It’s been a while since a lead actor of Ledger passed away right before what was certainly going to be the greatest success of his career. The part of The Joker would have shown everyone a new side of him—something beyond the almost rude healthiness and physical toughness he brought to his work. Even in the previews for The Dark Night, Ledger showed that he had a fine capacity for horror and the theatrical.
It was—it will be—a performance the whole world will see, and that’s what would have made the difference for Ledger’s career. The whole world didn’t go see Brokeback Mountain; more people snickered about it than saw it. It was a notorious film, meant for the Oscar watchers, just like Ledger’s brave but futile performance in Monster’s Ball.
I interviewed Brian Helgeland, the director of 2001′s A Knight’s Tale—a very likable and original kind of flop, well worth seeing to observe the kind of charm Ledger had right off the bat. Helgeland described meeting the 20-year-old Ledger at LAX, just off the Sydney plane and carrying a digiridoo case. Since Ledger arrived first, he had the instrument out and practicing it right in the airport lounge. Ledger had a short time in American movies, just seven years. He could have gone anywhere, and his death seems to me a bigger loss (if you feel like comparing these things) than the death of River Phoenix; it’s something far more like the too-early demise of James Dean.