Heath, Kurt Cobain, and the movies of 2005

Like everyone I am sure, I was deeply saddened by the death of Heath Ledger this week. His work in Brokeback Mountain was one of the best in my lifetime. I’ll get to my thoughts on his too-young-to-die death and comparisons with Kurt Cobain later in this post, but a few days after Ledger died, I remembered how unbelievably incredible 2005 — the year Brokeback Mountain was released — was for movies. This in a decade where there have been scant few good films, even fewer great ones, and a whole lot of shitty ones. The exceptions to this are the Lord of the Rings trilogy (of course) and many of the films of 2005. That year was such an anomaly for this ’00s decade by far. It’s something I’ll post about later. [update: here it is.]

But as far as Ledger’s work in Brokeback Mountain, specifically, it ranked up there as among the best I’ve ever seen. Phillip Seymour Hoffman won Best Actor for Capote in 2005. I loved that movie — it depicted the writing life perfectly, and for a time I thought it was the best picture of that year. Hoffman was incredible as Truman Capote, and any other year this decade he’d win my Best Actor award.

I thought Heath Ledger was better.

Ledger’s mumbles, his restraint, his fucking eyes, all perfectly portrayed Ennis’ internalized pain, regret, restraint, and rare (but volcanic) explosions of anger.

Ledger so accurately portrayed so many rural men (straight or gay), men “in the country.” Growing up in Dutchess and spending three-plus years covering the rural part of that county, I saw a lot of men out there like Heath’s performance as Ennis — fuck it that the character was gay. I said it before: that they’re gay is almost beside the point in that film. Slate’s reviewer made the note that it was impossible for anyone to love Ennis. Kind of sums up a lot of men out in the country, and a lot of men in this country.

I’d put Ledger’s performance up with Al Pacino as Michael in Godfather II. And that takes nothing away from Hoffman as Truman. You wished the films had competed in separate years, that way they both could have won Best Actor, because no other performance even came close to those two this decade. But if you had to pick one, I go with Heath Ledger.

OK, on to Ledger and Kurt Cobain. Both died tragically young under unusual circumstances (is any young death not unusual?), both left young daughters, and they both achieved popular fame and recognition as an artist.

I’m glad I got to see Heath’s work “in the present,” at least in his great film. With Cobain, I was late to the party, and it took me almost 10 years to appreciate his work.

Typical of the tortured artist, Kurt Cobain, if I recall, had trouble with the fame part of it all. Don’t remember if that led him to suicide, but I seem to remember it was a contributing factor. Though we don’t know the exact nature of Heath’s death (suicide? accidental overdose? who knows?), it sounds like he, too, was uncomfortable with fame. And like Cobain, and a lot of artists who still live, the “art” part of it took a lot out of him, and ultimately, its final toll.


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