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Heath Ledger and the Idolatry of Dying Young

 

ON THE AFTERNOON of January 22, 2008, actor Heath Ledger was found dead in his Manhattan apartment, having taken, it was later learned, an overdose of prescription medications. The Australian native was 28. His masseuse discovered him after being let into his SoHo loft, where she found Ledger face-down and naked in bed. Paramedics were summoned, CPR was administered, but it was too late. Tattooed on his stomach was “Matilda,” the name of his two-year old daughter.

Toxicology reports later revealed that Ledger (suffering from pneumonia at the time) died of acute intoxication after a fatal cocktail of narcotic painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, and over-the-counter sleep aids. Matilda’s mother, Michelle Williams, whom Ledger had met on the Calgary set of Brokeback Mountain, was filming in Sweden at the time and quickly returned to the States. One of Heath Ledger’s last roles was that of Bob Dylan—one of several Bob Dylans—in last year’s I’m Not There, in which he co-starred for the last Heath Ledgertime with Williams. The movie takes its title from an obscure Dylan bootleg, but when Ledger plays Dylan, those three words—“I’m Not There”—take on an eerie meaning for those left to lament his absence. It was Dylan, meanwhile, who sang some forty years ago: “The one was Texas medicine,/ The other was just railroad gin/ An’ like a fool I mixed them/ An’ it strangled up my mind.” In Ledger’s case, it strangled up his heart.

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