‘I Am Heath Ledger’ is an Affecting, Troubling and Saddening Documentary

Features. Posted 11 months ago

Jonno Revanche

Image: a still taken from I Am Heath Ledger. Image Source.

Rolleiflex, a brand name that may have once held a lot of resonance within the sphere of photography, is now one that you would associate with an inheritance from your grandparents or something you might get handed down as an offering for a mantelpiece. But on the whole – the name refers to a whole series of large, medium film devices envisioned by Franke & Heidecke in Germany, popular particularly in the 60s and 70s. The camera hosts a Twin-Lens Reflex (TLR), which here means there are two lenses – one sitting directly on top of the other. The line became quickly known as a very select model of camera, and you can see their familiar, compact frame in dated photos of James Dean, his body angled into the wedge of two parallel walls. And then again, in photos of him behind the scenes of major movies, preoccupied with the camera’s mechanics. It’s introduction into the market of high-end large format photography arguably changed the way in which photos were taken – the generous spread and quality of 120 film became that much more accessible and vital. It came to be associated with an editorial, newspaper style professionalism as much as it was for the hobbyist who wanted that just much more from their equipment.

It’s the recurring motif of this camera in the hands of a promising young actor that ties the documentary+eulogy “I Am Heath Ledger” together more than almost anything else, as his nimble movements and technical abilities frame this boy who promised so much but passed away at the age where his talents should have been most realised. “He was taken too soon” always feels flat on the page, but for all that it offers, it still holds meaning here.

The rolleiflex was antique equipment even back in the 90s and early 2000s, and for that reason Ledger’s tastes are suggested to be more precise than someone might have given him credit for – that time period is most of the ground covered in the film. The documentary mostly functions as a juxtaposition between these photos he’s taken, a veritable array of video snippets clipped together from home footage, and interviews conducted in a studio with Heath’s loved ones. These are frank and detailed accounts from people who knew him from markedly different contexts but found a remarkable intimacy with him as a person. Regardless, It is the insight into his creative process which is pushed to the forefront, perhaps in the hopes that it will reveal more about him than first-hand accounts from family and friends, but what that does is instead highlight a sizeable gap between his internal life and how others perceived him.

Even the title fails to reveal much about what made him who he was – it makes no promises and in fact doesn’t do justice to the potential of such a film, while it still remains to be affecting in its way. The emphasis on work and creativity means there leaves something to be desired about the substance of the whole project even while it gives his close friends and collaborators a way to relive their memories of him on screen.

Like these interviews suggest, his obsessive desire to create, which often had him staying up all night and ringing friends at unlikely hours in the morning to explain ideas, extended from photography to acting. In one account from one of Heath’s first girlfriends, a model, says with shuddering candidness, that when she was photographed from him, she felt like he really “saw her.” It gives rise to the ideal we all had of Heath ledger – someone with new age sensitivity and humility, a tenderness and delicateness, but who shifted into the unachievable model of manhood that so many people valorised and simultaneously could not reach. He walked a very fine line between this kind of liquid ideal we all bear witness to in some way or another that feels close to the heart of Australian culture but has a worldwide outlook, meeting with an American kind of idealism. This mix must have granted him unparalleled attention as much as I assume that it restricted him and defined him more than he could possibly understood.

There is a boy who lived down the street from you, who called your name out of the side of his car and waved to you occasionally as you walked to the bus-stop in the morning, who you met when you were both babies and who you saw intermittently up until you both entered the cult of adulthood. This is the same one you saw who, upon graduation, came around to your place after a year of silence and delivered you native flowers (duh), who had long, straggly hair, a vintage mambo tee and the daggiest style envisionable in your particular suburb. The boy who lived next door to you, of course, looked like Leonardo Di Caprio (because what else could have happened?) but this boy – this one was raggedy and heartfelt, cheeky but sometimes distant, understood himself in new and difficult ways. Part of you wanted to frame him as a spectre, one that appears when his light haunts the most, but came in a human shape.

One night when you snuck out of your parents house after an argument, you found him at the playground across the road, and you shared a durry before you even knew what that really meant in the scheme of things. Although you didn’t recall much of the conversation, you had the sense that what he spoke of didn’t immediately connect with the world outside of him – and instead of trying to find that meeting point, endeavouring for the results, he continued on in this way, never really making contact.

It would be easy to continue writing in this way, about Heath Ledger as a far-away concept, of how beautiful he was, how affronted and moved I was by his general presence and how sad I am, and was, but instead I push on past these mythologies, the same ones that purportedly made it more difficult for him to find himself amid a hollywood ecosystem.

Everyone has met the artist/actor/photographer who shielded themselves from vulnerability through creativity and work when instead using it as companion to vulnerability. Maybe this is what makes “I Am Heath Ledger” so affecting, troubling and saddening as much as it offers an insight into how he operated. Ledger’s craft was as involved as almost any of his peers, maybe because he “really wanted to be famous” as Matt Amato claims in the doco, although partly it feels like it stems from an indebted feeling towards his country, something more celebrity/international Australians internalise than some would admit, as well as towards his family and some unseen driving force. His death still rattles us – it was more impactful maybe than any of us expected it to be. Heath Ledger was the imaginary potential boyfriend who was whisked away by a tragic game of chance and never truly manifested into our lives as much as he was a day-dream hovering above it. His freckles, wide-framed smile, oddly alluring features and overall demeanour were a parcel of traits that made him a unique brand of lovability, becoming his own personality as far as we were concerned, and totally captured the attention of every 2nd person between Australia and America. We claimed him, in all of his uncertainty, boyish charm, and imperfection, his wavering but highly relatable ambition and gorgeousness. But the pressure that came from that suggested something more concerning.

