Arts / Exposing the mysteries of Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger, April 19, 2001. Photo by Karin Catt

EVEN to himself, the late Heath Ledger was something of a mystery.

The quintessential actor who changed his style to match his changing characters, he once said: “I feel like I’m wasting my time if I repeat myself”.

Well before his untimely death at age 28 from a prescription drug overdose, his roles were not just legendary but varied – the troubled young man in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” and the brooding, witty hero of “Ned Kelly”, directed by Gregor Jordan who had brought Ledger to prominence in the youthful film “Two Hands”.

Amid the outpouring of public grief over his death Ledger was honoured with a posthumous Oscar and a BAFTA for his performance as the psychotic Joker in “The Dark Knight”, of which one critic wrote: “This young actor looked into the abyss”.

Now the National Film and Sound Archive is bringing to Canberra the WA Museum’s blockbuster exhibition, “Heath Ledger: A Life in Pictures”.
The exhibition is part of the archive’s CEO Jan Müller’s drive to create a higher public profile and, after a long hiatus in large-scale exhibitions (last year’s big show “Starstruck” was co-curated by the NFSA but installed at the National Portrait Gallery), the old anatomy museum has been completely refurbished to provide what they are calling “a new space”.

Heath Ledger at Guildford Grammar Preparatory School, 1989.

“Heath Ledger: A Life in Pictures” celebrates the Australian actor’s screen career with the display of costumes, including the Joker suit from “The Dark Knight” and the shirts from “Brokeback Mountain”, his research journal, his Best Supporting Actor Oscar and BAFTA for “The Dark Knight” and portraits by international photographers such as Karin Catt and Bruce Weber.

But when “CityNews” catches up with Sydney-based consultant curator Allison Holland, it quickly becomes clear that the real focus of the show is on Ledger as a developing director.

It’s not a new task for Holland, who was also consultant curator to the Ledger family and the WA Museum over the eight years it took to develop an exhibition about a true local artistic hero, which saw 80,000 punters passing through the doors in WA.

Holland says: “You could almost call it a different project now that it’s being staged away from his hometown… he was known personally to a lot of people there.”

Born and schooled in Perth, she says, Ledger did a lot of TV there with Barron Entertainment’s TV productions for kids.

“It’s where he grew up, so the exhibition in Perth had a very strong community feel.”

The exhibition in Perth was slightly larger, she says, as some objects were too fragile to be transported. “But there is a beautiful design team for this installation,” she says, “and the core of the content is essentially the same.”

So why did Ledger appeal so much to the public imagination?

In Holland’s view it was primarily because he was Australian, a gifted actor and one interested in all aspects of the film industry. He was committed to directing and undoubtedly would have become one of our foremost directors.

He loved music, but most of all he liked engaging with the filmmakers, the costumiers, the make-up people and, indeed, everyone involved in helping him build a role.

In his short life, she says, he had three main passions; acting, chess and sport. As a boy he competed in the Globe Shakespeare Competition, in school musical productions and the Rock Eisteddfod, but at 16 he had to choose between acting and his beloved field hockey – acting won.

Holland outlines the structure of the exhibition: “We start with his childhood and then there’s a kind of filmography, but in fact my intention was not to do a filmography, I really wanted to show his collaborative nature and his relationship to people.”

There will be excerpts from some of his own films, six music videos that he directed and a look at his unfinished film, “The Queen’s Gambit”, which reflects his passion for chess.

A lot of the film footage on show, Holland says, was taken by his close friends.

“Small excerpts, but they give you an idea of behind-the-scenes.” And there are films that were influential on him by directors that he admired.

There won’t be posters, but there’ll be designs for his “Casanova costume” and lots of opportunities to hear other directors and actors talk about Ledger’s working style.

Holland believes the exhibition will appeal to a wide age group and says: “In WA I saw people as young as 15 coming for the surfing and surfboards, it was quite a variety, it was really lovely, like a family coming together”.

“Heath Ledger: A Life in Pictures”, National Film and Sound Archive, August 10-February 10. Free exhibition.

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