Written by: Jonathan Lipman, CC2K Staff Writer
“Ooooh, creepy,” my wife said upon learning of poor Heath Ledger’s untimely demise. “And now we’re going to see him in the new Batman movie. It’ll be just like The Crow.”
One reason I love my wife is that she makes random observations like this, often quicker than I do. I was still going over Ledger’s filmography in my brain (10 Things I Hate About You = better than average teen fare, Knight’s Tale = good campy fun, Brokeback Mountain = sublime) and hadn’t yet thought about the future.
The two cases share obvious parallels – both are big-budget comic book movies coming out just after the spectacular death of a main star. But is Heath Ledger destined for the same spooky teenage cult fandom that has lingered around Brandon Lee? Hard to say.
The following is a brief discussion of the pros and cons of the Lee/Ledger argument.
(One quick disclaimer – no disrespect is intended to the memory of either man, both of whom were living breathing souls with families and friends. I know little about Lee’s work, but Ledger will always have my respect for his phenomenally brave performance in Brokeback Mountain. That being said, a discussion of posthumous celebrity teenage cult worship really can’t be written without getting a little weird … )
Reasons why it’s the same:
Corpse-like other-wordly white facepaint
Both the Crow and the Joker have white faces. And not Dave-Chapelle-joke white, but like snow-white, with each movie production having to invest heavily in Vaseline Corp. to get all the greasepaint off between takes. This sounds like a minor point, but the fact will be that Heath Ledger, while on screen, will already look like a freaking zombie. Brandon Lee had the nice added touch of corpse-standard blackened eyes, Heath will get the more trauma-induced bloody mouth, if the trailer is any clue.
In both cases, you’ve got a guy who looks freshly dead – and who in actuality, while you are watching the movie, IS dead – walking around and talking. Brrr. That’s cult-inducing, that is.
Heath Ledger is pretty (awesome)
Let’s be honest here – I mean, I would. Wouldn’t you? If Heath came up to you at a party, handed you a drink? Started talking to you in that always adorable, exotic-and-yet-comforting Australian accent? Smiling that little half smile that looks so honest and humble? Talking about the integrity of his art? If he did all that and then asked me to sleep with him, well my sexual orientation is all oriented and everything, but heck, how could you say no? He’s freaking gorgeous.
WAS gorgeous that is.
It’s sad to think of Heath Ledger dead. He was beautiful to look at, clearly a very talented actor, a seemingly intelligent and self-aware soul, and seemed genuinely very likable. He reminds me a lot of what I thought Mel Gibson was like in the mid-90s, before we all learned that Mel Gibson was a right-wing Nazi alcoholic nut job who makes Rush Limbaugh nervous. As they used to say about Cary Grant, women wanted to love him, men wanted to be him. Ledger isn’t quite Cary Grant, but neither was James Dean and he got plenty cult-of-worshipy, too.
We want to keep Heath Ledger around. And if we want to, don’t you think creepy teenage cultists do too?
Also – and I’m on dangerous territory here as a heterosexual male – but Ledger has some other claims to fame. I don’t know the whole score on how the gay community views Brokeback Mountain. It’s entirely possible that there’s resentment there for some of the portrayals, I don’t know. But I’d guess that for many people questing about their identity, and for people who remember that quest, Ledger’s powerful portrayal of a conflicted gay man holds enormous resonance. In political circles, that’s called a built-in-base. For reasons entirely separate from Batman and the Joker, Ledger is cult-worthy.
Superheroes/villains made flesh
America is a Christian nation in its foundation, but as an atheistic Jew married to a Hindu, I’ll be the first to point out that Christianity is not – by any stretch – a universal religion in this country. There are lots of other kinds of belief running around, and Christians have a lot of internal diversity amongst themselves. But one thing we’ve all come to believe in, here in America, is Superman.
It’s not that we all believe Superman is real, mind you. But we all know his story. Quick, what are Superman’s powers? Where’s he from? What can stop him? What criminal mastermind is his arch enemy? Now, tell me if you can answer those questions and then tell me if you can name all twelve Apostles.
Comic book superheroes are deeply ingrained in our culture; they’re our shared myths more than almost any other in modern pop culture. They’re intrinsically American (which is why I always thought the few attempts at international superheroes – like Alpha Force – were a bit ridiculous). They embody all the bravado, might and grit of the American spirit. Basically, they always kick ass.
But we’re not crazy, and we DO know they’re not real. Because of this, when someone seems to grab hold of a piece of superhero story – or supervillian story – and make that story SEEM real, it’s like Jesus himself walking up next to you at the bar and ordering a Pabst. It just sorta blows our minds.
