Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Heath Ledger

He died from a combination of my favorite drugs-- oxycodone, valium, ambien, I know them all too well. It's a peaceful way to die, but a tragedy for such a great actor at the age of 28.

Heath Ledger

Here is a touching article from the
London Times:

January 27, 2008

Heath Ledger was a lonesome cowboy

For Heath Ledger, stardom led to a fatal need for prescription drugs. Our writer, who met him six times, asks Jack Nicholson how a young man can survive Hollywood

Jack Nicholson pointedly lit up a cigarette in the public area of Claridge’s and gave a piece of his mind on the prescription-drug-fuelled world of the late Heath Ledger.

It was only a few hours since the young film star had been found dead in his Manhattan bedroom. Drugs he took for anxiety and insomnia, including Ambien sleeping tablets, had reportedly been found at his bedside.

“I warn them about Ambien,” said Nicholson. “I don’t take sleeping pills, but somebody said, ‘Take this – it’s mild.’ I then got a call in the middle of the night, an emergency, and almost drove off a cliff 50 yards from my house up in the mountains in Aspen.” He breathed out, for effect, and watched the trail of smoke. The message was clear.

Nicholson has confessed to the lot: pills, pot, LSD, drink, shrinks and legions of women. He has partied hard and lived harder. He always seems to get away with it, whether it’s cigarettes in a nonsmoking zone or group sex. At 70, seemingly indestructible, he is here to tell the tale. Yet Ledger, who was 28, is already in the morgue.

Hollywood, Nicholson said, is like a monster. It is to be ridden, understood and conquered. There are rules of engagement, and those who do not grasp them can be swept aside.

He was not being cruel to the talented Ledger. He did not know him. He did not even see Brokeback Mountain, the film that won Ledger an Oscar nomination in 2006 as best actor. There is a message nevertheless.

“Let’s go back to when I was first working in Hollywood, nearly 50 years ago,” Nicholson told me.

“The movie business was star-driven then and it is star-driven now. There were people like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster setting up their own independent movie companies. There was the gossip, the tabloids and the news stories. They had to handle them – as I’ve had to handle them. If you don’t like it, it’s exceptionally tough.”

Nicholson is a survivor, the biggest beast in the jungle. He’s a rogue who, when not at his Colorado home, delights in living in the road known as Bad Boy Drive (Mulholland Drive, Beverly Hills, the old haunt of Warren Beatty and the late Marlon Brando). For most of his working life he has never explained and never complained.

Ledger, on the other hand, was a victim: a young man who pushed himself too hard to live in the big time. He looked set to achieve a great career but there was something lacking. A ruthlessness, perhaps, or a thick enough skin to deal with the demands of celebrity and the publicity machines of the film studios.

One of his latest roles has special relevance. Nicholson played an iconic deranged Joker in the 1989 film Batman. Ledger has delivered such a striking and frightening Joker in the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight, to be released this summer, that it easily matches the original. Michael Caine, who reprised his role as the butler in the film to Christian Bale’s Batman, told me a few months ago that it was so good it made him forget his lines.

Yet away from the studio Ledger was nervous and uneasy in the spotlight. That vital flaw was exacerbated by his personal and professional life. There was a broken engagement in September to his actress fiancĂ©e Michelle Williams, mother of his two-year-old daughter Matilda. There was overwork, with The Dark Knight, a complex role in I’m Not There and most recently a punishing schedule as the lead in the director Terry Gilliam’s film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. He was taking the make-believe world of acting too seriously for his own good.

The contrast with Nicholson was only too evident on a day when the old master was launching his 60th movie, The Bucket List. He and Morgan Freeman, who is also 70, play old men with less than a year to live. They make a list of what they want to do before they die. It has surprised everyone, even Nicholson, by making No 1 at the American box office, becoming a hit with a young audience.

Ledger’s own bucket list will never be written. He did not live wild and fast like James Dean. He did not die in dramatic fashion like River Phoenix, who collapsed on the pavement on Sunset Boulevard outside the Viper Room and died from a cocktail of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, speed and Valium.

Ledger slipped away by himself after apparently taking six prescription drugs in a rented apartment in New York, on the other side of the world from his native Perth in Western Australia. Most of the drugs were supposed to make him relax or induce sleep. Quite frankly, he worried himself to death.

He became a star at 21 with his third big Hollywood film, A Knight’s Tale, and seemed to suffer from an allergy to fame. I met him six times in nine years and for the most part he was awkward about being in the spotlight. He worried about his roles and fretted over the consequences.

When I last saw him, at the Ven-ice film festival in September, he looked shattered. He could have been 50, with lines etched deep in his face and the weight of the world on his 6ft frame. He complained to The New York Times in his last official interview in November of getting only two hours’ sleep a night.

Film acting in the premier league is not supposed to be like this. In the hellraising days, rip-roaring Brits such as Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and Richard Harris worked out their frustration on the bottle – and on their leading ladies. Now, Hollywood’s top ranks seem to be riddled with those who agonise: young men who take tablets with unpronounceable names in private.

Where are those who might put an arm around their shoulders? The Hollywood agent, who was part friend and part uncle or aunt to young actors, has long been replaced by corporate money men. Business managers, lawyers and senior studio executives look at the financial implications of every career move on every film. An army of personal publicists is more interested in cover-ups than revelations.

And what about the film sets them-selves? I have been on hundreds over the years. They are inhabited by overgrown schoolboys still playing with their toys, needy women who fear reality, and those who run a mile from anyone with a problem. The only aim is to get the film made, however ill or despairing some of the cast may be.

