Ledger’s early death equates to iconic status
I remember everything about the moment Heath Ledger died. I was with my buddy Stuch at the gym when I got the text message. We thought it was a joke but then noticed a group of people gathering near the TV. I texted back, but before I could get a response, I was huddled near the treadmills watching CNN Headline News. Heath Ledger was pronounced dead at the same instant I was about to go get water.
Immediately tons of stuff went through my head: What about his family? How does someone like Ledger just die? Did they finish filming the next Batman movie? (I’m not proud of that, I’m just being honest). I can’t remember all my thoughts, but the first thing I said to Stuch after a few moments of silence stuck with me:
‘You think he’ll be remembered as an icon now like James Dean?’
Stuch initially said no, and I didn’t give it another thought. Would I be watching ’10 Things I Hate About You’ or ‘Lords of Dogtown’ and telling my kids about Ledger 20 years from now? Probably not.
It seems like when any potential pop culture figure dies before his or her time they inevitably get compared to the appropriate icon: Dean, Hendrix, Joplin, etc. Young celebrity deaths are always tragic, but there seems to be a tendency to glorify them as time goes on.
Some become portrayed as the culmination of a reckless, yet gifted life (Kurt Cobain) and some become portrayed as fluke accidents that remind us of how fragile a life is, regardless of status or occupation (Buddy Holly). Though one week later, his death is still surrounded by questions, and I’m beginning to think Ledger will emerge as an icon.
Critics didn’t really praise Ledger’s acting ability until his performance in ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ But if you start by comparing him with Dean, the two film actors have some similar professional credentials that could justify iconic status.
Each was a celebrated as a beautiful, young heartthrob. Each solidified their place in pop culture with a groundbreaking film role (‘Rebel Without A Cause’ versus ‘Brokeback Mountain’). Both are among the 10 youngest actors to ever be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.
Regardless of Ledger’s talent, the biggest reason I think we’ll eventually look back and say we witnessed the passing of a legend is because he died in the 21st century. Dean died more than 50 years ago on Sept. 30, 1955. It was practically a different world. No Internet. No all-day news. No magazines dedicated solely to celebrities. No international film releases or mass marketing campaigns starting almost a year before a film is released.
Throughout time, Dean’s legacy continued growing through legions of memorials, posthumous Oscar nominations and an image that’s been immortalized in stamps, posters, cartoons and nearly everything else. He has a Wikipedia page than runs 4,600 words long- almost double the size of Ledger’s at the moment. To sum it up anecdotally, my 20-year-old sister used to worship Dean even though she came to being nearly 30 years after.
Ledger’s legacy, on the other hand, is potentially limitless judging by the sheer volume of tributes that arose in only a week. His name pops up in AIM profiles and away messages. His face became a popular buddy icon or a timely profile photo on any social networking site.
On Facebook, groups dedicated to Ledger pay tribute to his legacy, with fans leaving their condolences. The biggest memorial group has nearly 174,000 fans.
And this is only the beginning of remembering Ledger. It’ll only increase with this year’s Oscars, the release of ‘The Dark Knight,’ the Oscars when ‘Dark Knight’ is eligible and any future projects that involve Ledger’s likeness. If he can become ingrained in our collective consciousness this much within just one week, think of what years of reflection will do for his memory.
Thirty years from now people will look back and remember the man with iconic locks who could go from playing dreamy Sir William to the sadistic Joker. The over/under on when his stamp will come out is seven years.
In the end, whether or not I’m still watching ‘The Patriot’ when I’m 40 doesn’t matter. Some will say his talent isn’t on par with Dean, and some will say Dean’s cultural impact was deeper, but for me (a 22-year-old pop culture junkie) it seems like Ledger is on his way to becoming ingrained in our consciousness as much or even more than Dean was. When your kids have Ledger posters on their walls in five years, I won’t say I told you so.
Nathan Mattise is a pop culture columnist for The Daily Orange. His columns run every Tuesday. He first saw Ledger in ’10 Things I Hate About You’-originally watching it for Julia Stiles but falling for Heath in the end. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Man of faith: Thomas Wolfe uses role as dean of Hendricks, student affairs to connect with SU students, faculty, staff
Thomas Wolfe has many talents. He can ride a unicycle, craft a perfect tuna noodle casserole and bring a community together in the face of… Read more »
UPDATED: May 23, 2013 at 9:09 p.m. Six Syracuse University students appeared in court Thursday after being arrested during a fight outside of Faegan’s Cafe… Read more »
PHILADELPHIA — John Desko and Bill Tierney’s chess matches have a certain ebb and flow. One team tries to get up and down the field,… Read more »