ON JANUARY 22, just minutes after we were introduced at the Sundance Film Festival, lesbian filmmaker Lesli Klainberg dashed over to me, white as a sheet. "Heath Ledger is dead," she said.
Speaking to me later, Klainberg looks back at that moment with some confusion. "I don't know what came over me," she says. "You and I had just met, but as soon as I heard about Heath, my first thought was that I had to find you. Isn't that weird?"
To me, it made perfect sense. The death of Heath Ledger meant many things to many people, but thanks to Ledger's Oscar-nominated role as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain, the loss resonated with gays and lesbians in a way that other fans may not fully understand. Not just at Sundance but across the country, we sought each other out for comfort when the news hit.
And now--as the global audience moves past its initial shock and begins to speculate on how Ledger's death will affect the opening weekend box office for his final completed film, The Dark Knight--gay moviegoers are still saying goodbye. Many of us are settling in with a deeper sadness that will far outlast this movie season.
"It was clear that there was something very specific to the queer community about his fame," says film theorist B. Ruby Rich, who witnessed a similar outpouring of grief around the actor's death. "It's almost as though he'd been taken up as one of ours, so his death felt very, very personal. People felt implicated in what happened to him."
Though Ledger was straight (formerly partnered with his Brokeback costar Michelle Williams, with whom he had a daughter, Matilda), many gays took pride in him as a sort of "local boy made good," an actor whose ascendancy served as living proof that a star could play gay and flourish. While he was not actually a gay star, the thinking went, he was the next best thing: a star whose gay role launched him on to the A-list.
"There is a sense of ownership, and people feel personally stricken," says Rich. "His role as Ennis blazed a path into people's hearts and souls, and his death now feels like a continuation of the movie."
Indeed, for a population who grew up on a filmic diet of doomed gays and lesbians, Ledger's real-life death adds an extra layer of tragedy to his character in Brokeback Mountain. The life Ennis had carved out was not a happy one, but he was, at least, a survivor. With a minimum of makeup, Ledger had taken the character into his 30s and 40s, ages the actor will now never see. The compromised triumph of Ennis Del Mar--the idea of a happy life gone unlived--grows more bittersweet when coupled with thoughts of what Ledger himself might have gone on to accomplish.
That idea of what could have been isn't merely informed by Brokeback--it's irrevocably intertwined with it. Prior to filming Ang Lee's gay romance, Ledger was best known for featherweight entertainments like The Patriot, A Knight's Tale, and the teen romp 10 Things I Hate About You. Groomed for stardom from a young age, Ledger bristled at the roles that were being offered to him (he memorably turned down Columbia Pictures head Amy Pascal when she offered him the plum role of Spider-Man, fearing he'd be typecast).
Like us, he felt himself different, and he honored that feeling.
"In a way, I was spoon-fed, if you will, a career," he told Time magazine in 2005. "It was fully manufactured by a studio that believed that they could put me on their posters and turn me into their bottle of Coca-Cola, their product."
Instead of taking that easy path to stardom, Ledger took supporting roles in Lords of Dogtown and Monster's Ball that allowed him to flex his muscles in a way so rarely required of matinee idols. And then, in Brokeback Mountain, he married his two best attributes--the charisma of a movie star and the psychological plumbing of a character actor--to create an indelible portrait of a man tormented by inner longing. …