Heath Ledger Tribute

July 11-17

Monster’s Ball at 2:30, 9:45 p.m.

Brothers Grimm at 2:40 p.m.

Candy at 5:05 p.m.

Brokeback Mountain at 7:15 p.m.

Lords of Dogtown at 9:50 p.m.

Six months after Heath Ledger’s death, the wound’s still fresh. It’s OK, you can say it: Why couldn’t it have been Matthew McConaughey? Yes, that’s it. Let it out. We know, that’s the grief talking. No hard feelings. The circumstance itself is cruel. If Ledger on screen was anything, he was alive. He had just seemed to establish, and to have earned, his staying power when
he died.

It says a lot — about his talent, and about his moment in movie history — that we can’t help but approach Ledger’s final full performance in The Dark Knight with the rueful certainty that his turn as the Joker will put Jack Nicholson’s to shame. Ledger looked like the kind of guy who wouldn’t gloat about that, so of course we want to pat him on the back for his decency, too. How confoundingly indecent of him to become permanently unavailable. On the other hand, given that his most emotionally stirring work always found a way to balance bravery with restraint, why not imagine this discontinuation of his career as also its ballsiest choice, an improvised masterstroke of Joker-approved gallows humor?

Ease into it with the Terrace Theatre’s Heath Ledger tribute, which begins Friday and screens each of its five selections — Monster’s Ball, Lords of Dogtown, The Brothers Grimm, Brokeback Mountain and Candy — once daily through July 17.

Ledger, you’ll remember, was the best thing about Monster’s Ball (never mind Halle Berry’s patronizing Oscar); and only in it long enough to supply the most important and least nakedly manipulative of that movie’s three plot-driving deaths. That’s him, as a third-generation corrections officer who’s too soft for the job, enduring the brutal, fatal shame of his father, played by Billy Bob Thornton, and walking Sean Combs to the electric chair, losing it, folding in on himself and puking in the corner.

You’ll see Ledger overwhelmed and retching with unnamable emotions again in Brokeback Mountain, and remember again his terrific, visceral economy as a performer. Maybe you’ll be struck during the later film by the notion that his taut, gravelly murmur — that succinct embodiment of inner life pushing its way up through repressive outer surfaces — seems to echo Thornton’s mildly retarded but gold-hearted killer from Sling Blade, in a way not derivative but subtly deferential.

Ledger knew the difference between inheritance and impersonation. Look to Lords of Dogtown for his fond, fun portrayal of the accidental cultural patriarch Skip Engblom, whose Venice, Calif., surf shop became the cradle of skateboarding in the ’70s. The fictionalized account of that creation myth probably wasn’t at all necessary, but its contagious appreciation of boyish, rambunctious energy owes much to Ledger, who so easily could have made his part a nostalgic weed-hazed caricature, but opted otherwise, almost against the movie’s will.

Likewise his mugging alongside Matt Damon in The Brothers Grimm, mitigating dumb histrionics with the poignant pathos of a young man whose sweetly innocent ambition is to live inside a folk tale. It’s the same guileless but intelligent generosity that allowed Ledger, in Brokeback Mountain, to break many hearts and bear his own soul through a fictional ranch hand’s thwarted desire. For Brokeback wasn’t really about the gay sex, we’re always reminded; it was about the love story.

That’s how Candy is with heroin: a relatively conventional but well-made tale of junkies in love, and obviously a way for the young actor to test himself. Heath doesn’t do the puking here, but he’s fully available to hold back Abbie Cornish’s hair when she does — and to deliver other surprising, judiciously underplayed moments, like a stunned, muttered apology when their habit forces her into prostitution, or a doozy of a Brokeback-style final goodbye.

No, final goodbyes aren’t easy with this guy. Even after The Dark Knight, which opens next week, the official last of Ledger is yet to come in the film he never finished making, Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It’ll take a while to work out Ledger’s exact standing among his honored too-early-dead Hollywood ancestors, but it’s easy and mildly comforting to see his installation in the lore as inevitable. For now, though, all that’s left to say is the obvious: We wish we knew how to quit him.

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