Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Heath Ledger, 1979 - 2008

Terribly heartbreaking news about Heath, wasn’t it? I liked what Emerson wrote: “Not only did he bring iconic life and nuance to the existential loneliness of Ennis Del Mar, a taciturn but complex (and conflicted) character, but for such mature work to spring from the teen-idol star of 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight's Tale was... well, revelatory itself -- the astonishing revelation of a suddenly, fully developed actor who, in the superficial juvenile parts he'd played previously, had given little indication he was capable of such impressive depth and clarity. Ledger emerged as if from a cocoon, gleaming with promise and flexing his wings.” (Same could be said of many writers we know.)

His friends said, “
We saw it coming.” The Daily Mail, which isn’t exactly a bastion of integrity, wrote, “Heath was shattered by his split from Michelle… He became a recluse. He barely slept he was dealing with terrible mood swings.” Sometimes the best of actors and, indeed, the best of writers can also be the most troubled people you’ll ever know. And I’ve known quite a few. On one level, writing and acting is a reflection of the artists involved, and on another level, the writing and acting doesn’t even remotely reflect them in any real, honest way. You just never know. What happens in front of the camera and what you see in the media is hardly ever a reflection of reality.

I’m more knowledged about troubled writers than I am actors. We know that the poets, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell and Theodore Roethke were all diagnosed as manic-depressive. John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton committed suicide. Sylvia Plath, in particular, breaks my heart to this day. Of the famous writers, Philip K. Dick comes to mind, of course. Anne Rice suffered from severe depression due to a long-term illness and the death of her husband. And there’s Hemingway and Fitzgerald, naturally. In a letter to Fitzgerald, Hemingway wrote, “Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously.” Do you really have to be in pain to write well? I don’t know. There’s an interesting article here about creativity and the troubled mind. Personally, I think we have to at least keep in check the usual elements that can lead to or worsen an already existing depression - isolation, introspection, lack of physical exercise, irregular hours, less than perfect diet, and lack of exposure to sunlight (sounds strange but it’s true). For me, I have problems with being overly-obsessed about writing and the craft and research on any project I may be working on. The research on my last script nearly killed me, although it wasn't on the scale of Kubrick and Napoleon, but I know I could go that far if I’m not careful.
How about you?

Heath’s death can still be a force of good to many other artists who need a wake-up call and that includes writers. I had a friend tell me recently, “I’m glad you’re doing this project because I’ve been down lately.” I told him, “I started this because I've been down a bit, too. And if there’s anything you want to talk about, I’m always here for you.” That’s what we have to do, isn’t it? As a screenwriting community? We’re not competitors. We’re fellow-travelers, people of like-minded faiths, and we have to watch each other's backs, right?



Laura Deerfield said...

Ah - suffering and art. Why do we seem to think that they must go hand in hand? Are there any great artists who were happy and had a good upbringing with no major tragedies? Then again - how many people fit that description.

I think that people who feel things more acutely tend to be drawn to express themselves through art - writing especially. Writers also have a tendency to isolate themselves, to be introverted and to enjoy spending time alone. This can be a dangerous combination.

In truth, I do think that some suffering is necessary before you can produce great art - but that doesn't mean you have to be constantly depressed or embattled. It's perfectly OK to leave the tragedies behind and lead a happy life, using the past for emotional material when needed... I think.... though I do admit to a certain amount of excess drama in my own life, and to struggling with depression. I try, but can't always shake it. (I'm the most optimistic depressed person you'll ever meet.)

Elver said...

It's so sad to hear about Heath Ledger. He was one of the four up-and-coming actors/actresses who've completely taken me by surprise in the past couple of years. He was well on his way to immortality on the silver screen...

Writing and acting are both a bit like exploring. Those who play it safe run down to the local meadow to get a bunch of lovely daffodils and while these do stink up the place quite nicely, they get a bit boring after a while. Venturing into the great unknown to bring back rare treasures is dangerous business and pain does make for a good motivator to go out there, but you gotta remember not to get lost. After all, there be dragons.

We do value the results of such exploration, but rarely do we recognize and support the explorers while they're doing it. Still, it would not be easy. Rarely do these people reach out and help isn't what they need, but support and encouragement to do what they set out to do. To get closure in their search.

