Watching Ledger’s legacy

Six months into Heath Ledger’s goneness and the wound’s still fresh. It’s OK, you can say it: Why couldn’t it have been Matthew McConaughey? We know, that’s the grief talking. No hard feelings. It’s just that if Ledger on screen was anything, he was alive.

And so we can’t help but approach Ledger’s final full performance in The Dark Knight with the rueful certainty that his turn as the Joker will put Jack Nicholson’s to shame. Ledger looked like he wouldn’t gloat about that, so of course we want to commend him for his decency, too. How confoundingly indecent of him to become permanently unavailable. On the other hand, given that his most emotionally stirring work always managed to balance bravery with restraint, why not imagine this discontinuation of his career as also its ballsiest choice, an improvised masterstroke of Joker-approved gallows humor?

Ease into it with a couple of his earlier films. Ledger, you’ll be reminded, was the best thing about Monster’s Ball, and only in it just long enough to supply the most important and least nakedly manipulative of that movie’s three plot-driving deaths. That’s him, as a third-generation corrections officer who’s too soft for the job, enduring the brutal, fatal shame of his father, played by Billy Bob Thornton, and walking Sean Combs to the electric chair—before losing it, folding in on himself and puking in the corner.

You’ll see Ledger overwhelmed and retching with unnamable emotions again, as a sexually stifled ranch hand in Brokeback Mountain, and remember again his terrific, visceral economy as a performer. Maybe you’ll figure that taut, gravelly murmur of his—the succinct embodiment of inner life pushing its way up through repressive outer surfaces—echoes Thornton’s mildly retarded but gold-hearted killer from Sling Blade, in a way not derivative but subtly deferential.

Ledger knew the difference between inheritance and impersonation. That’s why we’re so ready to take his Joker seriously. And not ready to give up the old joke: We wish we knew how to quit him.