I haven't written about Heath Ledger until now. The reason is perhaps obvious: everyone's already written about Heath Ledger in some form or another and I wasn't quite sure I had much to add that wasn't said more eloquently elsewhere.
That said, from the moment I found out about his death, the fact that I happen to be teaching a class about stardom (and, randomly and separately, am screening Brokeback Mountain in my grad seminar) this semester jump-started the academic in me. Quite frankly, I'll admit to being utterly fascinated at the phenomenon of Ledger's somewhat posthumous stardom. I'll admit my utter shock at finding out about his death while picking up some movies at the library 10 minutes before class -- and then somewhat puzzled why I seemed to have such an empathetic response. It's not like I've fawned over him incessantly; indeed, I have only seen three of his films, two of which were supporting turns in Monster's Ball and I'm Not There. As talented an actor as he was or potentially might have been, I had no idea he was this big of a star -- and I have a feeling many people felt the same way, surprised at their own emotions toward him.
This week my class is reading some considerable theorizing about the confluence of actors and roles that make up stardom. For me, the outpouring of emotional wringing around Ledger's death solidifies something nearly every sane cinephile has been saying for two years now: that as both a film and a cultural touchstone, Brokeback Mountain endures. Perhaps this is because BBM was really more of a throwback to the most memorable melodramas of Hollywood's classic periods. As such, we viewers (caught in the cultural zeitgeist of the film) easily and unknowingly transformed the actor into the star that matched that kind of performance. As obsessed as some of us are about the Oscars (and hey, I'm the one with the party and trademarked drinking game!), it no longer bothers me as much that what amounts to a lightweight film like Crash won that evening. Heck, Singin' in the Rain doesn't have a Best Picture Oscar and Around the World in 80 Days does: you tell me.
If this sounds like I'm gearing up for a possible article on this subject, I just might. The last time I got really this interested in stardom, I wrote a great piece on Matt Damon and Ben Affleck that I now regret not publishing; indeed, I was planning on returning to that piece instead (and still might). But once the manuscript is done done done (which will hopefully be soon), maybe a detour into the current phenomenon might be worth examining.
(This actually started as a comment on a post on Heath Ledger at The Film Experience -- so thanks for the inspiration, Nathaniel!)