I don't pretend to know what sort of human being Heath Ledger was. I know he was a young man before his death earlier this week, and seemed to be relishing his new role as a father. Ledger seemed rather shy and introspective, at least during the few public interviews I saw him give.
But damn, that boy could act.
I thought he was just another pretty face in The Patriot. Then, as if giving the finger to me for pigeonholing him too quickly, Ledger blew me away in Monster's Ball. Ledger's "Sonny" served as the moral compass for the film, and the reason for the personal evolution that occurs in Hank, the character played by Billy Bob Thornton. Ledger's work in Ball was significant enough to make lots of folks take notice, but not a career builder in and of itself.
That came with Ennis Del Mar, Ledger's character from Brokeback Mountain. The character was tough and rough, and very masculine. He also happened to be gay, and in love with another man. Ledger's approach to creating Del Mar helped that character come across as genuine and truthful, and as having a great sense of integrity. I agree with fellow movie-lover Ian Casselberry that Brokeback Mountain is one of the most important films of the last decade.
The importance of that movie became evident this week when bloggers and news sources reported the infamous "God Hates Fags" church, the Westboro Baptist Church, from Kansas, would be protesting outside Ledger's stateside memorial services. “You cannot live in defiance of God,” a spokesperson for the church said. “He got on that big screen with a big, fat message: God is a liar and it’s OK to be gay.”
I doubt seriously that Ledger would appreciate being known for one single role from his career. I do know, though, that the Westboro Baptist Church folk have it all wrong. Ledger's role in Brokeback wasn't important because it slapped a god they happen to worship in the face.
The movie, and Ledger's role in it, was important because of other reasons:
Somewhere in America, after seeing that movie, a kid who previously felt ashamed of his sexual tendencies stopped thinking about suicide. After seeing that movie, at least one set of parents stopped hating their son. Someone who occasionally went out on weekends to bully and beat homosexuals stopped after seeing that movie. And someone who professed to despise the homosexual lifestyle watched Ledger's performance in Brokeback and felt compassion, and made a personal move toward acceptance.
Even if only an inch.
That's Ledger's legacy, at least in my eyes. The "God Hates Fags" people are right about one thing: Ledger did make some powerful statements to his audience. And because of the statements that came from his artistry, the lives of a few people-- and our society as a whole-- are better off.