Yes. It’s sad when talented people die untimely deaths. Hell, it’s sad when people die, period. And when they’re relatively young, it’s often also shocking. And most of us don’t leave behind a significant artistic legacy that keeps us “alive” in the eyes of those who delve into our work. But Heath Ledger did. He played a relentlessly diverse string of roles, including an astonishing performance in Brokeback Mountain and a take on The Joker that probably put Jack Nicholson in therapy. He directed music videos and saturated himself with art. He was talented and handsome and versatile and he died too young. Given.
The documentary I Am Heath Ledger, on Spike TV, is a bit of a head-scratcher. If you were a huge fan of Heath Ledger’s, it’ll provide a nostalgic kick (and some significant eye-candy; the guy was pretty adorable) and probably not a lot of info you didn’t already have. If you don’t know anything about him, you’ll see footage of a vivacious, relentlessly curious person beloved by absolutely everyone, who took Hollywood by storm and died of an accidental drug overdose at age 28. I suppose it is within the scope of the truest definition of “documentary”—it’s a document. Almost in the way a home movie is. It focuses on pleasant memories. It doesn’t analyze or reveal much of anything. In fact, depending on how you approach it, the program might well strike you as either incredibly indulgent—or weirdly defensive.
Though the Internet is populated with a certain number of speculations that his mind-blowing turn as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight caused Ledger to Method act himself into some kind of meltdown that prompted his demise, it’s pretty widely accepted that his death was an accident. Heck, I have no reason not to believe that—I didn’t know the guy. I mean, yeah, there were some kind of weird aspects to the situation, chiefly that Ledger didn’t seem like an idiot and you’d have to be a big-league dummy to mix significant doses of two different benzodiazepines, two kinds of sleeping pills and two opioid narcotics and think all you were going to get was a little shut-eye.
Oh, by the way, the documentary doesn’t give you that info; it makes a couple of regret-infused comments about “sleeping tablets.” Ledger was well-known for being an insomniac with a manic type of creative process—his father, Kim Ledger, notes on camera that even as a very small child he rarely slept. Okay. I get that. What I don’t get is the point of a documentary that spoon-feeds you every nice thing you already knew about a famous actor and glosses over the only real questions most people probably have. How did this tragic accident happen, and why? And this is where things get freaking weird.
A search of Google News will tell you that there were over 24,000 stories about Ledger in the three weeks beginning with the inchoate, chaotically reported discovery of his body. The initial insanity coalesced into two competing threads: In one, Ledger was an angel who made a tragic miscalculation. In the other, there was a really no-duh explanation for the chronic insomnia and inhuman energy—the man was high out of his mind on anything he could get his hands on, 24/7. None of this is in the documentary. At all. Not even a glimpse that his family, his friends, or the people who created the program were aware of the bizarrely cleft double life Heath Ledger led in the media. You know what’s interesting? That.
You know what’s also interesting? The several references to “a friend” who was involved in the discovery of his body. It only takes a cursory consult with Professor Google to know that the friend was Mary Kate Olsen and that she refused to be interviewed by investigators into his death without immunity from prosecution. The theory that she had supplied him with the drugs that killed him were not substantiated, but why would your friend-with-benefits need immunity from prosecution in order to discuss the situation?
You know what’s even more interesting? The fact that everyone involved in this documentary seems to think something terrible is going to happen if anyone says it out loud: That, accident though it might have been, the accident occurred because the man was alone and in crisis. Ill (some accounts said flu or pneumonia), stressed (ex-girlfriend Michelle Williams had taken their daughter to India for some down time), struggling with mood disorders or drug abuse or both, and alone. It’s like a propaganda piece, and the world didn’t need one. It was okay for Heath Ledger to be brilliant and wonderful and imperfect and conflicted. I’m sure every word out of the mouth of every person interviewed in I Am Heath Ledger is from the heart. Truly. My question is this: Why would anyone feel the need to pretend he was the only man on Earth without a shadow?
There is a suggestion that he was uncomfortable with stardom. We knew that. Possibly he was so uncomfortable that the lifestyle was causing him severe panic, and anyone familiar with panic disorders can tell you that they make it real damn hard to sleep—and that they can make you desperate to get out of your own skin. People with anxiety disorders (or, hey, mania) are at extremely high risk for addiction because they (ahem, we) are often wildly uncomfortable and want the discomfort to stop. At this point, I don’t think anyone believes Ledger was a stranger to recreational drugs or mood problems, so it’s odd that something titled I Am Heath Ledger would ignore that stuff. Because this is clearly part of who he was. No one in a—I hate this word, but—normal psychological state would have failed to notice that his bedtime snack was likely to be lethal. It might have been an accident, but it’s not the kind of accident literate, intelligent adults make if they aren’t courting death at least a little. It’s as if this documentary was produced to insist that people should remember him as some kind of saint, when in reality, he didn’t, and doesn’t, need to be. And its insistence on showing only a gregarious, curious, generous, enthusiastic, passionate young man who died too young is bizarre. And if it struck you as a bit of an affront to his memory to whitewash and gloss over the stuff that probably led him to that untimely death? You wouldn’t get an argument from me. I Am One Carefully Curated Facet of A Much More Complex Person Named Heath Ledger? I don’t know, but for a documentary, this program is more interesting for what it refuses to say than for what it says.
There’s a voiceover at one point, where you hear Ledger’s voice saying that he really only feels alive “between action and cut,” when he’s in front of a camera (or behind it; he experimented with directing as well). It stands out, because everyone interviewed in this documentary says some version of this sentence: “He was the most alive person I ever knew.”
But he was hardly the first star to explode into existence, burn incredibly bright and hot, and run out of fuel. And it should be OK to say it.
I Am Heath Ledger airs tonight at 10 p.m. on Spike TV.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.