Indie sweethearts Ledger and Williams had met in the summer of 2004 on the set of Brokeback Mountain. Like many young actors, Ledger had a history of falling in love on set. He had met former girlfriend Heather Graham in Prague, while he was filming A Knight’s Tale and she was filming From Hell in 2000. He had fallen for fellow Aussie Naomi Watts when they were both making the Australian film Ned Kelly in 2002. He and Watts were together for nearly two years but split just before Brokeback—a film she had encouraged him to make—because Watts, eleven years his senior, reportedly wanted a family, and Ledger, then 24, wasn’t ready.
Less than a year later and just a few months into a new relationship, Ledger was a father-to-be. He and Williams hadn’t planned the pregnancy, but in 2006, he told Rolling Stone that the event was practically fated: “We just fell very deeply into one another’s arms. Our bodies definitely made those decisions for us.’’
Matilda was born on October 28, 2005, and the young parents presented as delighted domestic partners. “I’m Mr. Mom,” he told the Boston Globe. “I get [Michelle] granola and cook her an egg, I clean the dishes, and then I’m cooking lunch … I love my new job.”
Two months after Matilda’s birth, Brokeback Mountain was released to raves and Oscar nominations, starting the decades-old chain reaction that would make Ledger into something other than a talented actor. The transition was subtle, marked by debuts on magazine covers, increased paparazzi, online chatter, buzz, spin, and hype, but at a certain point, it was a fact: Ledger was a star.
“The star phenomenon consists of everything that is publicly available about stars,” wrote the film theorist Richard Dyer in 1986—decades before this came to include sex tapes, iPhone hacks, abs reportage, plastic-surgery critique, and that clearinghouse for witless, bitchy speculation, the “Comments” sections of blogs. A probing and adventurous character actor—someone who said he had purposely “taken the blonde out of his career” by choosing roles like a suicidal prison guard in Monster’s Ball—Ledger had now been cast as Heath: happy father to Matilda, committed life partner to Michelle, gracious newcomer to worldwide fame.
Ledger clearly hated this kind of attention. He had already been battling it out with the Australian press, which, at the Brokeback premiere in Sydney, shot him and Williams with water guns as they walked the red carpet. Ledger was reportedly in tears when he talked to his father later that night, saying he was going to sell his house in Sydney and make a permanent move to the States. Two weeks later, he was at the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards in Los Angeles. The red carpet went off without a hitch that night; it was the after-party that would later prove problematic. This was the night when the recently surfaced video of Ledger allegedly doing coke was shot.
The video—called “shocking” and “harrowing” in the press—was first acquired by Australia’s Channel 9 and later won its provider $200,000 from the TV show The Insider, but was quashed after Ledger’s publicist rallied some high-profile Hollywood troops (Natalie Portman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Josh Brolin) to threaten a boycott of the show. For such a reputed smoking gun, the clip shows little more than a party that any young urban American would recognize. Ledger swigs from a beer bottle, says he’s going to get serious shit from his girlfriend upstairs for being at this party, admits to formerly smoking five joints a day, and points to his tattoo of “M” (for then-3-month-old Matilda), saying, “This is to remind me never to smoke weed again.” The biggest surprise is the oddly solicitous and self-deprecating manner of the award-nominee.
From all accounts, the context of the video was not raucous celebration but growing unease. “He was in a terribly anxious state during the Oscars,” recalls an English film director who spent time with Ledger at the Château Marmont waiting out award-season mania. “The day after the Oscars, he said to me, ‘I’ll never make another good film again.’ If this was what happened when you made a good film, he didn’t think it was worth it. He found the whole thing absolutely harrowing. I think that after the Oscars, there was a kind of corner turned—and not a very good one.”
That was around the time that Williams allegedly tried to take Ledger to Promises rehab center in Malibu, according to Us Weekly (a story Buxbaum says is fabricated).
Sometime that summer, as the pressures grew in Los Angeles, Ledger and Williams took up permanent residence in Brooklyn. This began a kind of Camelot period that was savored as much by neighbors and local media as it was by the family itself. “It’s the closest we’ve ever come to feeling like we can lead a normal life,” Ledger told this magazine. “We’ve localized ourselves. I don’t think there’s another place on earth I’d rather be right now. We’re very happy.”