Brandon Lee managed to come back from the dead and kick a lot of ass, delivering his first star performance from the Great Beyond. It was so easy to believe that he WAS the Crow, that this role and his death were somehow Destiny – with a capital D and that rhymes with C and that stands for Comic book. It elevated him to a level that matched his character and, bonus points here, left him unimpeachable. It was literally the last time we saw him. He didn’t do publicity shots OUT of the Crow makeup, we never saw him go through a nasty custody battle or rehab. He’s pure. He is the Crow.
Ledger, similarly, will never be around to age or change or play another role. The last we’ll see him, presumably, will be staring down the barrel of a … well, a Bat-gun or something (or, if rumor is to be believed, sharing a character with Johnny Depp, but that doesn’t fit into my thesis, so for all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist). That’s how he makes his curtain call. And his life has also been cast as larger-than-ordinary: young and incredibly talented, a wild child, enigmatic and intense. People are already calling him a genius, just like the Joker. Like the Joker, he seemed to roar through life heedless of its toll, heedless of the costs. Bent on destruction or glory.
It doesn’t matter if this is true or not. It’s the story that thousands of freaked out teens can tell each other as they post to the fansite. And none of us will tell them different.
Reasons why it's not the same
The Crow was already a creepy fucking movie.
The whole schtick about the Crow, for those who haven’t seen it, is that he’s a superhero who’s already dead. He’s dead, he comes back to haunt those who did him wrong in life, like Marley’s Ghost in black leather. This is already pretty high on the Grimm’s Fairy Tale, witches-eating-children scale of creepiness. Now throw in the fact that the guy PLAYING the Crow is ALSO already dead, essentially also coming back from the dead to haunt movie critics and the parents of moody teens, and you’re getting into heavy irony-ville.
The Joker, by contrast, is just another psycho. Big whoop.
The Crow was owned by Lee, the Joker is already Jack’s
The Crow was, I am told, a comic book before it was movie, but I sure as hell never read it. Admittedly, I am not generally a comic person, and I predict that waves of Crow-the-comic-book fans will come shrieking after me for insulting the Holy Tome, or else comic-book-purists will train flamethrowers at my apartment door for daring to suggest that some studio-produced wanna-be dreck was actually created by the bold originalists of the comic book world in the first place, when it was actually clearly the brain child of soulless Hollywood accountants. Point is, I don’t fucking care. All I know is that I never heard of the Crow before I saw the movie. So in my brain and the brains of most of Americans, Brandon Lee IS the Crow. He originated the role, defined it, and everyone else is a pretender to the throne.
But the Joker? Sorry, but he’s been around for 50 years, or something like it. He was played by some Cesar Romero in the old TV series, and he’s been drawn a 100 different ways by comic book artists. And then there was this guy Jack Nicholson who, so I’ve been told, did a version. I mean, come on … Jack NICHOLSON, people! This guy is a legend in Hollywood and owned that role with such verve and balls that I was amazed by the sheer audacity of anyone daring to take another stab at the role. Of course, then I remembered that the Tim Burton Batman is 20 years old now and doesn’t hold up so well, with the exception of Nicholson’s Joker. And again, we were talking about Heath Ledger, who has already demonstrated some impressive courage in taking roles.
However, even if Ledger’s performance proves to be as memorable and intense as Nicholson’s, there’s no erasing Nicholson, no escaping the comparisons. The 1989 Batman was hugely popular and remains in the public consciousness. So there’s just no way Ledger will ever be as intimately associated with that one role as Lee has been with the Crow. Again, this is a death knell for cult formation.
Heath’s death was not related to the movie … or was it?
Brandon Lee, as the urban legend goes, died after being shot on set. I don’t remember the exact details, and can’t be bothered to look them up, but I remember it being some story about how they were shooting an action scene for the Crow and one of the guns, rather inexplicably, was loaded with real bullets instead of blanks. It almost doesn’t matter whether this is true, so much as that this is the controlling myth of Lee’s death. The sheer improbability of this is enough to inspire cultish wanking… the fact that it’s connected to the same movie where he appears as an undead superhero makes it practically inevitable.
Ledger’s death, from all we’re hearing, was a tragic accident involving mixing too many pills. Maybe there was alcohol, maybe there was an intentional destructive impulse. I don’t know and don’t want to – his poor family has enough to deal with without us all crowding around, gawking at the proverbial blood on the pavement. But this at least is true – it’s a Hollywood death, the kind that only seems to happen to Hollywood stars, like choking on vomit in your sleep after getting high, or an alcohol-induced heart attack at age 27. It’s Death by Fame. A sad fate, but one that often seems Homeric, like Achilles choice, it’s the risk inherent with life in the fast lane, even if those driving in it don’t realize the speed they’re going until they crash. In that way, Ledger’s death WAS related to the movie, and to every movie he ever made, and while that won’t make for a cult, it does make for a story, and a tragedy.