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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK | THE ART OF PERFORMANCE

Great acting's tragic flaw

What was special, and difficult, about Heath Ledger's gift is there to see in 'Dark Knight.'

August 04, 2008|Charles McNulty | Times Theater Critic

Great actors, even those who have been blessed with longevity, often bear a tragic mark. It's not just the ups and downs of stardom that can make for a cruel career. Rough inner seas are typically the very reason someone seeks to be among what William Hazlitt, that lyrical witness of the early 19th century British stage, called "the motley representatives of human nature."

Heath Ledger's short legacy as a screen actor offers us enough evidence of the rarity of his talent. "Brokeback Mountain" may be the film that exposed to a wider audience the intensity of his dramatic commitment -- Ledger didn't simply impersonate a closeted cowboy, he showed us the shame and silence that had taken residence in Ennis Del Mar's sinews. But it's his turn as a terrorist clown in a menacing comic-book caper -- the last role he fully completed before his accidental overdose in January at age 28 -- that will seal his place among movie immortals.

Ledger's portrayal of the Joker in "The Dark Knight" is all that it's cracked up to be -- a stunning, frightening, pathological marvel that's deserving of the somber Oscar talk not normally associated with a superhero blockbuster.

Inevitably, the temptation is to scrutinize such a fateful performance for clues into the actor's mental state. We'd all like to catch a glimpse of an explanatory scar. But unlike, say, Judy Garland in "A Star Is Born" or Marlon Brando in "Last Tango in Paris," where the actors were playing characters with sharp biographical parallels, Ledger isn't portraying someone we can easily -- and all too mistakenly -- conflate with his private self.

At least there's some relief that his art won't be trampled by the gossip hounds. Better to celebrate Ledger's performance for the secrets it reveals and harbors about (to borrow from Hazlitt again) "the studied madness" of acting.

Unnaturally natural

Let's take this opportunity to first banish the inane assumption that craft is secondary to inspiration. The two work in tandem, as is obvious from the way Ledger manages to be so chillingly expressive with his face smeared in pancake makeup and lipstick and his hair transformed into a greasy green-tipped tangle. How does Ledger so uniquely personalize this flamboyant arch-villain who's already been colorfully incarnated by Cesar Romero in the 1960s "Batman" TV series and Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's 1989 film? With his patented good looks concealed, Ledger's forced to be more cunning with his physical resources, and you sense his delight in this freedom from Hollywood vanity.

Ledger's vocal mannerisms constitute a kind of diagnostic manual. Observe, for instance, the way he hits exaggerated Middle American consonants in the beginning, establishing his character not just as a criminal lunatic but a proverbial American one, a heartland offender run amok. And look how his mania affects the rate at which words pour from his scarred lips, slowing down to a normal clip by the end of the Joker's deadly game, even as we can be sure he's still fantasizing about fireballs in city streets.

Ledger isn't just after sick physical comedy with his slouch, jack-in-the-box spring and demonic head roll -- he's jotting down notes in a lengthy psychiatric case file. Quite amazing given the temptation to break loose of all mundane restraints, nothing's overdone -- not even the reptilian tongue, which emerges with the punctuating timeliness of an exclamation mark.

But it's through Ledger's eyes that we can peer into the actor's bottomless conviction and track the scurrying-rodent logic of his character's inexplicable evil. Maniacs who fly planes into buildings don't second-guess their distorted reality, and Ledger ambles around Joker's fun-house mind with an unshockable comfort. The film tosses off cryptic remarks about the Joker's brutal upbringing, but it's Ledger's antic disposition that lets us understand the traumatic past as a slippery myth that can never adequately explain malignant behavior.

The best actors are distinguished by their preternatural capacity to appear natural. They enter dreams and nightmares the way you and I enter our kitchens. An artist's vision is lived, emotionally and physically, so that while a lesser performer will signboard motives and big moments, a subtler talent will experience the not always predictable flux of his character's emotions as the larger dramatic pattern unfolds as though on its own.

That kind of performance requires more than instinct -- it needs an interpretive intelligence to guide it discreetly along. No surprise, then, that the most unforgettable performers are usually the smartest ones -- which is to say the deepest, philosophically and psychologically, as well as the most tactful, aesthetically and dramatically.

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