“There are too many around today who are lonely,” Nicholson said. “Film acting will drive you nuts – if you let it. You can get everything out there if you are young and famous. Any woman. Any drug. But you have to build up your safety zone. You’ve got to build up friendships and keep to them. When I was wild I would tell my friends, ‘We have to develop some social graces’.”

He set out rules early on: “I planned a certain life in leisure. I decided to take up tennis at 28, skiing at 35 and golf at 50. I hit those targets pretty well on the nose. I also made my own rules for publicity. Don’t do television interviews – I never do it. And when I do [print] interviews, I talk. You cannot take too much of what I say too seriously. But this business is about being on show occasionally.

“I’ve never even written a letter of complaint to an editor. I had one legal thing in London once, but it was over in two weeks. It involved something like £20,000, which I gave to a boys’ boxing club. You’ve got the rewards and you have to take the heat. It’s not an easy business.”

Ledger, unfortunately, was never even on the opening pages of the rule book. He was a star in his twenties and had clearly not thought out what that meant or where it would take him. He loved women. He had a succession of older girlfriends such as Lisa Zane – sister of Billy Zane – who was nearly 20 years his senior. He also dated Heather Graham and Naomi Watts, who were a decade or more older than him.

To get him to relax and enjoy the nights out they had together was impossible when there were paparazzi around. I met him when he was just 19 with one hit, 10 Things I Hate About You. I wrote at the time: “He talks, like many actors of this type, with eyes averted for much of the time. But very mature for his age: seems in his thirties rather than his teens.”

The big roles started to come in: The Patriot, with Mel Gibson, in 2000; A Knight’s Tale; Monster’s Ball, which won Halle Berry an Oscar for best actress, in which he played Billy Bob Thornton’s younger brother, Sonny; and the heroic Harry Faversham in The Four Feathers. In truth, though, he rarely seemed to enjoy it away from the film set.

I have looked over the transcripts of our interviews with sadness. Ledger was a nice guy, not a natural at self-promotion and tense and uneasy when discussing his various girlfriends. There was a naivety, too. It was as if he expected to deliver high-profile films without the photographers, the television cameras, the interviews and the sheer weight of living in the public eye.

When we met at the Dorchester in London in November 2002 he was already suffering the first side effects, but he was confident that he could cope. Sporting a neat beard, which made him seem even older, he was wearing a grey jumper over blue jeans, rather like a mature student on a postgrad course, and seemed taller, fuller and fitter than I recalled from previous meetings. As ever he was polite but unenthusiastic about the interview; he wanted to give little away about his then girlfriend Watts.

He reflected on what had happened to Gibson, whose career had also hit early heights in his twenties. Gibson turned to drink and had to try to wean himself off it. (He has since fallen off the wagon and had to go back to repairing the damage.) Ledger felt he could do better.

“I don’t think such things will happen to me,” he predicted. “I do not feel anything has changed inside me and I am bored with the fame thing now. It has changed my life but I have to deal with it. I can put it behind me.”

He was clearly spelling out what he would like to do rather than what was happening.

When 10 Things I Hate About You was released he was inundated with offers for other teen movies. He rejected them, preferring instead to live off the money in Los Angeles while searching for more serious roles. He went to the beach, invited friends over from Australia and enjoyed the sunshine and beers. It sounded one of the happiest times in his life.

“I don’t feel any richer than I did when I had that year off,” he said in 2002. “Living on the beach I felt extremely wealthy on a different level. And I think I know which way I want my career to go. I don’t want to be a superhero and I am not inspired to make $20m a picture. I don’t feel that I have sold out and that keeps me alive. That keeps me thinking that I am in control over my own destiny.”

But he was far from being in control. As his career accelerated through films such as Ned Kelly (2003) and Lords of Dogtown (2005) he became more nervous and uncertain. There was, however, a breakthrough by the time we met again in late 2005. He had launched three movies: the excellent Brokeback Mountain, an entertaining Casanova and the comic fantasy The Brothers Grimm. He was also in love.

He had fallen for Williams, his on-screen wife in Brokeback Mountain. She was a year younger – a girlfriend close to his own age for once – and they had a baby. He could not have been happier.

“We are like two peas in a pod,” he said, with untypical candour. “It is astonishing, the profound effect it has had on my life and beliefs.”

He was also preparing to take time off after completing five films in the previous 18 months. He was planning a life between America and Australia, where he had his parents, sister, two half-sisters and old friends.

“I feel that I need the sanity of my family around me,” he said. “I can get the best of both worlds.” But again his awkwardness proved his undoing. While filming Candy – about a drug addict – in Sydney, he had so many standoffs with photographers that a deep resentment built up.

The photographers took revenge when Brokeback Mountain was premiered there in 2006. They squirted him with water pistols. Although he should have been used to such wind-ups in his homeland, he promptly sold his Sydney waterfront home.

His father, Kim, went public with the details of the trauma several months later: “Heath had to go into the cinema and introduce the film soaking wet. He cried all night. He rang me and said, ‘Dad, that’s it. Sell the house’.”

Kim Ledger said that he had urged his son to think it over for 48 hours. “Two days later he rang me back and said, ‘Dad, it has been 47 hours and 57 minutes. Sell the house’.”

The plush property was sold for £2.5m two months later and a vital link with Australia was over.

Such sensitivity over a few water pistols brought to mind a remark that Ledger’s father had made a few years earlier.

“Heath doesn’t want to even squash an ant,” he said. “He worries about everything. He’s very soft inside.”

If only he had met Jack Nicholson. Asked about his own advice for life, the old survivor replied: “Do not lie, do not steal and do not be afraid. Mainly, do not be afraid.”

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