I'll have to admit than when I saw Heath Ledger for the first time in 10 Things I Hate About You I never thought that brooding guy slowly falling for Julia Stiles would go on to become an Oscar nominated leading man set to rise to the level of summer blockbuster star with this summer's The Dark Knight. Much is already being written about possible causes of death and Ledger's mood in recent days. I don't have much to add other than there's at least one report that he was having trouble with the drug Ambien.
Almost every article about Ledger mentioned his determination to avoid being pigeonholed as a hunk after his initial success. I'm sure Ledger could have worked more if he'd wanted to, but after having another success with the fluffy A Knight's Tale he seemed to seek out roles where leading man qualities weren't required. A reunion with Knight's Tale director Brian Helgeland in The Order yielded one of the worst films I've ever seen, and The Brothers Grimm seemed to get lost in all the process stories that surround any Terry Gilliam project.
Ledger's performances in Lords of Dogtown and Monster's Ball point to an actor too good looking for his talent, someone inherently more comfortable with character roles. I'm still not sure that he shouldn't have won for the Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, but the Academy preferred the more outwardly visible transformation of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I have my issues with Brokeback (I still think Michelle Williams' is the only character who comes off a real person and not a literary creation), but Ledger magnetism and quiet power are undeniable. We'll never know just how The Dark Knight might have changed things, but I think Ledger could easily have had a career like that of his ex Michelle Williams, doing good work in indie productions with maybe the occasional dip into blockbuster territory. We'll most likely never know what really happened, but sadly Ledger's life and career now belong to our need to create martyrs, pontificate, and exhume every last detail.