his first, and only, Oscar nomination for Best Actor. But he gave plenty of other memorable performances over the course of his short-lived career.

Though Ledger could have easily coasted on his good looks and strapping physique, it was clear early on that he had no intention of being typecast. After setting the hearts of teen girls aflutter in his first Hollywood film, 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You – a clever adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – he assiduously alternated between playing conventional romantic heroes in big studio films (including 2000’s The Patriot, 2001’s A Knight’s Tale and 2002’s The Four Feathers) and taking on grittier supporting roles in smaller pictures (2001’s Monster’s Ball and 2005’s The Lords of Dogtown).

In addition to Brokeback (costarring Jake Gyllenhaal), Ledger’s reputation is likely to rest on his accomplished turns in 2005’s Casanova and 2006’s Candy. Playing the legendary Italian lover in the enjoyable Casanova, he made like Errol Flynn, all dashing physicality and sexy charm. In Candy, a dark Australian drama, there was a burning intensity to his harrowing turn as a fledgling poet-turned-heroin addict. In retrospect, you have to wonder how close the role came to capturing Ledger’s own personal struggles with his demons.

But it is the actor’s haunting performance in Brokeback that takes on the greatest added poignancy following his death. For it was in the final scenes of that movie that Ledger portrayed someone he now will never get a chance to become in real life: A middle-aged man with a grown daughter.

Rest in peace.

Heath Ledger: Life in Photos: See all the actor’s most recent photos – from life as a dad to being an Oscar nominee

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