It’s been 14 years to the day since film fans around the world were left in mourning at the news that Hollywood star Heath Ledger had passed away.
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Ledger’s death aged just 28 was ruled an accidental overdose, with a toxicology report finding he had oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine in his system.
Despite more than a decade passing since his tragic death, his performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 epic The Dark Knight is still held up the world over as one of the greatest pieces of acting ever committed to film.
For the role, Ledger burrowed himself away, isolated and completely alone, head down, writing endless diary notes in an incredibly determined drive to be the best Joker he could.
The diary, discovered as part of a documentary looking into the last months of the star’s life, was full of inspiration ahead of the role which he became most known for – and subsequently won him a posthumous Oscar for Best Actor.
During production Ledger would stay up most of the night – unable to sleep and suffering with insomnia – and he’d etch drawings of animals and other objects which inspired his infamously macabre role into the book.
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He’d write disturbing comments across full pages. One page reads simply “BYE BYE” in capital letters, while others are adorned with images of hyenas and clowns.
“He locked himself up in a hotel room for a month or so to galvanise the upcoming character,” his dad Kim Ledger said in the 2012 documentary series Too Young To Die. “That was typical of him – he’d certainly immerse himself in the upcoming character.
“I think this was just a whole new level,” he added.
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The diary also revealed that Ledger was inspired by Alex DeLarge – the bad boy lead character from A Clockwork Orange, brought to life on screen by the fearless Malcolm McDowell – for the iconic DC role and as such, it featured images of DeLarge that Ledger had cut out and pasted in, scrapbook-style.
In 2007, Ledger told Empire about his creative process and particularly about his diary: “It’s a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script and then just closing my eyes and meditating on it. I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices — it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh.”
He added: “I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath — someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts. He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown.”
There was speculation after Ledger passed that the role of the Joker had contributed to his death by putting him in a negative headspace.
But his family have always denied this was the case. Speaking at the Tribeca Film festival after the release of 2017 documentary I Am Heath Ledger, his sister Kate responded to these reports, saying: “I was really shocked because that was him having fun.
“Every report was coming out that he was depressed and that [the role] was taking this toll on him, and we’re going, honestly, it was the absolute opposite. It couldn’t be more wrong. He had an amazing sense of humour, and I guess maybe only his family and friends knew that, but he was having fun. He wasn’t depressed about the Joker.”
What’s left may feel disturbing given his passing but the fact that he dedicated so much time and energy to his creative process is testament to his reputation as the most committed actor in a generation. Indebted to genuinely embodying a character that will live on in history.