In August 2000, Vanity Fair featured a handsome, rising young star on its cover: Heath Ledger. Bruce Weber’s photographs captured the looks, character, and promise that the actor’s co-workers and friends described. Ledger fulfilled that promise before his untimely death, in January 2008. In memory of Heath, Vanity Fair has released a selection of images from Weber’s shoot, both published and unpublished. The photo’s show the Heath that everybody knew and loved: playful, goofy, smiling, incredibly handsome.
Vanity Fair dedicated August’s cover story to the talented but troubled Australian actor, who died far too early in 2008. Heath Ledger didn’t care about fame or awards. “He was ready to bust out of the gate, but he didn’t want to step on the gas and become something that he didn’t want to become: a matinee idol,” his friend and agent, Steven Alexander, says. Vanity Fair sheds new light on the difficult-to-answer questions about Heath’s final days, the actor’s remarkable talent and untimely death in the August cover story, “The Last of Heath.”
The article explores Ledger’s final movie role, his uncertainty about Hollywood, his devotion to his young daughter, and what happened in the days and weeks leading up to his death as he battled chronic insomnia, pneumonia, and exhaustion.
How he cleaned up his act
• Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, who worked with Ledger on his last film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, says Ledger “used to smoke marijuana on a regular basis, like probably 50 percent of Americans.” But after it became an issue, Ledger “went clean as a whistle.” And vocal coach Gerry Grennell, who worked and lived with the actor during the filming of The Dark Knight, says Ledger even stopped drinking: “Heath would happily go to the bar, buy a round of drinks for friends, and come back and have a soda or juice, never once drinking alcohol.”
How chronic insomnia may have led to his death
• Ledger’s use of sleeping medication to combat chronic insomnia at the end of his life was of more concern to Grennell. “I’d say, ‘If you can possibly bear it to stop taking the medications, do, because they don’t seem to be doing you any good.’ He agreed. It is very difficult for me to imagine how close he came to not taking them.”
Ledger would typically spend night after night awake, diverting himself with time killers, such as re-arranging the furniture in whatever space he happened to be living in at the moment. Grennell coached him in the Alexander Technique, which helped him to sleep for a few hours at a time, but he still struggled.
“Everyone has a different view of how he passed away,” Grennell tells Biskind. “From my perspective, and knowing him as well as I did, and being around him as much as I was, it was a combination of exhaustion, sleeping medication … and perhaps the aftereffects of the flu. I guess his body just stopped breathing.”
How his relationship failed
• Terry Gilliam—Ledger’s friend and mentor, and the director of Doctor Parnassus—agrees with Pecorini that the romance between Ledger and Williams began to unravel during the Oscar campaign for Brokeback Mountain. “The whole machinery started growing up around them,” Gilliam says. “That was the moment when it changed, when he realized, Uh-oh. We perceive the world differently. He didn’t care about things like those awards.”
According to Pecorini, “Heath was always blaming himself [about the relationship], asking, What did I do wrong?” Adds Gilliam, “Because he’s a much nicer person than I am, he really thought he could do the right thing. He was trying to be decent and graceful, give her whatever she wanted—the house, every fucking thing. But once it started going south, it went very quickly. He was overwhelmed by lawyers, and there were more and more of them, as if they were breeding. I said, ‘This is bullshit. Heath, just end it. Get out—it’s bad. You’ve got to just walk away from it.’ The stakes kept going up. He wouldn’t listen to any of us.”
As Ledger’s relationship with Williams unraveled, and the pair started dealing with lawyers and custody issues, according to Gilliam, Ledger fell apart. “The thing that really made Heath snap” was legal wrangling over his daughter, Matilda, Gilliam says. “He said, ‘Just fuck all of you! I’m not giving Michelle anything.” Recalls another source, when it came to Matilda’s care, “there were definitely heated conversations, and emotions were high.” (Ledger’s lawyer declined to comment on any aspect of the separation or custody dispute.)
His devotion to the job
• The strife in his personal life coincided with the shoot for Gilliam’s Parnassus, but rather than distract him from his work, Gilliam believes it helped him concentrate on the task at hand, he tells Biskind. He appeared one day on set “clearly bloody sick,” Gilliam says. The doctor told him it was the beginning of pneumonia and that he ought to take antibiotics and go home and rest. According to Gilliam, Ledger said, “No way. I’m not going to go home, because I can’t sleep, and I’ll be just thinking about the situation. I’d rather stay here and work.”
Although “he would arrive in the morning completely knackered,” Gilliam says, “by the end of the day he was beaming, glowing with energy. It was like everything was put into the work, because that was the joy; that’s what he loved to do. The words were just pouring out. It was like he was channeling.”
Ledger’s apathy for stardom
• Ledger’s friend and agent, Steven Alexander, tells Biskind that Heath “was always hesitant to be in a summer blockbuster, with the dolls and action figures and everything else that comes with one of those movies. He was afraid it would define him and limit his choices.” According to friends of Ledger’s, one of the reasons he agreed to do Dark Knight was that the unusually long shoot would give him an excuse to turn down other offers.
Alexander tells Biskind that Ledger had a pay-or-play deal on The Dark Knight—meaning he’d get compensated no matter what—so he felt he had the freedom to do whatever he wanted as the Joker. According to Pecorini, Ledger hoped his performance would be so far-out he’d be fired, and thus become the beneficiary of a lengthy, paid vacation.
“He was ready to bust out of the gate, but he didn’t want to step on the gas and become something that he didn’t want to become: a matinee idol,” says Alexander. “He was a private person, and he didn’t want to share his personal history with the press. It just wasn’t up for sale. That’s part of the reason he initially tore down his career. He wasn’t motivated by money or stardom, but by the respect of his peers, and for people to walk out of a movie theater after they’d seen something that he’d worked on and say, ‘Wow, he really disappeared into that character.’ He was striving to become an ‘illusionist,’ as he called it, able to create characters that weren’t there.”