In the years since his death, Heath Ledger has become a celebrated figure. This is definitely in part thanks to the James Dean effect; dying young often causes an artist’s or public figure’s reputation to soar, as morbid as that is. But with all due respect to Jimmy Dean, Ledger was a far more capable actor. His performance as the Joker helped to legitimize the superhero movie as a proper artistic expression. To this day, his turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight (which posthumously won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) remains the most revered acting job in an action movie. He also shined in serious and challenging roles in films such as Brokeback Mountain, I’m Not There, and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. It was during the filming of the latter that Ledger died.
Heath Ledger died on January 22, 2008 of, what was ruled to be by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York, cardiac arrest brought on by an accidental overdose of prescription medication. The drugs concerned were oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine. It is still unclear where he got all the pills and exactly which doctors prescribed which medications. Nonetheless, Ledger is now seen as a tragic figure who struggled for his art. In hoping to learn more about the actor and his demise, many have looked to the photographic record in search of answers. Here are 15 photos that were taken of Ledger shortly before his untimely death.
15. Vanity Fair
This was the cover of the June 2009 issue of Vanity Fair. The issue was dedicated to the life and work of Heath Ledger and examined further the details of his death. On the right is a photo of Ledger taken sometime in the last year of his life, presumably at an award show. Possibly the Academy Awards Show in the winter of 2007. On the left is a much older photo of a younger Ledger. The photo on the left was part of a series taken when Ledger first appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. The magazine did a whole feature on the young promising actor. The magazine detailed Ledger’s chronic insomnia which was what lead him to take so many different pills.
14. With His Daughter
Here we see a photo of Ledger with his daughter Matilda Rose, in October of 2007. Matilda Rose would have been about two at the time. It was on the set of Brokeback Mountain that Ledger began dating his co-star, Michelle Williams. The two would have broken up by the time this photo was taken. When remembering Heath Ledger, we mainly think of him as a performer and an artist. But he was also a father and, tragically, Matilda Rose has been growing up without him. She’ll be lucky if she has any memories of him at all. Ledger was such a young man himself, we often don’t think of his daughter. But Ledger was a beloved father, son, brother, and many other things to many other people.
Here we see Heath Ledger at a gala of some sort, likely a charity event, also in the last year of his life. Ledger’s charity work would expand past his own life. His father founded a charity in Heath’s name devoted to bringing about awareness about prescription medication abuse. It’s unclear if Heath suffered from chronic medication abuse or it was just in the last weeks and days of his life that he was taking too many drugs. Ledger’s problem was exacerbated by a cold he picked up on the set of his last film. His respiratory problems caused Ledger to seek extreme solutions to his sleeping difficulties. The combination of the stress of filming a movie and his cold meant that Ledger was hardly sleeping at all. In desperation and perhaps poor judgement cause by lack of sleep, Ledger overdosed on medication.
12. The Joker
Here we see Ledger in his Joker makeup, probably sometime in the summer of 2007. The Dark Knight was filmed over the course of seven to eight months, but the bulk of it was filmed in Chicago from June to September. Ledger appears to be wearing the nurse uniform that the Joker wears in one scene of the film. Going into the film, everybody was talking about Ledger because of his death. Coming out of it, everybody was talking about Ledger because of his performance. Ledger’s performance was so captivating that it earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. An Oscar for a superhero movie is shocking indeed, but Ledger’s performance not only elevated the movie, but the whole genre. The Joker is a character that had existed for decades before Ledger, yet he was able to make it his own.
This photograph looks to have been taken on the same night as the one featured on the cover of Vanity Fair. If indeed from the Academy Awards, Ledger would have been attending merely as a guest. However, it was at the prior year’s Oscars that Ledger was nominated for Best Actor for his work in the outstanding film, Brokeback Mountain. While ledger didn’t win that night, had he lived longer, he’s likely to have picked up a Best Actor Oscar at some point. Ledger did receive an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. But sadly, that had to be awarded to him posthumously. His career was definitely trending in the right direction, even if his personal life wasn’t.
9. I’m Not There
Here, Ledger is doing an interview in promotion of the film I’m Not There, in November 2007. The movie is an imaginative biopic inspired by the life and work of Bob Dylan. Interestingly, I’m Not There used a similar (and rare) method of casting that would also be used in Ledger’s final film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Bob Dylan is portrayed by six different actors, each depicting a different character meant to represent a different period in Dylan’s life or a separate facet of his persona. While director Todd Haynes chose this unconventional route, Terry Gilliam would be forced into using a similar tactic in The Imaginarium due to Ledger’s death during filming. In I’m Not There, Ledger’s version of Dylan was the character Robbie Brookside, who, like the real life Ledger, was an actor who was somewhat uncomfortable with his fame. While Ledger excelled in this role, he was not the star performer as he was of other films. Cate Blanchett’s version of Dylan mesmerized critics and audiences alike.
9. The Portrait
This is an incredibly interesting photo. It is a composite portrait by the visual artist Vincent Fantauzzo. Ledger sat for these photos in December 2007, barely a month before his death. Fantauzzo did not release the portrait to the public until months after Ledger’s passing. It’s difficult to know how much Ledger’s death affected the way in which Fantauzzo assembled the composite portrait and his work on it. Looking back on it now, Ledger definitely seems troubled and emotionally unstable. More than anything, Ledger looks tired. And fatigue would be perhaps the major factor in the actor’s death. It is a chilling work of art, reminiscent of ceremonial death masks or sarcophagi. For all we know, Ledger and Fantauzzo had a great time during the shoot and Ledger was not troubled at all. But it’s impossible to look at it now and not feel dread and sorrow.
