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Heath Ledger Had A Lot Of Fun As The Joker

I Am Heath Ledger, which debuts on TMN May 22, is an intimate look at the the life and career of the late Heath Ledger, who died from an accidental drug overdose in 2008. Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis’s poignant documentary details Ledger’s creative pursuits through the eyes of the people who knew him best—and through the lens of his own camera. (Most of the archival footage in the film was shot by the actor himself.) Those people include childhood friends Trevor DiCarlo and Kane Manera, his family, Ben Mendelsohn, Naomi Watts, Ang Lee, Ben Harper, and his longtime agent Steve Alexander, among others. Ledger’s close friend and creative collaborator, Matt Amato, was not only influential in helping Murray and Buitenhuis go through Ledger’s extensive catalogue of footage but also in getting the actor’s family on board with the project.

I Am Heath Ledger celebrates the life of an artist who, as Harper says in the film, was bigger than the world had room for. The film doesn’t dwell on Ledger’s untimely death, nor does it get into grim specifics, and that was intentional.

What the film does offer, however, is rare insight into the restless mind of the actor, filmmaker, father, and rabid chess player. To Amato’s point, it also quells some of the long-standing rumours surrounding his death. Here one of many major revelations from the documentary.

The narrative that Ledger was in a dark place at the time of his death persists nearly a decade later. His role as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was challenging, sure, but it wasn’t all-consuming. Ledger spent six weeks perfecting the Joker’s manic mannerisms before stepping onto set, and when he did, he felt truly in command of his performance. (He also conceived the white pancake makeup and smeared red lipstick himself.) According to those who knew him, Ledger was at his creative peak as the Joker, and it was often common to find him laughing between takes.

“That film was so big and so dark and he had passed by the time it came out, so that became the narrative,” Buitenhuis said. “So when we went to make this film, obviously that was a question we wanted to ask. But a lot of the time I didn’t even need to ask. People were like, ‘It’s crazy that that’s the narrative that everyone thinks because it was the complete opposite.’”

While the Joker remains one of Ledger’s finest performances, Amato is disheartened by the way it has been mythologized in our culture. “In many ways, I’m glad he’s not around to see it,” he said. “There’s even been acts of violence in the Joker’s name that have occurred since he portrayed that part. I think he was too sensitive to survive that. It would have torn him apart.”

“Our culture latches on to the glamour of evil and we glorify it,” he added. “Heath had fun playing the part, but he was the most nonviolent, gentle creature.”