J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Tribeca ’17: I Am Heath Ledger

To date, Heath Ledger is the only posthumous best supporting actor Oscar winner. That is not exactly the sort of honor an actor aspires to, but there is no getting around it. The actor’s meteoric rise and tragically early demise are chronicled in Adrian Buitenhuis & Derik Murray’s I Am Heath Ledger (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Even apart from his youthful twenty-eight years, Ledger’s death was especially sad. He was a proud new parent, whose already red-hot career was poised to go stratospheric with the opening of The Dark Knight, featuring his Oscar-winning turn as the Joker. In compiling I Am Heath Ledger, the latest installment in Spike’s “I Am” series, Buitenhuis & Murray were blessed in the bounteous video footage Ledger compulsively shot of himself and his mates and cursed with the reticence of those closest to him. Do not hold your breath waiting for Michelle Williams to appear.

Presumably, they also made do with whatever ground rules were offered to them. For instance, Naomi Watts only talks about Ledger as someone who always supported fellow Australians who came to Hollywood, never mentioning their relationship. At least, his parents and siblings were willing to reflect on Ledger’s early years.

Frankly, IAHL is rather disappointing when compared to its predecessor, IA Chris Farley, because it is dramatically less forthcoming. While Farley’s friends and family directly address his addiction issues and the role they played in his ultimate death, Ledger’s demons and the circumstances surrounding his death are completely whitewashed from his Spike profile. Anyone watching the film completely cold will be baffled as the how a healthy actor who played a surfer on more than one occasion could suddenly pass away.

On the other hand, it is striking how Ledger built such an accomplished reputation on a comparatively small body of work. Most of the doc’s cinematic focus is reserved for hits like The Patriot and A Knight’s Tale, his breakout in 10 Things I Hate About You, and critically acclaimed awards-winners, like The Dark Knight (the Neocon War-on-Terror allegory) and Brokeback Mountain, with passing mention given to a handful of other releases. Somehow, his Vatican-set horror film The Order gets short-shrift (so maybe we’ll shoehorn in a review sometime for the sake of fairness, at absolutely no extra charge to you the reader).

Ledger was indeed a restlessly creative soul, but Buitenhuis & Murray risk driving the point into the ground. One could also argue by sanitizing Ledger’s life they forego the chance to dramatically illustrate the perils of prescription drug interaction to the actor’s presumably young fans. The resulting documentary is easy to watch, but conspicuously safe. Recommended mainly for the devoted, I Am Heath Ledger screens again tonight (4/27) and Sunday (4/30), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, in advance of its special nation-wide one-night-only Fathom Events screening on May 3rd.

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