Thursday, January 31, 2008

Tough times in tinsel town

  Hollywood likes to believe that, as time goes on, it experiences more crests than troughs and that no matter what is going on in the world, the ‘show must go on’. But even the staunch followers will agree that a shadow of gloom has settled in as the year 2008 has dawned. The darkest cloud on the horizon has been the continuing strike by the Writers Guild of America, which began in November last year and is showing no signs of letting up.

  What was expected to be a short term setback has brought tinsel town to its knees with thousands losing jobs and many more stuck in a rut caused by the lack of creative talent at their disposal. Premier awards ceremonies are in danger of being cancelled with the Golden Globes being the first casualty. TV shows have run out of material and have cancelled announcements of lineups and concepts in development. A quiet reign of chaos settled in as 2008 swung around but it was just the beginning. Less than a month has passed in the New Year but sad events have already taken control.

  On Jan. 15, 2008, Brad Renfro, 25, was found dead from a heroin overdose in Los Angeles, California. It seems not so long ago that he was discovered as a boy at the age of 10 by director Joel Schumacher and cast in his first major motion picture, The Client (1994). One of the best John Grisham novel adaptations to date, Renfro was able to spar opposite heavyweights like Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones even at a tender age. He justified his promise and impressed critics with two more films soon after – The Cure (1995) and Tom and Huck (1995). In 1995, he was nominated as one of People Magazine’s ‘Top 30 Under 30’. Unfortunately, as he grew older he was in the spotlight more for his frequent problems with the law than his acting prowess. Renfro might have lost his way but another person who passed away within a week of his death was undoubtedly on the road to greatness and was in his prime.

  Heath Ledger was a rare talent who inspired the actors who had the opportunity to work with him. At 28, he had already acted in such a diverse group of films that there was no questioning his talent and love for the medium. From his childhood in Perth, Western Australia, he had dreams of being an actor and at 16; he left for Sydney to make his dream a reality. Parts on TV series and Australian film productions soon followed. But it wasn’t until age 20 that he would really get noticed with 1999’s Australian film Two Hands and Hollywood teen drama 10 Things I Hate About You in the same year. Both roles showed his promise but Hollywood seemed intent on slapping him with the ‘just another pretty boy’ tag and Ledger wasn’t having it. He instead chose to immerse himself in one character role after another. He went from starring opposite Mel Gibson in The Patriot and appearing in the fantasy drama series Roar to showing his comedy chops with A Knight’s Tale (2001). 

  In every role, Ledger stood out and none of his characters bore any sort of similarity. Though the roles in movies like Ned Kelly (2003) didn’t always hit home, noone could ever accuse him of being typecast. He had a small but striking role in Monster’s Ball (2001) and delivered the goods in The Four Feathers (2002). On his choice of film roles, he was once quoted as saying: “I feel like I’m wasting time if I repeat myself. I can’t say I’m proud of my work. It’s the same with everything I do: the day I say ‘It’s good’ is the day I should start doing something else.”

  It was the year 2005 that forever altered people’s minds and showed the world that Ledger was a force to be reckoned with. Four of his films released that year and one would be hard-pressed to find four more different characters. From a skateboarder in Lords of Dogtown and playing one of The Brothers Grimm to a thief of hearts in Casanova, Ledger never gave less than this best.

  The fourth character of 2005 is the one for which he will always be remembered. He played Wyoming ranch hand Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain opposite Jake Gyllenhaal and it is a performance that can be compared with the top actors of our time. He received the ‘Best Actor of 2005’ awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for the same role. If people thought that it was the peak for Ledger, he was determined to prove them wrong.

  He only got better after that. In 2007, he was one of six actors to portray Bob Dylan in the film I’m Not There. His last completed film The Dark Knight is yet to be released but it is also perhaps the most eagerly-awaited of all his films. He took on the character of The Joker last played by Jack Nicholson in 1989’s Batman and prepared for it by cutting himself from the world for a month and burying himself in the source material. If the trailer for the film is any indication, we might get to see Ledger redefine the character and make it his own later this year. 

  Sadly, the world will not get to see the heights he might have reached if he was not abruptly taken away from it on Jan. 22, 2008, leaving behind a two-year-old daughter, Matilda Rose, and a family in Australia. One of the brightest lights of a new generation of actors has gone out and it is a tragic loss that will always be felt.

  Looking ahead, one can only hope that the rest of this year will focus on recovery for Hollywood from the writers’ strike as a means to honour the craft that actors like Renfro and Ledger stood for. One can perhaps learn from the inspiration provided by people like Ledger, who once said: “I like to do something I fear. I like to set up obstacles and defeat them. I like to be afraid of the project. I always am.”

(Published in Oman Tribune on January 30, 2008)

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