/ 22 January 2008

Star of Brokeback Mountain found dead

Heath Ledger, the Australian actor nominated for an Oscar in 2006 for his depiction of a brooding gay cowboy, was found dead in his Manhattan apartment on Tuesday. He was 28.

He was discovered in his bedroom in the apartment in the SoHo neighbourhood of Manhattan at 3.30pm by a housekeeper and a masseuse whom he had called for an appointment. They found him unconscious on the floor and called emergency services when he failed to respond.

According to the entertainment news website TMZ.com, paramedics tried to resuscitate him but he was pronounced dead at the scene. Prescription medicines were found in the room and police confirmed they were investigating a possible overdose, though there was no indication his death had been accidental or otherwise.

Ledger’s death cut off at its prime an acting career that saw a young man emerge from Perth, Western Australia, and rise to become one of the most sought-after and accomplished actors of his generation. He started out in small roles in little-known Australian independent movies, but reached wider attention in 1999 when he played a school heart-throb in 10 Things I Hate about You.

Lead roles in The Patriot and A Knight’s Tale followed, and he played the suicidal son of Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball. But it was Brokeback Mountain, the 2005 Ang Lee movie based on an E Annie Proulx short story about two teenage cowboys who fall in love one heady summer, that propelled him to stardom.

Ledger played Ennis Del Mar, the initially reluctant partner, alongside Jake Gyllenhaal’s more extrovert and sexually confident Jack Twist.

The film received ecstatic reviews and Ledger was nominated in the best-actor category at the 2006 Oscars. The award eventually went to Philip Seymour Hoffman for his characterisation of Truman Capote, but Ledger claimed the best-actor title from both the New York and San Francisco film critics’ circles.

New York magazine opined that ”great joy can be taken in witnessing the small-miracle performances of Ledger [so eloquent in his mute despair]”.

Rolling Stone was even more effusive, saying: ”Ledger’s magnificent performance is an acting miracle. He seems to tear it from his insides,” it said.

Fellow Australians on Tuesday night paid tribute to Ledger. ”What a terrible tragedy. My heart goes out to his family,” said Nicole Kidman. Mel Gibson, who played Ledger’s vengeful father in The Patriot, said he ”had such great hope for him”, in a statement from the actor’s publicist. ”He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.”

It was during the filming of Brokeback Mountain that Ledger began a relationship with the actor Michelle Williams. They set up home together in Brooklyn and had a daughter, Matilda Rose, who is now two. At the time, Ledger spoke of the happiness they found in Brooklyn, away from the glare of Manhattan media attention. ”I walk my laundry down to the laundromat, I get my groceries and carry them back; photographers don’t live out there, and local people don’t care,” he said.

But the happiness did not last for long. The couple split up last year and Ledger moved back to Manhattan.

He rarely alluded to his private life, but there was clearly a troubled streak. He regularly complained about the attention of paparazzi, and he was hypercritical of his own acting performances.

In November he told the New York Times he was not proud of his role in I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s film in which Ledger plays one of six versions of Bob Dylan. He said: ”I feel the same way about everything I do. The day I say ‘It’s good’ is the day I should start doing something else.”

The interviewer found Ledger complaining he had been unable to sleep. ”I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going,” Ledger said. He confided to the reporter that he took a prescription sleeping pill and, when that failed, took another.

The actor had been travelling between New York and London where he was filming, as recently as last weekend, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus directed by Terry Gilliam. He was also scheduled to appear this year as the Joker in the next Batman movie, The Dark Knight. – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008