Heath Ledger, His Joker Diary, and the Shape of a Career

Heath Ledger: Too Young to Die is a German documentary that contemplates the life and death of the young actor. A diary he used to plan out and embody the Joker in The Dark Knight is briefly featured. Ledger would go on to win Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, but the Oscar victory was posthumous. Ledger died on January 22, 2008. It was later concluded his passing was the result of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.

Ledger was well known for immersing himself in his leads and it’s interesting to examine what is in the diary. Cutouts of Batman comics, pictures of hyenas, and several references to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange tell us something of Ledger’s influences when he shaped the Joker. Though what it reveals is brief, the diary also belies the story of Ledger’s life and career in a bigger way.

Ledger’s Oscar was awarded for a fine performance, but the Oscars are also a tallying board of who’s owed and who still has time to be awarded later. This is how Peter O’Toole ended up never winning an Oscar (aside from a non-competitive honorary recognition).

Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight was not just awarded for what he did, but for a statuette that escaped him in Brokeback Mountain, a film that itself lost Best Picture to what many consider to be one of the more undeserving Best Picture winners in history, Crash.

This isn’t a negative. Ledger did not just win for The Dark Knight because of the performances he’d played. He won for the performances he would have one day played. Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight didn’t merely hint at greatness; they stated it outright. Ledger no longer had time to be awarded later, and so he was awarded one last time for all the roles that he will never realize.

With a sense of bittersweet irony, Ledger’s primary competition that year was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who portrayed a priest who may or may not be a pedophile in Doubt. Hoffman would pass in 2014 at the age of 46 due to a heroin overdose.

Ledger’s own career evolved out of a strenuous desire to avoid typecasting. Many remember seeing him first in 10 Things I Hate About You, but his real first break was the Australian-produced TV series Roar.

After 10 Things, Ledger became worried about getting typecast as the young hunk, a stereotype that has crushed or limited others’ careers once an actor ages out of looking like he could still be in high school.

This led Ledger toward serious historical dramas such as The Patriot and The Four Feathers that failed to ask much of their actors or capture many memorable moments. It was the irreverent A Knight’s Tale in 2001 which served as Ledger’s calling card, but after the stumbling of films like Ned Kelly and The Order in 2003, Ledger was losing his luster in the eyes of studios.

Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise — both those films and the two war dramas were mainstream attempts to appeal to built-in audiences. Only The Patriot was financially successful. By 2005, Ledger was working in projects that were not built with audience appeal in mind. Lords of Dogtown, The Brothers Grimm, Brokeback Mountain, Casanova, and I’m Not There were all risks. Nobody knew if audiences would be interested in seeing any of them.

It wasn’t until The Dark Knight that Ledger would act in another mainstream film. It’s a testament to Ledger that this is the performance he’ll be remembered for most. In the end, his greatest success wasn’t an Oscar, but finally succeeding in bucking the stereotype he so strenuously fought to avoid.


 What is your favorite Ledger role? Do you feel he deserved more recognition for his acting abilities?




Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.