Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bronte's Heir: The Passing of Heathcliff

Mourning is a strange process, one that kept me awake for many a night in years of yore. Mainly because even though a personal loss long ago broke my heart and pretty much shaped the few following years of my life, I didn't react as strongly as the rest of my immediate entourage. I couldn't understand why that was, and couldn't stop feeling guilty and heartless about it. A very wise lady bestowed great peace of mind upon me many years later, when offering that a mourning process takes many years to unfold, and along the way covers for other reasons we may have to mourn. I slept my first peaceful slumber in a very long time that night, having suddenly realized I had, in fact, started mourning before that one tragedy, and was effectively already there. The unsustainable heartbreak had already happened, and covered for that latest event in my life. Most psychologists will probably laugh off my soothsayer’s wisdom, but it does explain many things in my head and my life, and helped me put that one ghost to rest once and for all.

It doesn't mean I shouldn’t care anymore, nor can I "downsize" the mourning of others, it just means I have my own way of feeling and dealing with a loss, and mustn't feel guilty for it. Especially when mourning for someone I never even met- if that someone affected your life in any way that leaves an empty space in your heart after their departure, you ARE allowed to honor them the way you need to. So I'll take the long road in writing this, for my process towards a recent tragedy means writing about everything that comes pouring from my mind in relation to it.

Val Kilmer is a great actor, no doubt about it; the guy has great talent and charisma which I respect. He was such a total pr**k in Top Gun that I couldn't for the life of me differentiate character from actor; he just felt like he really was that arrogant and cold and hateful. I realized with time that Kilmer is indeed an effing pr**k when doing any movie that he regards as being beneath him. No matter if many people liked the entertainment of Top Gun, he didn't care for the movie and so phoned-in the character. He's had a fair share of great performances, but it's these disrespectful-to-fans ones that stay with me. Can't you offer something that will please your fans AND make a bad movie better for it?

Cut to 1999, where I was an assistant-manager for a small movie theatre and had the time of my life watching movies every night for free. Some of them I could've done without repeated forced-viewings (Dr. Doolittle 2 is even worse when seen three times a day, every day, for four weeks), but others I just kept gushing about. This happened with one little flick I sat on during a particularly tedious-releases week, which blew away my initially low expectations, and had me make a very serious prediction: that foreign-accented kid is the next Jack Nicholson. The film was the surprisingly clever comedy Ten Things I Hate About You, and the square-jawed Aussie fellow was a complete unknown named Heath Ledger.

Ten Things could've been your average teen-flick-of-the-week, like so many Varsity Blues or any number of other films I can't remember (which proves my point), even though its premise was borrowed from Will the Bard and co-starred the hilarious David Krumholtz (and Julia Stiles, whom I must admit having had a crush on for a while). What elevated it above the rest was Heath’s very grounded and dedicated work in that he just chewed every single scene he appeared. He soon after vindicated my prediction by spear-heading the potentially-lame Knight’s Tale to mega-hit levels, and again later when leaving high-cost productions behind in favor of roles that challenged him, like his bizarre turn in Lords of Dogtown (one of my favorite films). I then gloated in my accuracy when he took one of the riskiest roles in cinema history, that of a gay -and married- cowboy, and rammed it down conservative Hollywood’s throat.

The death of Heathcliff Andrew Ledger is a great loss for his family, and for that my thoughts are with them. But I can't mourn, like them, for someone I knew so little about outside the screen. A lot of criticism has been and will be made of those like me who focus on the movie-side of the loss, but that IS what connected us to him, what challenged and amazed and dazzled and inspired us. And that is how I wish to pay him tribute. His body of work is what will remain long after those he moved personally have passed on as well; his body of work is what made me an admirer of his. I feel no guilt in being happy that he went out with such a posthumous bang.

Yes, start throwing rocks at me, I AM talking about The Dark Knight. You know who would've phoned-in Ten Things I Hate About You and snarled at those who paid to see it? Val Kilmer. You know who almost single-handedly ruined Batman? Val Kilmer. You know who completely delivered up the same kind of roles for the greater enjoyment of fans, and went to great lengths never to let them feel screwed out of their entrance-fee cash? Heathcliff. He’s the guy who turned his back on the media at award shows in order to cross the line and meet the crowd to sign autographs. YES, I meant I’m dying to watch THAT guy play the Joker!

Let me put it another way. I loved and admired John Candy tremendously, as did I River Phoenix. Alas I can't help but feel sad knowing Big John died while filming Wagons East, a film so lame he didn't even want to be in it (he was under contractual obligations to), or that River's last three films were below-average, barely released bombs. Tragic it is both for the public to remember them that way, AND for the artists who must've felt like failures when the final moment came. After all, Hollywood makes a point of reminding its denizens that they’re only as good as their last project, no matter how influential their entire career was.

On the other hand, there’s John Cazale, with only six films under his belt: the much-acclaimed The Conversation, the first two Godfather films (who can't remember Fredo and the kiss-of-death), the groundbreaking Dog Day Afternoon (the grandfather to Heath's Brokeback Mountain), and The Deer Hunter which he completed shortly before passing away. All six of them are considered among the best movies from the 70's. Most likely unhappy to die of cancer, John must've felt great pride in knowing his short contribution to the cinematic culture was enormous, and that no-one would ever look back at his career as a failure. He went out on top with one of the most haunting soldier-story movies ever made.

Heath Ledger's last few performances (and early ones too) broke the mold, shattered Hollywood conventions and rules, and made legions of fans proud to have supported him since Ten Things I Hate About You. And this summer, he will wave at us from the grave, in what is already being hailed as the performance of his lifetime, reminiscent of what Michael Corleone was to Al Pacino, Gandhi to Ben Kingsley or The Dude to Jeff Bridges. Could he really have expired without knowing how deeply he touched so many people? The still-young actor expressed exhaustion following his final performance, something that many blame for his untimely death, but he goes out with his gosh-darn boots on. I am increasingly feverish in my wait to be dazzled by his Joker, and will not hesitate to feel happy for him - that he left an amazing career on such a high professional note.

My thoughts and feelings ARE sad and DO go towards his family. But MY method of mourning will be to appreciate fully his entire filmography and final bow to movieland, and to be happy knowing Heathcliff ends up buried alongside Catherine, just as Emily Bronte had intended for her tragic anti-hero.

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