Heath’s stature – the way he conducted himself, his stance and expression, looks of concern and tilting of heads and his vigor, the way he balanced certainty and uncertainty like they were siblings that had experienced a spell of separation – was something he arguably took from dance. What the documentary shows is that he was as disciplined as one, and passed himself off as an effortless and jovial talent but spent days and months in a state of hyper-awakeness, focusing all of his attention on his roles. It’s no surprise that this took hold of him and slowly wore him down. One of the most heart-warming parts of “I Am Heath Ledger” reveals this in some behind the scenes footage of the dance he conducted in A Knight’s Tale, where the unlikely peasant Heath engages in a coy and heat-fuelled romance with a noblewoman, played by none other than Shannyn Sossamon. Seeing the actors in this unedited framework is as wrenching as anything in the original movie, a stern reminder of what we lost from Heath’s passing that we might not have at once recognised. Heath’s older sister Kate purportedly inspired in a young Heath a love of acting and was responsible for introducing those early influences, including a far-reaching admiration of Gene Kelley. Zadie Smith wrote:

““Fred Astaire represents the aristocracy when he dances,” claimed Gene Kelly, in old age, “and I represent the proletariat.” The distinction is immediately satisfying, though it’s a little harder to say why. Tall, thin and elegant, versus muscular and athletic – is that it? There’s the obvious matter of top hat and tails versus T-shirt and slacks. But Fred sometimes wore T-shirts and slacks, and was not actually that tall, he only stood as if he were, and when moving always appeared elevated, to be skimming across whichever surface: the floor, the ceiling, an ice rink, a bandstand….Likewise, the aristocrat and the proletariat have different relations to the ground beneath their feet, the first moving fluidly across the surface of the world, the second specifically tethered to a certain spot: a city block, a village, a factory, a stretch of fields.”

Heath’s performance style echoes Gene Kelly’s relation to the common people, who we can envision as being at one with the way Australians see ourselves – underdogs, free-spirited, but committed to hard yakka, whether that is true or not. Heath’s method was always one of relating back to his audiences, whether that was in the roles he played or his emoting, the way he burst with candour and empathy on screen. In “I am Heath ledger” there becomes a moment where you realise this might not have been as easily accessible in his day-to-day life. But he is shown as endlessly giving, letting his friends stay in his london apartment while he is away shooting films, and using his money in the way that one would when they recognise it’s true power – to give friends opportunities and tools they would not otherwise have had. In one of the interviews, Ben Harper relates a story of how, after playing piano together one night, he woke up to removalists at his door, that same grand piano in tow. Without much thought, Ledger had simply passed on this (undeniably expensive) asset to someone who perhaps needed it more. His depiction in the documentary is of someone who was relentlessly selfless in some ways and as detached from the self in others – maybe so much so that he never developed the ability to ask for anything in return, to expect anything, and thus escaped vulnerability in the process.

In the classic knowledge that what lies unexpressed becomes fully and covertly expressed, I Am Heath Ledger asks as many questions as it answers. For all of the testimonials of close friends, family members, ex-girlfriends and creative partners, there is not as much insight into his inner universe that one might expect. What we do see is often in the form of previously unseen footage he took of himself, mostly, on camcorders and what one must assume were the beginnings of digital recorders. The gaze upon the camera is so gripping that you really believe that his emotional commitment to acting was as real as his artistic endeavours and relationships. He often talks to himself like one would pen a diary entry – uncertain at first, but ritualistic and dedicated enough to be of meaning. There are photos, too, like the ones taken on the rolleiflex but also others, of his co-stars and friends, which reveal more about his yearning for understanding that never totally seems to eventuate. In many of the videos he holds the recorder at arms length and points the lens back at his face, and starts spinning. Watching this made me more and more anxious as the footage continued, even as other viewers in the cinema laughed. Heath looks distracted, not calm or level-headed, and as the spinning continues for minutes upon minute, the obvious becomes clear – everything is moving too fast, and there is someone who might not know how to handle that.

One big takeaway from the film is that he was exceedingly generous, and eager to connect and engage with those that he loved, but simultaneously unable to. He was heartfelt and child-like in the best of ways and the worst of ways, and deeply affected the lives of everyone he came in contact with, people who were mystified and compelled by his nature. His charity and care were as conflicted by his imposter syndrome, or as his ex-partner Naomi Watts says in the film, an internalised “tall-poppy syndrome.” The character that the Australian public had painted of him gave him a semi-legendary status situated in a unique humility and wholesomeness, but Ledger’s presence suggests that maybe he burnt out on those expectations.

What some of us begin to learn over time is that sometimes “closure” has become obsolete – all that is left is the recognition of what has stayed with us from someone’s love and association, of their presence and the ever-transforming attachments they gifted us. Heath’s eulogisation stands as an effort of his close friends to bring his likeness into the aether once more, with the promise that something can be realised. Even though his family were not directly involved, their presence still rings the most significant. It is dire to realise that someone could grow up and away form you so quickly only to be vanished away like he was. When we realise that, “I am heath ledger” can stand as its own love note, and not as a cautionary tale, as a hesitant viewer-to-be might have expected.

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