Editorial: Ray on the Heath Ledger backlash

<![CDATA[<!-- digg_url = 'http://digg.com/movies/Ray_on_the_Heath_Ledger_backlash'; // -->]]>"With a great performance, comes great responsibility." The buzz about the supposedly legendary final performance of Heath Ledger began to build from the moment we lost him last winter. Trailers teased us with glimpses of Ledger's mad visage and creepy, taunting voice. Everyone began to ask each other, "Is this an Oscar-worthy performance? Can it live up to the hype?" With the release of The Dark Knight last night, many have witnessed this final complete performance for themselves. While most seem to be awe-struck by Ledger's transformation, a mumbling backlash has emerged on the internet that attempts to diminish it. "We wouldn't even mention Oscar," they bravely declare in anonymous chatrooms, "had Heath lived." To those out there attempting to denigrate this performance, I emphatically say: YOU ARE DEAD WRONG.

Without a doubt, the death of an actor - particularly a young, talented one like Ledger - often overvalues their last performances and their legacy. For instance, James Dean died at 24 years of age with only three major completed films to his credit. His death sent shock waves through Hollywood, and the resultant outpouring of emotion led to two posthumous Oscar nominations. Looking back, it is easy to see that Dean's performances did not merit such overwhelming prestige, but rather his untimely death fueled his Oscar hopes. And while Brandon Lee's sudden death on the set of The Crow in 1994 did not garner any awards for his performance, it certainly helped cement the fallen star as an icon of lost youth for the nineties.

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Backlashers are eager to point a cynical finger at Ledger's death as the primary culprit behind the massive buzz surrounding this final performance. Some reviewers have demonstrated a fetishistic glee in tearing down the performance, labeling it over-the-top. They claim that, had Heath lived, the performance would be seen as a distraction in the film, rather than a centerpiece to a well-crafted whole. They say that, given different circumstances, Heath's performance would not and should not be considered as Oscar-worthy. My answer: Anthony Hopkins. In 1991, Hopkins startled the world with his devastating, mesmerizing embodiment of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Despite being onscreen for only 16 minutes, Hopkins managed to craft a finely-nuanced and complete performance. It led, of course, to a Best Actor win at the Oscars ... again, with only 16 minutes of screentime. Few people would argue that there was a single more important performance in 1991, and it was certainly the best out of the field nominated that year. Backlashers are correct: it is certainly foolish for people to declare Ledger the default winner of the Best Actor Oscar at this point. However, their unwillingness to budge blinds them from the obvious fact that Ledger probably deserves a NOMINATION at this, the midpoint of the year. While his death makes this last performance poignant, it should in no way color, diminish, or disfigure Ledger's accomplishment in this film. What Ledger created is a character so bereft of fear and restraint that he instills both in everyone around him, including the audience. Ledger's Joker might be the first time this character becomes someone who simply is not afraid of death or consequences. Sure, Jack Nicholson's fun and campy version danced precariously on the edge of the belltower, but his version has nothing on the sheer violence and contempt for life that Ledger brings to the role. Going far beyond what was written in the script, Ledger fleshed out The Joker with hideous physical mannerisms and quirks that belie the inner turmoil of the character. It is a rich, full-bodied, and tremendously charismatic performance.

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To take the cynical, rain-on-your-parade position either out of spite, jealously, or stupidity is to miss one of the great villainous performances in cinematic history. It's okay, I understand ... we often build up our hopes and expectations, only to have them dashed by the harsh reality onscreen. However, I am here to say that sometimes, once in a great while, the right person comes to the right role at the right time and magic happens. The stars converged here, folks. Stop hating on Heath and marvel at the one last gift he gave movie fans around the world. This one is special, for the ages, and deserving of recognition.
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All you need to know is that I love movies and baseball. I write about both on a temporary medium known as the Internet. Twitter: @rayderousse or @unfilteredlens1 Go St. Louis Cardinals! www.stlcardinalbaseball.com