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Heath Ledger in 'Dark Knight': Bravo!

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Great actors, even those who have been blessed with longevity, often bear a tragic mark. It's not just the ups and downs of stardom that can make for a cruel career. Rough inner seas are typically the very reason someone seeks to be among what William Hazlitt, that lyrical witness of the early 19th century British stage, called "the motley representatives of human nature."

Heath Ledger's short legacy as a screen actor offers us enough evidence of the rarity of his talent. "Brokeback Mountain" may be the film that exposed to a wider audience the intensity of his dramatic commitment -- Ledger didn't simply impersonate a closeted cowboy, he showed us the shame and silence that had taken residence in Ennis Del Mar's sinews. But it's his turn as a terrorist clown in a menacing comic-book caper -- the last role he fully completed before his accidental overdose in January at age 28 -- that will seal his place among movie immortals.

Ledger's portrayal of the Joker in "The Dark Knight" is all that it's cracked up to be -- a stunning, frightening, pathological marvel that's deserving of the somber Oscar talk not normally associated with a superhero blockbuster.

Inevitably, the temptation is to scrutinize such a fateful performance for clues into the actor's mental state. We'd all like to catch a glimpse of an explanatory scar. But unlike, say, Judy Garland in "A Star Is Born" or Marlon Brando in "Last Tango in Paris," where the actors were playing characters with sharp biographical parallels, Ledger isn't portraying someone we can easily -- and all too mistakenly -- conflate with his private self.

At least there's some relief that his art won't be trampled by the gossip hounds. Better to celebrate Ledger's performance for the secrets it reveals and harbors about (to borrow from Hazlitt again) "the studied madness" of acting.

Unnaturally natural

Let's take this opportunity to first banish the inane assumption that craft is secondary to inspiration. The two work in tandem, as is obvious from the way Ledger manages to be so chillingly expressive with his face smeared in pancake makeup and lipstick and his hair transformed into a greasy green-tipped tangle. How does Ledger so uniquely personalize this flamboyant arch-villain who's already been colorfully incarnated by Cesar Romero in the 1960s "Batman" TV series and Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's 1989 film? With his patented good looks concealed, Ledger's forced to be more cunning with his physical resources, and you sense his delight in this freedom from Hollywood vanity.

Ledger's vocal mannerisms constitute a kind of diagnostic manual. Observe, for instance, the way he hits exaggerated Middle American consonants in the beginning, establishing his character not just as a criminal lunatic but a proverbial American one, a heartland offender run amok. And look how his mania affects the rate at which words pour from his scarred lips, slowing down to a normal clip by the end of the Joker's deadly game, even as we can be sure he's still fantasizing about fireballs in city streets.

Ledger isn't just after sick physical comedy with his slouch, jack-in-the-box spring and demonic head roll -- he's jotting down notes in a lengthy psychiatric case file. Quite amazing given the temptation to break loose of all mundane restraints, nothing's overdone -- not even the reptilian tongue, which emerges with the punctuating timeliness of an exclamation mark.

But it's through Ledger's eyes that we can peer into the actor's bottomless conviction and track the scurrying-rodent logic of his character's inexplicable evil. Maniacs who fly planes into buildings don't second-guess their distorted reality, and Ledger ambles around Joker's fun-house mind with an unshockable comfort. The film tosses off cryptic remarks about the Joker's brutal upbringing, but it's Ledger's antic disposition that lets us understand the traumatic past as a slippery myth that can never adequately explain malignant behavior.

The best actors are distinguished by their preternatural capacity to appear natural. They enter dreams and nightmares the way you and I enter our kitchens. An artist's vision is lived, emotionally and physically, so that while a lesser performer will signboard motives and big moments, a subtler talent will experience the not always predictable flux of his character's emotions as the larger dramatic pattern unfolds as though on its own.

That kind of performance requires more than instinct -- it needs an interpretive intelligence to guide it discreetly along. No surprise, then, that the most unforgettable performers are usually the smartest ones -- which is to say the deepest, philosophically and psychologically, as well as the most tactful, aesthetically and dramatically.

But are there unseen costs to this talent for rambling about imaginary places and stumbling over emotional furniture? At a 2001 memorial service for Kim Stanley -- by peer consensus Brando's equal in the '50s and '60s, who prematurely retired from the stage after a series of breakdowns -- Elaine Stritch, her costar in the Broadway premiere of William Inge's "Bus Stop," confided to all who had assembled that, in her view, what happened to Stanley was that "she got too goddamn real."

There's a price

Realness doesn't come cheaply. If you read about the life of Eleonora Duse, the Italian actress who inspired Stanislavsky with her anguished truth, you'll discover that the radiant pain she drew out of Ibsen, Zola and Dumas' "La Dame aux Camélias" was already overstocked in her disappointed heart. The point is that this ability to burst the bounds of artifice and create art that bleeds has to come from somewhere. Imaginations need roots.

Even for the buttoned-up English, it's not easy to shut the door on that troubled place when the gig is done. On the set of "Marathon Man," Laurence Olivier is said to have advised Dustin Hoffman, who had been putting himself through the ringer for his character, "Dear boy, you look absolutely awful. Why don't you try acting? It's so much easier." It's a good, if over-used, anecdote (apocryphal or not). But not even Lord Olivier, who strode the public scene more and more like an over-complicated Shakespearean king, was always so adept at maintaining a firewall between his life and work, to say nothing of wife Vivien Leigh, whose fragile mental health wasn't exactly shored up by her time as Blanche DuBois.

Roles aren't to blame, of course, for alcoholism, addiction and bipolar disorder. But when they are realized with fierce riptides of feeling, they hint at something peculiarly vulnerable about our icons. What's more, transcendent acting takes a toll in a way that goes beyond painting, poetry or other creative disciplines, because actors must utilize themselves in an inescapably naked way. There's nowhere to run when the camera or audience is before them. And though sophisticated veterans such as Judi Dench or Meryl Streep seem to handle the professional burden without too much wear and tear, it's no wonder they're eager to lighten the load with some lucrative James Bond or brainless "Mamma Mia!"

Let's not pretend there's no difference between Brando in "Tango" and the majority of acting work that earns our aloof respect. The quality that distinguishes the excellent from the extraordinary is danger -- sometimes informally referred to as "going there." It involves enormous freedom as well as discipline, but the genie isn't so easily put back in the bottle.

Ledger had the threatening spark that marks the best, and in "The Dark Knight" it's allowed to erupt into a magnificent flame. The proper response to such a gift, frustratingly short-lived as it was, is gratitude and awe.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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