Runtime: 90 Minutes
Directors: Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis
With good looks and an incomparable voice, Heath Ledger rose to movie stardom but was never afraid to take risks. With the 10-year anniversary of his death approaching, it seems fitting to have a documentary that acknowledges his legacy. Relying on interviews with family and close friends, I Am Heath Ledger also offers a wealth of home videos that showcase the man’s acting exercises and passion for photography.
Like many who came up in the age of digital technology, Heath Ledger kept a running record of his life through a catalogue of self-shot videos. This archive makes I Am Heath Ledger an intimate experience, allowing us to see what an imaginative individual he was during his time alone. Childhood friends Trevor DiCarlo, Kane Manera and N’Fa Forster-Jones highlight Heath’s earnest desire to always have a camera around, no matter where they were or what they were doing. “He was always a director,” says Trevor. “Acting was just a way of getting there.”
Heath’s mother Sally describes her son as a “wild stallion” who was full of ambition. At 17, he and Trevor bolted out of Perth to pursue the film industry. At 19, he broke out in Hollywood with 10 Things I Hate About You. At 26, his turn as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain made him an Oscar-nominee. At 28, he did the impossible: he out-Jokered Jack Nicholson in The Dark Knight, a feat that earned him a posthumous Oscar.
Heath never turned off his creativity in real life, and the documentary is full of insights about the artist behind the actor. Filmmaker Matt Amato, one of Heath’s earliest LA friends, partnered with Heath in a production house they set up together called The Masses. Musician friends N’Fa and Ben Harper describe his commitment as a music video artist, and clips from these abstract videos showcase what an immensely gifted director Heath could have become.
The documentary also portrays Heath Ledger as a devoted family man who shared his success. He brought Perth friends to film premieres and Australian artists boarded his LA condo, whether or not he was out of town. In an emotional testimony, Ben Harper plays a melody that he wrote for Matilda, Heath’s daughter from his relationship with Brokeback Mountain co-star Michelle Williams. (Whilst Williams doesn’t appear in the documentary, she gave her blessing to directors Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis.)
Heath’s collaborators offer plenty of commentary about how selective he was. His modesty did not find joy in being the poster for A Knight’s Tale, so he opted for supporting roles and turned down Spider-Man. Brokeback director Ang Lee recalls Monster’s Ball as an example of Heath’s power to steal scenes as a supporting actor. While the documentary mentions that Heath was against typecasting, it might have been beneficial to have another voice to contextualise his craft. For example, why did he fight for Lords of Dogtown when director Catherine Hardwicke felt he didn’t resemble the real-life Skip Engblom? Why was he drawn to Brokeback Mountain if a love story between two gay cowboys was regarded by many as “unthinkable”? The documentary doesn’t say; it just tells that story and moves on.
The documentary is not interested in the more unpleasant elements of Heath’s work and life, so to ignore the cause of his death after mentioning his pneumonia and lack of sleep is a bit of a head-scratch.
What does come across in the documentary is how beloved and creative he was. The filmmakers’ use of music videos, short films and other under-realised projects shows another world of Heath Ledger outside the field he was praised for. Ben Harper says that some people are bigger than the world that’s given to them; that was certainly the case for Heath Ledger.
I Am Heath Ledger is screening in select cinemas for one week only. Find participating cinemas at https://www.iamheathledger.com.au/