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Heath Ledger's crowning last act

Heath Ledger died at an age when many gifted actors first reach liftoff. At 28, he had achieved acclaim, popularity and riches. But he was just beginning to define himself as an actor and a star.

In Todd Haines' “I'm Not There,” he played a tortured big-screen idol, ill at ease with conventional accomplishment and fame, in the manner of Bob Dylan – or James Dean. When Ledger succumbed to an accidental overdose of prescription drugs in January, Dean provided an inevitable point of comparison. They both died young (Dean was even younger, 24), and each had big movies in the can – Dean with “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” and Ledger with “The Dark Knight,” which opened Friday.

Although posthumous performances sometimes have helped movies at the box office (Jean Harlow's biggest hit was “Saratoga”), Ledger in “The Dark Knight” plays Batman's arch-villain, the Joker, as a psychotic anarchist, getting off on destruction. Stories of the actor's demise theorized that Ledger's trip to the dark side of the Joker put him over the edge.

But in the weeks leading up to the film's release, Warner Bros. positioned Ledger for an Academy Award nomination and erased any residue of ghoulishness.

That decision might be right, in more ways than one.

The evidence on screen shows that as Ledger fulfilled his promise he might have developed as a character-actor star, like Robert Duvall or Gene Hackman, rather than a generation-defining personality, like Dean.

Right from the start of his career, Dean conjured an aura that transcended acting. Ledger never developed that kind of resonant big-star persona, not even in his one certified Zeitgeist movie, the gay cowboy romance, “Brokeback Mountain.” He was nominated for best actor, Jake Gyllenhaal for best supporting actor.

If the picture clicked for millions of moviegoers, it was probably because Gyllenhaal allowed them to see Ledger's stiff, emotionally strangled Ennis del Mar through the eyes of the besotted Jack Twist. Whether you consider it a camp classic or a wrenching cry from the heart, Twist's anguished “I wish I knew how to quit you” became the film's signature line.

Still, Ledger was earnest, talented and game, committed to acting for the long haul. With the success of “Ten Things I Hate About You,” he could have pursued celebrity as a heartthrob. Instead he opted for difficult, diverse roles, including a jail guard who refuses to become a third-generation racist in “Monster's Ball.” When he let you see him sweat in that movie, he also showed you blood and tears. And his tension as an actor sometimes blended, in a good way, with his character's.

He lacked the gravity and dash that could have anchored and energized sprawling fantasies like the arena-rock-flavored knight-in-shining-armor film “A Knight's Tale.” He might have grown into those qualities.

But I generally preferred him in juicy supporting roles, such as the mentor-entrepreneur in “Lord of Dogtown,” who practices tough love on his skateboarding team yet keeps faith with his own personal counterculture. Ledger has more genuine pathos than any of the kids in this movie; he plays an arrested adolescent with a grungy dignity that underlies even his drunken bouts of self-pity. He lets this character grow on you. And it's this sneak-attack quality that could have made Ledger a director's best friend for decades to come.

One quality that Ledger and Dean did share is rapid growth. Ledger gave his most entertaining and inventive star performance as the free thinker and hedonist in the period romp “Casanova,” which came out right after “Brokeback Mountain.” For once, in a lead role, he relaxed – and conquered. In “Casanova,” he's sunny when he's hopping beds at night and comically quick and alert when making the Venetian social scene during the day.

At last comfortable with his good looks and more confident than ever about his intelligence, Ledger is superb when he sprawls across a couch and rehearses how to ask a woman what's on her mind.

Dean's greatest performance was his last one, as Jett Rink, the disreputable Texas ranch hand turned fabulous oil tycoon in “Giant.” He creates a character as unsentimental and emotional, as unique and influential, as any in American movies. He speaks in a sometimes comic, sometimes moving mumble, and when he stomps out the outline of his small parcel of land in giant steps, he makes you feel the birth of pride in ownership.

In just three movies he made the transition from a specialist in embattled juveniles to an actor who could evoke the emotional scars of a grizzled, wasted old man.

According to the run of recent feature stories, Ledger enjoyed nothing more than doing the character-actor's vanishing act and disappearing into a role.

“If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” says the Joker in the Batman graphic novel, “The Killing Joke.” That's how the artistically adventurous Ledger must have thought about the future. Let's hope Ledger's Joker crowns his career the way Dean's Jett Rink did his.