Santa Barbara Film Festival: Heath Ledger

By Madelyn Ritrosky
Entertainment Magazine

Heath Ledger (left) and Michelle Williams (right) star in Ang Lee's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, a Focus Features release.

Heath Ledger was given the Santa Barbara Film Festival’s Imperia Breakthrough Performance of the Year Award on February 8 for his sensitive portrayal of Ennis Del Mar in the highly acclaimed BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.  Behind the camera, director Ang Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana transfer to the screen the short story by Annie Proulx that haunted Ossana for years.  The actors, working in front of the camera, bring the characters to life in passionate yet subtle performances that have earned Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Michelle Williams Oscar nominations.  Ledger’s nomination is for best actor. 

When Heath Ledger stepped on to the packed red carpet at the historic Lobero Theater in downtown Santa Barbara, his BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN co-star and fiancé, Michelle Williams, was at his side.  He only made it about halfway along the press line before going over to the other side of the carpet to the fans.  It was nice to see his obvious appreciation for those who came out to see him in person.  Since the recent water-gun incident in Australia (a reporter rudely squirted him in the face) and with his new family (Williams and their infant daughter), he is justifiably wary of the press. 

Ledger seemed uncomfortable at first when he took his seat on stage – who wouldn’t be? – and joked about figuring out what to do with his nervous hands.  He said his publicist had suggested he sit on them, which he promptly did.  But it was not only his humor and straightforwardness that endeared him to the audience at the Lobero.  He made numerous remarks that left no doubt as to where his priorities lay.  When asked if he considered 2005 a breakthrough year, he unhesitatingly answered, “In terms of having my daughter – yes.”  That is a touching answer.  To be honest, I have not paid much attention to Ledger other than seeing some of his films.  But after watching him in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and then listening to him at this award night, I have to say I am impressed.         

Heath Ledger (left) and financé Michelle Williams (right) outside the Lobero Theater. Photo by Madelyn Ritrosky

Ledger described his attraction to acting and his desire to take some time off from it as coming from his “enthusiasm and curiosity about life. . . . I’m participating in life.  Performing becomes stale when you stay working only.”  While he loves acting, he said it can be very difficult:  “The only way you can ever bare your soul and be vulnerable” in front of the camera is by pretending there is no camera.  And what he looks for in a script changes over time as he “matures and changes as a person.”   

In reference to his experiences with BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, he said everything went right on that film – he called it “synchronicity.”  I have no doubt that he was referring to the turn in his personal life as well, for he met Michelle Williams on the set of that film.

In fact, he went on to say that Williams and their new baby were “hands down the biggest gift I was given with this film.  That definitely exceeds anything else surrounding the film.”  I could not see Williams’s face from where I sat, but when a man proclaims something like this about the woman he loves – and in such a public way – it is a heady sensation.  (Luckily, I am fortunate enough to have experienced this myself.)

As for the film, Ledger felt it was “a beautiful story that hadn’t been made – and that’s rare.”  Regarding the character of Ennis Del Mar specifically, he said, “I had to physicalize his story.  He’s pure potential, and he never gets past that.”  Ledger said he clenched his mouth to represent how Ennis was as a person, “so closed but incredibly vulnerable and incredibly emotional.”  And, he said that while he felt “awkward and uncomfortable” doing the intimate scenes with Jake Gyllenhaal, he used that to convey the character’s similarly anxious feelings.   

As for all the awards attention the film and his performance have received, he said, “You don’t want to be in a race, but you are.”  But he apparently takes it in stride, and very proudly proclaimed that his beloved family absolutely comes first:  “We have the most beautiful distraction at home.  We’re so exhausted from being up all night with our baby.”  He said this with a contented smile, making eye contact with Williams in the audience – just as he did countless times throughout the evening.  It was fascinating to get a glimpse of the man behind the actor.  Ledger is a philosopher, and said he has talked for hours upon hours about “love, life, and destiny – I love that stuff.”  So do I.        

Heath Ledger (left) and Jake Gyllenhaal (right) star in Ang Lee's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, a Focus Features release. Publicity photos courtesy of Focus Features.

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