I’m not writing this piece because I want to diminish Heath Ledger enigmatic performance as Joker in The Dark Knight in any way. He brought a combination of cartoonish evilness and truly unpredictable darkness to Christopher Nolan’s wonderfully rich reboot of the traditional franchise, proving not only his own impressive range as an actor but also that it was a good call to restart it from scratch. His Academy Award was well-deserved, and there’s no doubt which of the two Jokers – Ledger’s or Jack Nicholson’s – will get the most attention when the history of the Hollywood blockbuster is written. While many superhero movies have enormous ambitions with regard to channeling the social and political anxieties of our day – see: Zack Snyder’s messy Watchmen – Ledger’s magnetic performance allowed Nolan to introduce moral dilemmas such as the use of torture and illegal wiretapping into a story that at the same time kept the pace and feel of a summer movie.
Still, my question is which Heath Ledger film historians and movie lovers will remember. Though his filmography spanned such diverse films as Monster’s Ball, 10 Things I Hate About You and The Patriot, it should be uncontroversial to say that The Dark Knight and Brokeback Mountain were his standouts. These two movies alone, along with the powerful mythology of the young Hollywood dead (think James Dean, or River Phoenix) should be enough to make his star shine through for years and years to come. But exactly how his legacy is viewed could depend on whether we will remember him first and foremost as the guy who did Joker in The Dark Knight or the guy who was Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. Depending on how powerful you consider Hollywood’s silent Council Of Guardians of Good Taste to be – be they critics, film historians or fellow film people – a case could be made that it would be best for Ledger’s long-term status if Brokeback won the right to define him.
Again, this has little to do with me thinking that it would be a bad thing in any way if Ledger was instead remembered for The Dark Knight. But whether you like it or not, genre movies, or blockbusters more broadly – The Dark Knight is both – have never been a hit with those guarding good taste in Hollywood. This notion is based on nothing more than my personal sense of things, and I’m sure you could easily dig up a slew of examples to the contrary, but try to follow me halfway here: While I’m not saying that they’re equally good, it’s my definitive sense that since they both came out in the early nineties, psychological thriller (?) The Silence of the Lambs have had to fight very much harder to keep its recognition than (for example) the inspiring epic drama The Shawshank Redemption ever did. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easier for epics than genre movies. Titanic is pretty much the definition of an epic, complete with hugely impressive technical accomplishments and a fair amount of critical praise. But I nevertheless get the feeling that many influential people have, and have always had, problems fully embracing Titanic, both for its unambiguous romantic ambitions, and its extreme popularity. In the end, this of course comes down to a question of quality and taste, but I can’t help but suspect that the (relative) obscurity of (the great) There Will Be Blood made it easier for feinschmeckers to carry its water, since one could convincingly argue that it needed the recognition more than Titanic, a film that practically promoted itself, did. Provocatively speaking, the result could be that very popular films are faced with much tougher benchmarks for critical praise and inclusion in the canon of film history than films that doesn’t resonate with as broad an audience.
Staying with the Titanic example a little longer before returning to Heath Ledger, let me use Leonardo DiCaprio as an illustration of my theory. He was never nominated for an Oscar for Titanic, even though almost everyone agreed he made a fine performance. Instead, he had to struggle with a pretty-boy image that in many ways originated from the enormous popularity of that film. To this day, it’s my definitive impression that that image somehow frames his every performance, possibly making it harder for him to get recognized by critics, even though he has been nominated for an Academy Award for both The Aviator and Blood Diamond. You may disagree with me on exactly how much influence his Titanic past still holds over how he is perceived today, but my point is that if you want to rise to become a critical darling, you absolutely have to strike the right balance between popular acclaim (Titanic) and what we could imprecisely call arthouse credibility (these films don’t necessarily have to be small, but they should leave critics sure that they will not become huge hits. This is where I would place both The Aviator and Gangs of New York).
With respect to Heath Ledger, this distinction should suggest Brokeback‘s combination of epic ambition, controversy (the gay angle), and the way it challenged our perceptions of that essential American mythological figure, the cowboy, represents his best shot at getting canonized. From this perspective it could also be a plus that it was denied the Best Picture Oscar, courtesy of the long-since forgotten Crash, thus only furthering the ‘controversy’ narrative. If the slow march towards marriage rights just started in Iowa and Vermont, and soon expected to be extended to New York signals a broader trend, it could also be that Brokeback and Milk in the future will be attributed with making the gay issue less controversial in American cinema, thus playing up Brokeback‘s historical importance. On the other hand, if the threat from terrorism continues to be one of the defining conflict lines in political discourse in the coming years, the gloom of The Dark Knight could be considered every bit as relevant as the issues high-lighted in Brokeback.
Until now, I have gone to great lengths to emphasize that I mainly want to investigate how Ledger’s lasting legacy might change depending on which film is considering his hallmark achievement, and I’ve been careful not to pick a favorite between. I would of course have preferred if he were somehow acknowdledged for his whole body of work (there has to be a place somewhere for the irresistible charms of 10 Things), but if I had to choose, I’d go with Brokeback. It’s not just that I want to promote a milestone in gay cinema. Long term, I suspect both Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway will go on to make a great impact on this age in American cinema, which could by time, paradoxically, elevate the old-fashioned beauty of Brokeback into not only a portrait of America’s recent past, but also a snapshot of a new, golden Hollywood generation.