(Credit: The Hollywood Archive / Alamy)

The 10 best films starring Heath Ledger

“Smile, because it confuses people. Smile, because it’s easier than explaining what is killing you inside.”

Heath Ledger is a legend whose undeniable impact on cinema has been cemented by his knockout film performances. Born as Heath Andrew Ledger on April 4, 1979, the iconic Australian actor discovered his knack for acting at a very young age after portraying Peter Pan in a school play at the mere age of ten. His sister Kate, who later became a publicist, played an integral part in helping him realise his dreams in pursuit of his passion. Ledger was also an avid chess player and went on to direct an early adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit which, however, remained incomplete due to his untimely demise. The show is now a blockbuster Netflix mini-series and has a tragic connection to Ledger.

Strong-willed and determined, the dirty-blonde haired Aussie would drive cross-country to play a small role in Clowning Around. Ledger played various roles in Ship to Shore, Roar, Blackrock, 10 Things I Hate About You and more. However, it was not until he secured the role of Ennis Del Mar in Ang Lee’s 2005 flick Brokeback Mountain that the audience realised his true potential. At 26, he was also the ninth-youngest nominee to have received an Academy Award nomination. 

However, the role that made Ledger a household phenomenon was the role that sent him spiralling into the dark abyss of depression and desolation- the psychopathic Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Ledger, who had a problem with substance abuse, succumbed to an overdose months before he received an Academy Award for his outstanding performance. 

Snatched away too early, Heath Ledger’s demise left a palpable hole in Hollywood and deprived cinema of his raw and ingenious talent. As the legend continues to bask in the glory of his own brilliance, we pay tribute to him on what would have been his 42nd birthday by taking a look at some of his best film performances.

Heath Ledger’s 10 best films:

10. The Patriot (Roland Emmerich, 2000)

Set in 1776 South Carolina, the film shows a French-Indian war veteran named Benjamin Martin being haunted by the ghosts of his past despite craving peace. He is vehemently opposed to a war of sorts against Great Britain due to the latter’s immense military prowess. However, his sons Gabriel and Thomas are overly excited to enlist in the Continental Army. Gabriel does not inform his father and signs up to join a rebellion against England. The Martin plantation is burned to the ground by the ruthless Colonel William Travington which forces Benjamin to the crossroads where he is forced to choose between avenging his loss and protecting his family while being part of a newly conceived nation. 

Heath Ledger plays Mel Gibson’s rebellious son who gets killed while enlisting in the Continental Army. His death compels Gibson to seek revenge for his family by enlisting in the military. This film was also one of the first big-budget films Ledger starred in. Before he bagged the role, he almost quit acting due to the dearth of different kinds of roles for him. He was also brave enough to perform his stunts alone.

“You’re right. My sons were better men.”

9. A Knight’s Tale (Brian Helgeland, 2001)

With inspiration from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as well as based on the early life of the First Earl of Pembroke (William Marshall), the film revolves around a young squire named William who is gifted in the realm of jousting. He dons the armour after the knight dies tragically in the middle of the match. As the young William gradually makes up his mind to enter jousting tournaments to become a knight that would change his fortune, he encounters the mysterious writer named Geoffrey Chaucer who becomes his Herald and forges Will’s papers that detail his origins. Will gradually meets a beautiful princess and faces daunting adversaries while dealing with love, deceit lies as well as humbling events that force him to grapple with his humble origins. 

 Ledger’s performance in The Patriot prompted Brian Helgeland to cast a relatively unknown actor in this role and probably did not regret it even after Ledger knocked out his front teeth with a broom during a jousting demonstration. Ledger was great as the young squire and made a mark for himself in Hollywood with his sheer talent. 

“My pride is the only thing that they can’t take from me.”

8. Lords of Dogtown (Catherine Hardwicke, 2005)

The film revolves around the evolution of modern skateboarding that originated in 1970s California. It focuses on the anti-social rebel Skip who owns a surf shop in Dogtown. He recruits a group of local young skateboarders who form a team called the Z-Boys. Together, they turn his brilliant sporting event into a worldwide sensation.  

Heath Ledger’s acting is meticulous and the epitome of perfection as he precisely upholds the demeanour of Skip in his mannerisms and style. He successfully upholds the spiritedness of Skip and illuminates the otherwise bland script. Volatile, unpredictable, drunk and mercurial, he is indeed the most coveted character in the film. 

“You got to approach every day as if it’s your last.” 

7. 10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999)

Overprotective father Walter Stratford has strictly forbidden his daughters Kat and Bianca from dating as he is wary of teenage pregnancy. Their forced caustic demeanour pushes people away from them on purpose. However, when Cameron James is smitten by Bianca, he forges a plan to woo her by bribing the typical bad boy Patrick to be with Kat. Although Patrick initially takes up the offer for material gains, he soon begins to fall in love with Kat and this leads to further complications in the relationship. 

Heath Ledger as Patrick does a stupendous job in an otherwise drab film with overdone teen film tropes. Ledger, in the legendary promposal, sang ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, jumping up and down the stairs of the stadium, putting on an iconic show. Despite his singing not being perfect, his incredible energy and charm added extra magic to the screen. 

“But there’s always drums and bass, and maybe even one day a tambourine.”

6. Candy (Neil Armfield, 2006)

An art student Candy and a poet named Dan start a passionate and drug-fuelled relationship, encouraged by an eccentric professor named Casper. As they indulge in hedonism, the film is divided into Heaven, Earth and Hell where the pair go through various stages of pleasure and pain, descending into a bizarre lifestyle. Soon they begin to experience the downside of drugs and addiction, leading to a tear in their relationship as well as their respective personal lives on their path to sobriety. 