I think the reason why we don't see a lot of support being bandied about has a bit to do with evolution and evolutionary psychology. It's very easy for humans to become addicted to positive feedback. You can see it in emo culture where claiming that you're unhappy can get you a lot of attention. Since there's a finite amount of attention to go around, these communities tend to implode quite fast into perverse competitions where people try to top one another in feats of self-mutilation for the sake of being noticed.

Depression doesn't have to be as bad as it often sounds. It takes a long time, but it's entirely possible to work through it on your own. It doesn't go away, but, to me, the main cause of it seems to be the idea that you've been cornered and don't have a choice. It's Marketing 101 -- people who think they have a choice are happier. The key is to demonstrate to yourself that choice exists. That you can have all the things you think make people happy. This realization makes life a lot easier.

On the topic of troubled creative minds, I don't think there's any better example than Nietzsche. A quiet man and a complete loner. He proposed to several women in his lifetime, all of whom rejected him, but he didn't despair. He breathed a sigh of relief. A man who, despite terrible and failing eyesight, severe health problems, and complete loneliness, wrote book after book extolling the virtues of simple life, of partying and living one day at a time, of walking the tightrope of life without looking down or looking back, for, according to him, those who don't are the ones who reach the other side.

Hell, maybe we all just need a good party every now and then.

Mark said...

The roots of great drama is strong conflict and those who haven't suffered any adversity in their lives aren't able to write with honesty. I suppose those people might be like Anthony Robbins and exercise their ideas in promoting happiness and hope (honestly or dishonestly)...

Joshua said...

Quick note . . . we don't know it was a suicide as of yet, nor an OD.

it's possible it was an accidental OD, it's reported he was suffering from pnuemonia, and coupling medication for that with something, like say ambien, which many folks do without worrying about it, can lead to an accidental OD.

It's something not written about much, but many more people die of accidental OD's from prescription medication than the pharm industry would like us to know about.

We won't know for sure until the autopsy is done later today . . . but from what I've heard is that he wasn't suicidal . . .

I know this sounds weird, but he had a two year old kid. Generally parents with a child that age (unless suffering from PPD) don't commit suicide - I said the same thing last year when they found Adrienne Shelly hanging in the bathroom, who had a daughter that age . . . I told my friends it wasn't a suicide.

They found a footprint, luckily.

So I don't think it was a suicide, myself.

Plus, he had a massage scheduled. He would have cancelled it, I think.

Just my take, profiling isn't an exact science, of course.

Mim said...

Definitely not suicide. I've been suicidal and you don't make appointments if you're planning to kill yourself.

It could have been an accidental OD on a mixture of medications. Many people don't realize that mixing medications doesn't equal a sum effect. They magnify each other.

I've been thinking about the getting each other's back thing since Brad Renfro died last week. I know a lot of people saw that coming. He was an obvious train wreck.

The studios now have policies about drug use and rehab. They don't want to encourage people to party to excess.

Part of it is the life. Part of it might be that artists suffer. They don't suffer any more than a lot of other people, but they have that creative outlet with which to express their pain, so maybe some of them capitalize on the pain because they're afraid that if they get clean or healthy, they'll lose that creative spark?

This death is a terrible loss. Everything suggests that not only did he have everything to live for, he was very well aware of it, and grateful.

People get busy. Maybe that was it. You get busy, you tend to overlook things. Maybe somebody noticed that Heath looked very drawn, or pale, but they were so busy worrying about their two o'clock appointment that they didn't follow up on it.

mernitman said...

As always, MM, a considered, thoughtful response to a cultural moment -- in this case, an awful one, period.

I'm not up on all the details, but the impression one gets is that this was not an O.D.; the media seems to be making all too much of that aspect, in lieu of real facts, because that's what we've trained the media to do.

Regardless, the "let's watch each other's backs" idea is a really, really good one. So I'm going to get off line and call a friend who's hasn't been feeling up to snuff...

Mim said...

Thank you, Mystery Man, for giving us this opportunity to talk through this. He was a very talented young man who had worked very hard on all his characters. It was easy to overlook him, because his focus was always squarely on his job. And what a wonderful job he did.

bob said...

