Heath Ledger: The Double Breakthrough Actor of 1999

Some time before the turbulent, passionate romance story Dan shared with Candy, filmed in his native Australia, Heath Ledger had already made the big time in mainstream cinema. The 2006 story of love and other drugs with Abbie Cornish, was a return to roots for Ledger – and an impressive one at that. Infact, both leads were outstanding.  Cornish was also an up-and-comer from down under, getting huge acclaim for her performance in Cate Shortland’s Somersault. Ledger, meanwhile, had established himself in what you might call commercial film circles, playing the stubborn son of Mel Gibson (another Aussie), and then a knight, no less.

Appearances in the sinfully lesser seen Monster’s Ball and I’m Not There would go a long way to continue Ledger’s reputation as an actor of great diversity, in both the roles and the films. And these were also down to the choices he made, not wanting to play the same kind of characters over and over again. Like many an actor ambition, Ledger was always on the lookout for a new corner. Often, and by no fluke, Ledger would be mentioned with the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean in the same sentences praising his acting ability. And we’re not going to argue that.

The posthumous Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actor in 2008, handed respectfully to Ledger’s family, was also a bona fide accolade of a truly great performance as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The honor could so easily have been given as a tribute to his untimely death, or at least aided his chances. But not so, it was completely warranted. He could have won gold for his impenetrable turn in Brokeback Mountain years earlier. And who knows what else.

Heath Ledger

Way before all of that, Ledger made a memorable double breakthrough to both the mainstream and his Australian audiences in 1999. Widely regarded, even today, as one of the enduring American high school romantic comedies, 10 Things I Hate About You is a sassy, quick-witted treat, with quirky performances and a foot-tapping soundrack. Australian crime-slash-comedy, Two Hands, is written and directed by Gregor Jordan. Funny in parts, absolutely, but the raw dramatic thread of the film works in sync with the wit on display.

In both pictures, curly-locks Ledger plays a young man somewhat out of his depth, or perhaps comfort zone. In 10 Things, his Australian high-schooler comes with an exaggerated bad boy reputation to rival Ozzy Osbourne, immediately an at-a-distance target for the American kids to point and whisper. With that in mind, Patrick Verona is approached by Cameron to tame the shrew that is Kat Stratford, so that he can date her sister Bianca. A mix-match of comic conformity, the execution of such affairs would have even William Shakespeare rolling in the aisles. In Two Hands, Ledger plays a young doorman of a strip club who lands himself in hot water with a crime boss when a simple enough errand goes terribly wrong. The haphazard journey Jimmy takes, first losing the money he was meant to deliver, then attempting to make it back, provides both sporadic comedy and some rather tense sequences. I mean, the opening scene sees the badly beaten Jimmy about to have his head blown off. And we have to wait and see from there as we jump back.

Heath Ledger

Both 10 Things and Two Hands offer the opportunity of range Ledger has in his acting arsenal. Even in the platforms of comedy and crime, the young actor demonstrates in both pictures he can do fumbling or self-sufficient as well as he can do humor or romance. In Two Hands, the romance is a much smaller chunk of the whole pie, but it radiates with not only the danger Jimmy faces, but also the shimmering chemistry between Ledger and Rose Byrne. Of course, the love egg with Kat in 10 Things, played with sarcastic venom by Julia Stiles, is much harder to crack, thus prompting the film’s main plot. Here Ledger can go beyond the funny, to also show regret and anxiety in just a look. Kind of bittersweet now to experience his early work, somehow his actual absence only heightens your emotions as you watch.

Heath Ledger entered our movie-viewing worlds in 1999 with a simmering brilliance, an actor of such high stature bursting to get out. Add to that his seemingly natural charisma. His comic turn in 10 Things I Hate About You packs an emotional punch too as Patrick’s growing feelings for Kat change his outlook. And in Two Hands, his Jimmy is lost at sea, but does what he has to do to get out of trouble. Ledger offers a fearless portrayal, irrelevant of the discourse of drama or comedy. Even looking back, in hindsight, knowing the excellent work he would pull off, the potential was right there to see in those two roles from 1999.

And some ten years later followed that great loss on 22nd January 2008, we were all robbed of being able to eagerly anticipate forthcoming Heath Ledger roles. So few films to admire his work. But admire we can for sure. Always. There are no limits to the amount of times we can float on back to 1999 and re-introduce ourselves to two breakthrough performances by Heath Ledger. And all the stories, both from his life and on film, that Michelle Williams can share with their daughter Matilda Rose will never die. And on her eighteenth birthday she’ll receive his Oscar statuette, a poignant trophy of her father’s legacy.

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