Just finished watching the Oscars, one of the most boring in recent memory, but the one endearing memory that i will remember (given that this is a comic book blog) is Heath winning for his portrayal of The Joker. It was a devastatingly dead-on accurate job of acting in front of a director who completely, utterly got the character.
That sort of thing is rare, far rarer than we would suspect in the movie world, but even more so when a beloved character is taken from other fiction and brought into the movie world. Harry Potter has been aptly served by some very competent directors and the excellent casting of Daniel Radcliffe. The Joker has been tortured by any number of directors and actors who never quite got the essence, only skimming the surface with the white face and leering laugh.
Even Bob Kane didn't get what he was creating back in Batman #1. The Joker is an insanely clever jewel thief with a creepy gimmick, but he is not a howling force of nature, given to utter unpredictability in his actions. If the essence of acting is not to simply mirror surface mannerisms but to understand why your character acts the way he/she does, then playing a tabla rasa murderer can be both freeing and maddening. As Michael Caine's Alfred makes the point in the movie, men like that can't be bargained with, or reasoned with, they are simply something that can't be understood in any logical context. You have to deal with them as they are. In our modern day they can be a metaphor for the unreasoning terror the urban dwellers can feel over the possiblity of another terrorist attack, another missing child, another chemical spill, another tsunami.
If the essence of The Batman is to impose order on the orderless world, a way to revenge/prevent the killing of his parents again by another criminal, then The Joker is the giggling essence of disorder and chaos. It delights in its ability to simply do things, whether small or large. The tidal wave has no morality, can't be bargained with, is disconcertingly random in its choices. Nolan gets both The Batman's and The Joker's premises, which is why he's been able to put together not flawless films, but films that engage the hearts of those of us with four colors under our fingernails.
Not too long ago, Heath would have been relegated to having lowered himself to act is a stupid genre picture, and even as recently as a few years ago, I was certain that the Academy would not give the best picture Oscar to Peter Jackson for Return of the King because I was sure that they didn't "get it". That a science fiction picture, fantasy picture, genre picture of any kind would never be given its due. I was wrong, happily, that night, and I'm even more overjoyed to see that the voters do "get it". Ledger's Joker is as much the Oscar worthy villian as Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. It is vindication for the characters of DC Comics, and, since we'll never have definitive answers as to who did what, vindication to Kane, Finger and Robinson as makers of an enduring American mythos.
Heath, an extremely talented actor, will always remain for me any number of people: the Aussie protagonist of 10 Things I Hate About You, the cowboy of Brokeback Mountain, The Joker. Its a shame that he's gone, but we're left with a wonderful, albiet small, body of work to remember him by.