Ledger as the seductive and sultry Dan is compelling and intriguing. However, the characters are poorly written in a weak script that somehow makes them seem overly narcissistic. Ledger, however, shoulders the film forward alone with his distinguished on-screen presence. 

“I wasn’t trying to wreck Candy’s life. I was trying to make mine better.”

5. The Brothers Grimm (Terry Gilliam, 2005) 

Based on the legendary German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm popular in folklore, this adventure tale revolves around the two brothers travelling extensively from one village to another to allegedly protect the townspeople from the evil and performing exorcism to prevent dangerous, enchanted creatures and monsters from wreaking havoc. After getting arrested, they suddenly receive the chance to redeem themselves by investigating the mysterious disappearance of ten girls in the village of Marbaden. They are guided by Angelika where they have a confrontation with the evil Mirror Queen who needs to sacrifice twelve girls to retain her beauty and youth. 

The cynical Wilhelm and the sensitive Jacob have been portrayed by Matt Damon and Heath Ledger respectively. Like con artists, the brothers are soon faced with battling malevolent forces which test their credibility. Ledger and Damon have incredible chemistry on-screen. However, the script does not successfully uphold the plot. This seemingly gothic fantasy has a weak plot but strong performances which somehow help retain the enchanting factor of the film. 

“I am Death and I make sure that everyone is equal.”

4. Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster, 2001)

Sonny Grotowski and his father Hank are correction officers in a Georgia prison; they share a complicated relationship and Hank hates Sonny’s demure and “soft” behaviour towards the prisoners, especially the artistically gifted Lawrence Musgrove. After Hank confesses his hatred towards Sonny, the latter commits suicide. One night, Hank helps Lawrence’s son but he is pronounced dead when taken to the hospital. He soon forms a deep emotional connection with Lawrence’s widow Leticia and they embark on a psychologically stirring journey while battling constant racist remarks from Hank’s deranged father Buck. 

The film’s sombre and melancholy tone has a subtle representation of compromise, grief and anguish. Heath Ledger plays the role of the agonised Sonny who is kind to the prisoners and always at the receiving end of criticism at the hands of his father Hank. he portrays Sonny’s grief well; Sonny knows deep down that his father particularly dislikes his kindness and compassion yet is in denial. When Hank confirms his worst fears, it is difficult for Sonny to continue living and he shoots himself. In a film that conveys hope and sadness together, Ledger, in his little screen-time, imprints a weird sense of filial misery. 

“Well, I always loved you.”

3. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)

With a unique, non-linear narrative structure, the film focuses on six different characters based on the different aspects of Bob Dylan’s public persona. Said to have been “inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan”, the characters include a poet, Arthur Rimbaud, a prophet, Father John, an outlaw, Billy McCarty, an escaped fugitive, Woody Guthrie, a “rock and roll martyr”, Jude Quinn, as well as “a star of electricity”, Robbie Clark. The seven characters channel the various aspects of Dylan’s personality. 

Amidst a talented ensemble cast, Ledger stands out in his role of Robbie Clark who tastes the sweetness of fame after portraying the character of Jack Rollins in a biographical drama. He is trapped in a dysfunctional marriage which reflects Dylan’s problems during the release of his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. Ledger flirts with other women like Robbie, infuriating his wife Claire which eventually leads to their divorce. The film is a flux of the creative sensibilities of Bob Dylan and the multi-faceted personality he possessed which was a unique and thought-provoking experience. 

“And it’s I who am ready, ready to listen. Never tired, never sad, never guilty.”

2. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)

The film is set in the fictitious and picturesque Brokeback Mountain and revolves around the lives of two cowboys Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist who are hired in 1963 for sheep-herding. Slowly they develop a close, intimate relationship, but the heteronormative values instilled in them by society keeps them from embracing their true selves. They part from one another with heavy hearts, only to reunite four years later. Ennis lives to regret his indecisiveness and orthodox nature when Jack tragically passes away.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s electrifying chemistry is complemented and supported by able actors who manage to exemplify the beauty of the film. Ledger delivered a phenomenal performance as the confused ranch head who is caught between his love for his fellow ranch manager Jack Twist played by Ledger’s buddy Jake Gyllenhaal and the inherently homophobic society as well as his duties to his family.

“I wish I knew how to quit you.”

1. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

With the help of District Attorney Harvey Dent and Lieutenant Jim Gordon, billionaire-socialite-turned-caped crusader Bruce Wayne – aka Batman – keeps organised crime in Gotham City at bay. However, the sudden arrival of a psychopathic villain, who calls himself the Joker, disrupts the peace and sends Batman spiralling into the path of seeking justice, blurring the lines between his idealism and borderline vigilantism. Meanwhile, a fire disfigures Harvey Dent’s face partially and as his alter-ego, Two-Face, he embarks on a killing spree to avenge the death of his beloved fiance Rachel. 

The Dark Knight won Heath Ledger a posthumous Academy Award for his marvellous performance as the Joker, the portrayal of which left goosebumps on the audience’s skin. Known for his method of acting, Ledger went to extreme lengths to blend into the role of the “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy”. He had locked himself in a London hotel room to manifest the character as well as to perfect the quintessential, blood-curdling Joker laugh. He even maintained a diary recording his slow descent into the menacing character; each page was a reflection of his anguish, ending with a simple “bye-bye”. The performance remains Ledger’s greatest ever and forms an integral part of the cinematic legacy he has left behind. 

“As you know, madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.”