Heath Ledger and the Death of a Man
Hearing about the death of Heath Ledger was very sad news. He had so much to say even when saying very little.
Despite what most people thought "Brokeback Mountain" was about, Heath Ledger's character gave me new insights into what it means to be a man. Everyone makes decisions in their life that they regret... men and women. But men seem to deal with regrets differently than women. Ledger's character in Brokeback is transformed over the course of the movie and not by the question of whether he is gay or not. What I saw was far deeper in its implications for a man's character and integrity. First, Heath's character is transformed as he wrestles with what it means to be gay AND a cowboy. Although meaningful in its own right, this is really a bluff by director Ang Lee for the superficial. He fakes us into asking, "Is this about the image of a cowboy or, who this cowboy really is?" But as the movie continues, Ledger's character is transformed, far more deeply, as a gay man who has decided to marry a woman and have a child. In maintaining this double identity, neither of his lives achieves its full potential and he is left with regret.
But it is what his character, and ultimately Ledger the actor does with this regret that I found so profound. Regret can lead a man to many things. He can lash out and blame others for his situation or pretend it has no affect and act as strong as ever. But regret can also turn a man inward. When that happens it can make him at best, intraspective or at worst, overcome with an internal dialog that leaves little room for the world around him. This is exactly what happens to Ledger's character by the end of the movie. He knows he has not made all the right decisions. He knows he has let people down, people he loves deeply.
So in the end he becomes a man of few words... full of turmoil and yet a true man for accepting responsibility for everything he has done. His words remain well chosen and true but gradually retreat inside his throat until at the very end, they are barely more than grunts. But the truth is still there. Somehow Ledger communicates his love for his daughter, his regret for his decisions, and ultimately his identity as a man, while barely saying a word.
One could look at the last scenes of Brokeback and say, he's just playing the cowboy. But as one who has had regrets in his life, I know. He was being a man.