24 January 2008

Poor Heath (Poor Gilliam...)

Like everyone else, I was quite shocked at the news of the death of Heath Ledger yesterday. Looking over his filmography, I was surprised how few of his films I have actually seen, and yet, at least in recent years, the guy seemed to be everywhere.

He certainly had ‘star quality’, whatever that is, and a refreshing willingness to choose roles that continually pushed him, often to the edges of his range. I can’t believe it was easy for an up-and-comer with a lot to lose to select ‘Brokeback Mountain’ as a vehicle, considering the censoriousness that often accompanies the choice of gay roles in the American entertainment industry. Still, he did it and had the last laugh, because despite what seemed to me to be an excessively mannered performance, Ledger had no trouble conveying a vivid sense of the humanity of the man, allowing multiplex audiences everywhere to relate to a gay character. One, what’s more, who was actually depicted making love to another man. No wonder he was so apparently loved by the gay community. They recognised what a gift that film was in their quest for acceptance.

I first saw him in ‘Two Hands’, opposite veteran Brian Brown, and his performance had that wide-open, effortless quality that really gifted actors can convey. It would be interesting to contrast that film against the more mature actor in ‘Candy’, which had the same quality with more skill and ambition.

I almost shook my head in disbelief when I also heard that he had died while still shooting a film for Terry Gilliam. Is this man the most unlucky film maker in the world? I don’t know whether enough of the film had been shot for the project to be saveable, but I hope so.

A brief glance at his record is probably enough.

The studio producing ‘Brazil’ hated the ending and the convoluted story structure. They delayed releasing the film for a year, preferring a version with a happy ending. Gilliam won after waging a bloody media campaign, but the studio's cut was shown on TV.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ was delayed by a budget blow-out and production problems. New management at Columbia Pictures decided it didn't like the film and it was given a very limited release, effectively sinking it.

The Brothers Grimm’ was made in a hostile environment after the Weinstein brothers imposed various compromises on the director, documented in the book ‘Dreams and Nightmares: Terry Gilliam, the Brothers Grimm, and Other Cautionary Tales of Hollywood.’

‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ ground to halt after the aging star developed a back injury and could no longer ride a horse. Freak storms wiped out the production after only a few days of shooting with Johnny Depp. It was abandoned but a fascinating documentary called ‘Lost in La Mancha’ came out of the experience.

And now this. No word yet on what will happen to ‘The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.’

I understand the movie was made with $30 million of independent financing based largely upon the strength and popularity of Heath Ledger. Those investors may still cut their losses and take their money back. Sad for all concerned.

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