Another one bites the dust

James-DeanHeath Ledger was an adequate actor. Not great, not bad, about average for an industry that churns out boatloads of pretty new faces every year, all looking for a shot at fame and immortality.

Ledger won* the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2006 for his performance in Brokeback Mountain, an achievement that gets an asterisk in my book, like Barry Bonds’ home run record. Ledger didn’t win because his performance was remarkable — if Don Knotts had been cast in the same role he would have walked off with the Oscar. Hollywood likes to lecture Middle America about its archaic values, and Brokeback Mountain was just another in a long line of preachy “message” films by the industry’s libertine elite.

Heath Ledger was a pretty face. And like too many other pretty and talented stars of film, sports and music, he developed an appetite for drugs. Frankly, it’s a story line that I find more boring than tragic; I’ve heard it too many times to be shocked any longer.

You have to be somewhat intelligent to make it in the entertainment business, so Ledger knew the risks. But in Hollywood, the booze and drug habits of the stars are indulged, along with their many other vices, as if the laws of physics don’t apply to these children of privilege.

Except that they die just like you and me. For all his wealth and fame and pretty looks, coke ate up Heath Ledger’s young life exactly as it eats up the bodies and souls of millions of less talented men, women and children.

Fame doesn’t insulate us from the consequences of our stupidity.

Unlike so many young and promising souls who will OD anonymously across America today, Heath Ledger will be idolized in death. He has a real shot at becoming this generation’s James Dean. His life will be polished by his publicists, his films will be watched with new interest by adoring fans, and we will all boo-hoo about a great talent snatched from us in the prime of life.

And tomorrow, yet another pretty face will step into his shoes, connect with his dealer, and revel in the self-indulgent narcissism that makes People Magazine and MTV profitable.

The tragedy is not that a great young actor has died, but that we seem to think his self-indulgent waste of a life was admirable.

Lord, have mercy on us.

* I’m corrected by a reader that Ledger was only nominated for his performance in Brokeback Mountain. Mea culpa.

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  1. It’s sad isn’t it? In the end though, I think the reason they (ie. famous people) turn to drugs is the very same as those that drive others to it. Desperation, fear of failure, lack of meaning etcetera. They probably feel some sort of additional pressure to perform as well, with the eyes of the world watching.

    And to think some people crave fame.

    I have to disagree with you though, about Ledger’s acting capabilities. I always thought he was a great actor ever since I saw The Patriot, and I loved Four Feathers as well. Brokeback not so much. I was really looking forward to seeing him portray the Joker as well.

  2. There is a grain of truth in what you say but it is buried in vitriol so it is difficult to find. Heath Ledger was, in fact, a very good actor. Brokeback was a beautiful human story that, if you were literate at all, you would know was an award winning story years before it was a film. Heath was nominated, but did not win the Academy Award. Celebrity is a ridiculous and fleeting thing and Ledger’s habits were his undoing. Hopefully it can serve as a cautionary tale. But may I remind you that a two-year-old is without a father and a family without their son and brother. A little respect would be nice.

  3. First, thanks for the correction on my error about Ledger’s nomination for the Academy Award.

    Second, there’s no vitriol in what I’ve written, just justifiable anger for the very reason you yourself state, that this man fathered a daughter and couldn’t manage to accept enough responsibility to either marry her mother, or clean up his life so that he could be there for her as she grew up.

    I have no respect for that sort of self-indulgence.

  4. A fitting elegy to a man who tragically sought fame in life and in death.

  5. Your compassion underwhelms me.

    I’m not a kid. I too have seen this story played-out again and again. But that’s exactly what makes it shocking.

    We see the horrific & tragic results of a disease that we pay little attention to, and then we want to blame the victim for it

    I wish no one in your family suffers from the effects of substance abuse or mental illness.

    God bless.

  6. Andrew Bridges says

    I understand it seems like he did OD, but apparently the autopsy came up inconclusive and my hope may be perceived as naivety but I would like to think it was an honest mistake…innocent until proven guilty? Maybe please?

    your nephew

  7. Don: My father was an alcoholic who killed himself when I was 9, so I know something about wasted lives and substance abuse. I feel deep compassion for Ledger’s family and the daughter he fathered, but for those who are hooked on drugs I try not to confuse compassion with enabling. Heath Ledger was an adult who could have gotten help but chose to live foolishly. It’s a great pity that he wasted the miracle of the life God gave him.

    Andrew: You could be right that I’m jumping the gun. But Heath Ledger had a long and very public reputation for drug abuse, and I’m betting that history is at least a contributing cause in his death.

  8. Hmmmm … interesting commentary here.

    I watched Braveheart with my children the other night. They are just now old enough (barely) to see the gore and battle … we did, however, skip the ending for obvious reasons. The movie ended about 9:30 and they went to bed. CSI-Miami came on after that and it was about a young girl who had attained fame because of a photo circulating on the internet. It was a harsh contrast between that cotton-candy vision of who we follow now and the courageous vision of leadership given by William Wallace in Braveheart.

    Tragic, meaningless death aside, we have lost any sense of who or what to follow in our culture or why leadership is a sensible term. Yes, Heath Ledger was a fellow child of God who also had a daughter and so I feel compassion and grief for him and her and his family. But beyond that, he had done nothing that warrants anyone following him to the degree that they will.

  9. Barry Bonds home run record doesn’t deserve an asterisk. That’s where we’re all wrong!

  10. Hi Charlie:

    Given that it is not yet known what caused Ledger’s death, the tone of the article is pretty harsh and judgmental. It seems you’re making Ledger into a symbol of what’s wrong with society– but isn’t it sad that one so young would be so seemingly unhappy despite his wealth and looks?

    I do however agree with your point that our culture wrongly holds up people as idols and heroes, not necessarily for their character and their contributions to improving the world, but merely for being famous or talented or pretty or charismatic.

    Now I don’t think Ledger was that “pretty” really and his acting was better than just adequate (Don Knotts in the Brokeback Mountain role would have won the Oscar?–come on, now that’s cynical) but these evaluations are always somewhat subjective.

    As you say, many may now try to make Ledger into the “James Dean” of our times. But perhaps his death will shock some into awaking from the fantasy that the good life is all about “making it” in this world– success, fame, money, pleasure– and cause some to ponder more the brevity of life, and to consider that there must be some deeper purpose to life.

    Because if a guy like Ledger, who the world would conclude had it all– money, fame, good looks, etc– can be a tortured, unhappy soul, then maybe there really is something missing in striving for mere worldly success but not recognizing and living for the God who put us on Earth for nobler reasons.

  11. Well, Charlie, I guess this happens sometimes. Sometimes, every now and then, I read one of your posts and think, ‘Really? Am I at the right blog?’

    I’m not deluded into thinking Heath was a saint, but I agree with some of your other friends that your approach was unnecessarily abusive. Perhaps it’s just a personal opinion, but I try never to capitalize on the death of an image-bearer to make a point.

    In addition, I disagree with you both about Heath’s ‘typicality’ (not your word, I know) and the level of his ability. But each of us bloggers is certainly entitled to our own opinions.