As my spiritual guru, Pete Townsend once said, artists don't have a "divine right to the blues". As Laura said, almost everybody has had trauma and tragedy. It's the essence of human drama and will to fight and overcome and not give in to it.

I remember a thread on TS a while ago where somebody asked if they should start drinking so they could write better. It's a sad stereotype that I wish would go away.

I too fight depression, but it's only since I've been serious about fighting it that I've been able to write. If you're truly depressed, I think it would be difficult to write, because I don't think you'd care or you'd think it wouldn't matter.

Mystery Man said...

Laura - Plus, you have a beautiful mind and a cute face. Thanks for that. Because of the time I spent years ago in a complaint, I have a tendency to try to keep the drama only in the workplace and keep it down to a minimum in my real life, which has led to a lot of isolation. I kinda struggle with that. Who hasn't faced depression?

Elver - Yes, Nietzsche! Great example. A good party, indeed, and some love!

Mark - I've also found that some of the least troubled writers I've known will write the most twisted shit I've ever read in a script.

Joshua - Ya know, I put this together really quickly. I was going to post "Top Ten Format Mistakes," but I kinda sense that I should say something about Heath. Anyway, you made some really great points, and I appreciate your thoughts. Anything's possible, and I only wanted to point out that he was troubled and try to be introspective about it. And I have no reason to disagree. It certainly sounds like an accidental O.D. I want to make a point about the media, which I am also skeptical as hell about. Ya know fame clouds why people say stuff about them after they die. Family membes who say he wasn't troubled or suicidal may just want to mourn and be left alone and be protective of their son's image and try to keep his issues private, which is perfectly natural. Other people who say they know he was a drug-addict may just want to show themselves to be "in" with Heath just to look cool. Then there are others who care that will stand up for him even though they weren't intimately close to him. There was a producer of "Monster's Ball" that spoke out and said that Heath wasn't a drug addict, that he knows drug addicts and he wasn't one. Well, how long ago was "Monster's Ball?" 7 years? How much does he stay in touch with him? Could he say with 100% certainty that Heath didn't get involved in drugs after his recent move to New York? What makes him credible? It takes years before you can really know the truth. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

Mim - I agree with you about the suicide thing, particularly your thought (and Joshua's) about suicide. I put this together quickly, I admit. I fear he just made a terrible, terrible mistake. There's a vid here of Heath for an interview:

It doesn't look like drugs to me, though. More like a mixture of prescription drugs, insomnia, and alcohol. Terribly, terribly sad.

Billy - You're very kind, and I completely agree.

Bob - You're right. And who hasn't fought depression? Those are great comments.


Mim said...

I just read an article about the projects he left in flux. The Dark Knight is okay, but they are now re-thinking the marketing plan.

He just finished principle photography on a Terry Gilliam project in London, which is where he got sick. He had told Terry that he was planning to move into directing feature films himself in the next few years. Terry said, "He'll be a better director than me."

To me this is the most heartbreaking thing about it. He had so many plans for the future. He'd obviously chosen his roles with an eye to his future, as well as how much they would challenge him.

I think he was just sick and didn't realize how much medicine he was taking, or what it would do.

Queen Kellee said...

On being suicidal:
People commit suicide all the time, even when they have plans made for that day, plans for the future, with appointments to keep and children young and old. Anyone who has seriously contemplated suicide would know this. And there are many ways to kill oneself, some being more direct than others. Drowning yourself in drugs and alcohol is suicide by proxy, no doubt. You may not want to put a gun to your head and shoot, but the end result can be exactly the same.

I liken deep depression to treading water endlessly in huge dark, empty ocean. At some point you just get tired, and stop treading water. To someone that depressed, LIVING takes much more work than DYING.

As for Heath, I hope it wasn't a suicide, but I fear it was. Either way, the loss is immeasurable.

"Depression is anger turned inward." I don't remember where I read this, but it's stuck with me for years, helping me get through some pretty tough times myself. To me, it's the only thing about depression that makes sense.

Actors, like writers, are asked to wear their hearts and their sleeves and conjure up deep emotions in order to entertain others. To those who feel deeply, this can be a dangerous, double edged sword.

Mystery Man said...

Yes, it can. I really appreciate those comments. Thanks for that.


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