Sometimes, our most immediate reactions to a film may come not from what's flickering past us on the screen, but from what we know about the actors' off-screen lives. I still can't see East of Eden or Rebel without a Cause without thinking about the death of James Dean and the fragility of adolescence. I can never see Marilyn Monroe sashay across the screen without hearing, somewhere in my head, her breathy, seductive version of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." It's part of the uniquely dreamlike power of the Hollywood movie experience that the people on the screen can become so much a part of our world of intimate associations—like family.
This past January, Heath Ledger, the young Australian heartthrob who'd just finished portraying the Joker in The Dark Knight, died in bed from an overdose of tranquilizers, pain pills, and sleeping pills. Unless you've been boycotting the ubiquitous sources of celebrity gossip since then, you know that he'd had a child with his Brokeback Mountain costar Michelle Williams, then called off their wedding, only to die alone.
I hadn't been a Heath Ledger fan particularly. In spite of the remarkable intensity of his performance, his range seemed narrow—a James Dean without the omnisexual beauty and charisma. He seemed always to be reaching out for a father or a girlfriend or just about anyone to rescue him. So to better understand the sense of collective mourning that accompanied his sudden death, I recently rewatched several of his movies, including The Patriot, Monster's Ball, and Brokeback Mountain, in all of which he played a soft, sad son of a hard father.
In real life, Ledger's hippie father ran out on the family in Perth when the romantically named Heathcliff and his sister Cathy were small children. Ledger grew tall and lean, his face tense, tortured, and unshakably sad. His voice was deep, sepulchral, and soft. On screen or off, he actually said very little, but the little he said showcased his loneliness and his Dean-like awkwardness and inarticulateness.
Both Monster's Ball and Brokeback Mountain look into the lives of lonely men and their alienation from their fathers. In each of these tragic films, a silent, sad-eyed character is berated by a living or dead father for being "weak." In Monster's Ball, when Ledger first assists his prison-executioner father to fry a murderer, he vomits and collapses. After his father, Billy Bob Thornton, beats him up for embarrassing him, Sonny gets a gun, points it at him, and shakily tells the old man that he's always loved him. When the father responds that he's always hated the son, the boy punishes the father by shooting himself.