Remembering Heath, by Laura Payne
A couple years ago, I walked into The Arclight movie theatre here in Hollywood, to catch a small indie flick that was generating a ton of ‘buzz’ in the local and national media; entertainment media in particular. The film in question, Brokeback Mountain, had originally been penned as a short story by Annie Proulx, winner of both The National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for her much beloved novel The Shipping News. And even more fascinating to me – serious bibliophile that I am – Proulx’s story had been co-adapted to film by Diana Osanna and yet another Pulitzer Prize winner: Larry McMurtry. (McMurtry took the Pulitzer in 1985 for his sweeping western epic Lonesome Dove.)
Proulx and McMurtry were long-time favorites of mine, and the director (Ang Lee, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) and casting was, at the very least, extremely intriguing. With a film starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as two ranch hands, struggling to navigate the unmapped terrain of love and longing and who just happen to both be male, I was…well intrigued, yes, but also…somewhat concerned to be perfectly honest. No doubt in the talent department of either actor, but as a fan of the short story itself, I kept thinking: how exactly, was this going to play on screen? How was the emotional undercurrent, so clearly prevalent in the writing of the short story, ever going to be reproduced on film?
We all know that watching your favorite story or book get turned into cinematic compost is not an enjoyable experience in the least. As readers, we become very possessive of what our favorite writers have given us for our very own imagining. When we curl up and delve into a good story, we certainly don’t want anyone to come along and un-imagine it for us. We want to remain where our writers have transported us, and when others come along tinkering with that…well, it’s not a pretty sight. (Come on, you know what I’m talking about. You can name at least one film adaptation you disliked.)
But still, intrigued as I was, I drove out to Hollywood, shelled out my twelve bucks, buttoned my lip, and took my assigned seat.
On that day, the day I saw Brokeback Mountain, two things occurred: 1) terrible stomach cramps that left me squirming uncomfortably in my seat for two hours, and 2) the realization that I was seeing an “actor’s actor”, possibly one of the best of my generation. Ledger’s subdued portrayal of the brooding and deeply pained Ennis Del Mar, captivated and mesmerized at every turn. In scene after scene, Ledger managed to express the inexpressible with hardly a word: the crushing weight of longing and unspoken love and the burden of unsalvageable time were conveyed in every look, every gesture, and every silently aching moment.
I dealt with the cramps and stayed glued to my seat.
Some days later, I caught an interview on KCRW’s Bookworm broadcast with Michael Silverblatt and Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx. Discussing the uncanny experience of watching her characters move from page to screen, Proulx said, “…I found Heath Ledger’s performance totally frightening because he got right inside my head; he got stuff that I did not know about Ennis and he got it right…I was blown away by that performance. I thought it was indescribably excellent. I don’t know how he did it but he got that character to an impossible depth….”
As someone who read and fell in love with that story and the character of Ennis Del Mar years ago, I can honestly say: she was right. He did just that.
And now. Now, a very sad thing has happened.
The news of Heath Ledger’s passing which hit Tuesday afternoon brought a whirlwind of shock and grief to a great many people, me included. Working away here in my office, I half-overheard what I truly thought was a co-worker’s joke about “Heath Ledger’s death.” A passing moment and a quick Google later sadly proved me wrong. (I bet you’ll remember where you were too. I shall never forget.) The news caught like brushfire amongst the bookstore’s staff and the shush-shushing of lowered voices and rapid whispers of disbelief and horror followed me throughout the offices, where I found myself aimlessly wandering for a time, thinking, as others were thinking: surely, there has been a mistake; this can’t have happened; this can’t be true.
But there was no mistake. And it did happen. And it was true.
Like many others, I’ve been compulsively watching and listening to the news, trying to patch together any and all scraps of information that might explain the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of what happened to Heath, and, like many others, I’ve been frustrated with the tabloid reportage, and with the talking heads which say a great deal about altogether, very little. The vagaries and questions that come with an inexplicably sudden loss are difficult to understand, if one can ever truly understand them at all.
I never knew Heath Ledger. I never met him or saw him in person. Never knew what his hopes or his fears were. And I never imagined I would. But still. It hurts. Such is the experience for me, someone who has watched an artist breathe life and all the joys and sorrows of living it, into a much beloved character.
At home the other day, I dug through my tilting and toppling book piles looking for my beat up copy of Close Range: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx. I curled up on the couch in a comfy blanket and flipped to the last story in the collection, Brokeback Mountain and quietly delved in. And once again, I was transported by what the author was giving me for my very own imagining. But this time, when I encountered Ennis Del Mar on the page, his face was strangely familiar to me and I thought to myself:
Heath, you shall always be Ennis Del Mar… to me.
Heathcliff Andrew Ledger
April 4th, 1979 – January 22nd, 2008
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Laura Payne is the customer service manager at Vroman's Bookstore. She curates the popular Vroman's Art on the Stairwell series.