8. The Final Days
This is a photo from what appears to be Ledger’s final official public appearance. It’s unclear if this shot is from the public event itself, or just outside as Ledger was going to or leaving the event. The event in question was some photographic documentation of the filming of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The photos were, presumably, meant to be used at a later date, as either promotion for the film before its release, or as some DVD extras or something of the like. The filming for the movie (in which Ledger took part) was in London, England. Ledger, of course, would infamously not finish the movie because of his untimely death. His death would nearly derail the film entirely, but it also shone a much brighter spotlight than it otherwise would have had.
7. The Fall
This shot is from the same photo opportunity as the one from above. Why is Ledger on the ground? Well, I’d love to know myself. You’d think that one of the last set of photos taken for official media purposes of a famous actor who would shortly die thereafter would be heavily scrutinized. Especially when said actor was lying on the ground. But there doesn’t appear to be a lot of information about this specific shot available on the web. Did he merely slip and fall? Was he rehearsing for a scene in the film? Was he just playing a joke? It remains a mystery. These photos are clearly not meant for media consumption themselves. It’s unclear what they were for. It looks like they were taken by a paparazzo, but they’ve been described on various sites as part of an official public event. The whole thing is a bit weird.
6. On Set Part One
Here we see Ledger intently studying the script on the set of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The movie divided opinion. Many saw it as an unfortunate last film for Ledger as it didn’t quite deliver on the hype. It was confusing and overly ambitious. Others very much liked the film and thought director Terry Gilliam’s challenging and mercurial style was a fine testament to Ledger’s growing range and intellectualism as an actor. Ultimately, Ledger’s death added a great deal of hype to the film which it otherwise wouldn’t have had. But the producers had to walk a narrow line of taking advantage of the hype but not trying to exploit Ledger’s death. In the end the mass appeal of “Ledger’s final film” did not quite jive with the avant-garde, ethereal movie.
5. On Set Part Two
This photo was taken at the same time as the previous one. Behind Ledger is actress Lily Cole, who co-starred in The Imaginarium. Ledger’s death put the whole film in jeopardy. Gilliam initially thought the movie would have to be aborted, as Ledger’s involvement was a major key in securing financial backing for the movie. Gilliam then wondered if he could save the film using CGI to replace Ledger. Eventually, Gilliam landed on the idea that the Imaginarium would change Tony into different physical versions of himself, which led him to cast Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law, as the other versions of Tony. It actually makes a lot of sense for the film and if anything adds to the plot. Initial reports suggested that Tom Cruise wanted to take part, but Gilliam respectfully declined his offer as he only wanted to cast actors who were real life friends with Ledger.
4. As Tony Shepherd
Here we see a promotional shot (or at least, what was intended be a promotional shot) of Ledger in costume and performing as Tony. While not necessarily known as a method actor, Ledger really got into his roles. This caused some to speculate that Ledger was so committed to and got so far into the mind of the Joker, that this may have played with his own psyche. As tantalizing a story as that would be, it doesn’t seem to be true. Ledger’s family and those closest to him have consistently rebuffed this notion, saying Ledger seemed as normal and sane as ever after the filming for The Dark Knight wrapped up. Ledger himself said he enjoyed the role and that it was a lot of fun.
3. The Noose
This is a screenshot from The Imaginarium. Yes, that is Heath Ledger in a hangman’s noose. The first time we see Ledger’s character, Tony Shepherd, he is hanging from a noose. The character is not dead, but it is certainly an eerie shot considering that Ledger would actually die not even a month after filming this particular scene. Director Terry Gilliam and the production crew debated whether or not they wanted to keep the shot. Ultimately, they had to keep it, as it’s the introduction of the Tony character, and pretty important to the plot. Even so, they knew many viewers would be jolted out of the film momentarily upon seeing it, reminded of the real life tragedy that occurred during filming. It was not an easy decision .
2. The Last Shot
According to TMZ, this is the last public photo ever taken of a living Heath Ledger. It was taken on set in London. Ledger is in costume for his role of ‘Tony’ in The Imaginarium. The movie was filmed in two separate chunks; the first in London and the second in Vancouver. After Ledger finished his London scenes, he flew back to his home in New York before going out to Vancouver for the second part. Of course, Ledger never made it to Vancouver. Acting can be pretty intense, and even though a film might only take a few weeks and fellow actors may never see each other again, the intensity required in their craft has a tendency to bring people together. So one can only imagine the emotional toll Ledger’s death took on his fellow actors and crew members.
1. The Tragedy
This is the last photo ever taken of Heath Ledger available to the public. And you can’t even see him. He’s just a lifeless body inside a bag. One of the most promising actors of a generation, dead. Rarely has a sack contained so much lost potential. It’s sad and what’s so frustrating is that there’s no clear person on whom, or thing on which, to lay the blame. Was Ledger just one of the many great artists to have lost his struggle with drug addiction? Was he another great entertainer to have lost his struggle with a mental illness? Maybe. But it’s still unclear. Ledger’s father has revealed that Ledger told his sister he was having trouble sleeping and wanted to take something for it. His sister cautioned him on mixing medications. Sadly, Heath did not heed this advice. In the end, Ledger’s story might be as simple as a man who was frustrated by a cold and lack of sleep and made a bad decision about which meds to take. The best thing we can do is learn from his mistake and exercise caution when we ourselves take medication.