The ambiguous hero
This sadly underachieving decade, which the British tellingly call the “noughts,” has been a troubled one for the concept of masculinity. That’s been as true of Hollywood movies as it has of the increasingly nebulous entity we call the real world.
As much as any serious actor of his generation, Heath Ledger, the 28-year-old Australian who was found dead Tuesday in a Manhattan apartment, grappled on screen with the shifting, clashing ideals of what masculinity might mean at the start of the 21st century. Whether playing a heroin-addled poet, a goofy but earnest medieval knight who beats time to ‘70s rock tunes, a British officer determined to recoup his lost honor, a womanizing Venetian libertine or a sheep-herding cowboy who falls tragically in love with his bunkmate, Ledger wrestled, painfully and often very movingly, with trying to reconcile manhood’s competing claims of duty, honor, love, sexuality, work and loyalty (to a woman, a man, a country, an ideal).
In contrast to certain of his lighter-weight contemporaries in their 20s and early 30s, Ledger didn’t simply make “guy films.” He seemed to steer away from the frat-house jocularity and beery “I-love-you-man!” sentimentality that so many young male performers fall back on in order to reassure their fans, their publicists and perhaps themselves that, underneath whatever sensitive, emotionally layered character they may be portraying, they still haven’t lost that ol’ macho swagger. Tough guys don’t dance, the recently departed pugilist-novelist Norman Mailer once wrote. Neither do they tear up on screen very often, at least not if they still want to be seen as tough guys.
Ledger had a basso profundo ruggedness about him, a premature cragginess that already had begun to nip away at his youthful beauty. But he wasn’t afraid to show a deeper vulnerability beneath the scrappy Aussie exterior, a self-doubt that apparently mirrored the actor’s own soul. “I like to do something I fear,” he told The Times in a 2005 interview. ". . . I like to be afraid of the project. I always am. . . . There’s a huge amount of anxiety that drowns out any excitement I have toward the project.”
It was largely that roiling anxiety and vulnerability -- and the courage to show it to the world -- that set Ledger apart from the plastic action-hero and pretty-boy Hollywood masses, and that made him especially appealing to female audiences. (If you doubt this, check out the copious digital eulogies now flooding the Internet.)
Like his namesake, Heathcliff, the brooding hero of Emily Bronte’s archetypal Gothic novel “Wuthering Heights,” Ledger gave vent to obsessive, over-the-top emotional states that Western popular culture, since at least the Romantic period, has more commonly assigned to women. His brave, emotionally (and often literally) naked performances, typically shorn of any protective irony, exposed him to risks that some other stars avoid. By certain accounts, his recently completed work as the Joker in the next “Batman” installment may have taken him to a darker, more dangerous place than he himself expected to go.
Even, or perhaps especially, at his most tight-lipped and stoic, as the lovesick cowboy Ennis Del Mar in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” Ledger conveys the sublime inner torment that comes from willingly sacrificing everything, even your own sense of self, in exchange for a few stolen moments with an obscure object of desire, in this case the slicker, more resilient and emotionally evasive Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.
In the film’s final seconds, alone in his trailer home some time after Jack has been brutally murdered, probably in a gay-bashing hate crime, Ennis gently fingers his friend’s old shirt while surveying the ruins of his own broken life. “Jack, I swear . . . ,” he says, choking up, leaving the thought unfinished, a gesture of monosyllabic eloquence that Ledger pulls off with a graceful economy few actors could muster.
Following the adage of Evelyn Waugh in “Brideshead Revisited,” another great fictional work centered on a homosexual romance, Ennis learns, at a shattering price, that “to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.” What made Ledger’s performance an instant touchstone for gay audiences, and earned him an Academy Award nomination for lead actor, was how he convinces us that Ennis, despite the agony it has caused him and others, considers that price to have been worth paying.
Robert Stone, Ken Kesey and others have written insightfully about how the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution and the other social upheavals of the 1960s radically altered our notions of what makes a man manly. In a single decade we flipped from John Wayne to Mick Jagger. Reflecting our confusion, the period ushered in a generation of troubled male loners (Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle).
Marlon Brando and the ever-youthful ghost of James Dean (with whom Ledger inevitably now will be compared) remain the gold standard of ambivalent masculinity in postwar Hollywood. A handful of young actors will keep trying to express those ambiguities in physical and spoken form. Gyllenhaal, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gael Garcia Bernal, Adrien Brody, Christian Bale and Tobey Maguire come to mind.
But one wonders when another image of a male character, or two, will take hold of the imagination as firmly as the poster design for “Brokeback Mountain.” That instantly recognizable pairing of the two actors in partial profile was immediately seized on by parodists and political cartoonists, who substituted other odd couples, such as Bush and Cheney, for Ledger and Gyllenhaal. The movie’s representation of the ultimate American rugged individualist, the Marlboro Man, in tears, gives rise to powerful, uncomfortable emotions at a time when America itself has been humbled and, in the eyes of much of the world, emasculated.
A colleague of mine suggested that Ledger may have been the Eli Manning of actors. Manning, the young, half-proven New York Giants quarterback who will lead his team on Super Bowl Sunday, possesses something of Ledger’s articulate reticence, his knight- errant quality mixed with a slight, enduring gawkiness, his aura of a hero yet-to-be.
Whether those qualities in Ledger, and his streaks of brilliance, would have coalesced into an era-defining artist is now unknowable. All we are left with is sentence fragments, inchoate feelings, the low murmur of an unfulfilled promise. “Jack, I swear. . . .”