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So long,

So long,


In his short life, Heath Ledger barely had time to tap his potential. But for us, he had already achieved the performance of a lifetime--and losing him so soon after Brokeback Mountain is like suffering a death in the family.

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.

"That performance...I don't know how to put words on it, really," says Adam Sutton, a friend of Ledger's who had visited the actor during the making of Brokeback. Like Ennis Del Mar, Sutton was a closeted cowboy when he and Ledger first met. He credits Brokeback with giving him the courage to come out in The Sydney Morning Herald and, more recently, in his memoir, Say It Out Loud.

Though Sutton claims he gave Ledger no advice on how to play Ennis, he remembers being shocked by the performance during his first screening of the film. "It was pretty surreal, because I looked at my life as a reflection of it," he says. "I saw everything about me in the film. Heath gave me the inspiration to tell my story, just from a role he played on set."

The two had met initially on the set of Ledger's 2003 Aussie western Ned Kelly, where Sutton was hired to teach the actor horse-riding skills. It's there that Sutton realized just how independent the actor could be, when Ledger--who had a taste for surfing and skateboarding--refused to wear a helmet and brushed off Sutton's attempts to make him don one.

"He said, 'But you're not wearing a helmet!' " Sutton laughs. "And so I said, 'Yeah, true, but you guys have to.' It was a little bit of a standoff--he went off to himself for an hour. Eventually, he did wear a helmet, but I had to eat my humble pie and wear one too!"

Though they eventually became good friends, Sutton says there was always something elusive about the actor. "He was pretty withdrawn, and he never let anyone right into him. I think he did early on, but the more public he became, the more he went into himself. He never let anybody know who 'Heath Ledger' was."

It's precisely that enigmatic quality, which protected Ledger in life, that now makes the actor's story so irresistible in death. Initially, he was a blank slate for speculation, catnip to the 24-hour news cycle that could spin him to fit into any narrative they pleased. One of the most compelling stories, one likely to grow with time, compares Ledger to James Dean. Beyond its most obvious connection, it's an instructive primer of the homoerotic ingredients that go into creating a masculine icon.

Rebel Without a Cause gave Dean his most famous role, and though the character was straight, he was the object of homosexual desire (and informed by the actor's own sexual ambiguity). In spite of that--or, I'd posit, because of it--Dean's Jim Stark became a classic masculine archetype. Ledger's Ennis Del Mar, though, wasn't merely the object of gay interest--he was gay himself. The character was iconic from the time Brokeback was released, but Ledger's early death--and the photos of Heath as Ennis that accompanied nearly every obituary--has hastened his entry into the pantheon of on-screen masculinity.

If that enshrinement raises interesting questions about the role of gay men in creating masculine icons, it's also caused an early reevaluation of the phenomenon that was Brokeback Mountain. "In a way, [Brokeback fever] had just barely died down and was being put to rest, and now I think that Heath Ledger's death has made it spring up again," notes Rich. "That film became a classic, became a cult film, became a personalized object very quickly."

For a gay audience unused to seeing ourselves on such a big canvas, that level of identification is also why the death of Heath Ledger matters so much to us. We felt so deeply for Ledger because we felt so deeply for Ennis. To watch Heath's career soar, to watch him fulfill his potential, was to provide, at least by proxy, the happy ending that Ennis never got. Ennis expected nothing, but we expected everything for Heath, and the idea that we'll never get to see it puts one in mind of Jack Twist, turning away from Ennis Del Mar as his own dreams are dashed. "There's never enough time," he mutters. "Never enough."

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