In the time they spent together, from late September through mid-November, the woman never saw Ledger do drugs. “He had a party at his loft once, and it was really crazy. There were drugs there, but he didn’t touch them. I saw it offered to him multiple times. Ecstasy, cocaine, even prescription stuff—but he never touched it. I was with him at least a dozen times, and he was always sober. Just cigarettes.”
Ledger’s death has given anecdotes like this one—along with contradictory stories about, say, wild man Ledger snorting piles of coke and downing every bottle in the hotel minibar—a new intensity. And a price tag: The woman from the Beatrice Inn says a tabloid offered her up to $5,000 for dirt on Mary-Kate or Heath’s drug use. (She declined to sell her story.)
Every sighting has been analyzed posthumously for clues to his sobriety and state of mind. Joseph Ari Aloi, the friend and tattoo artist who had inked a red M for Matilda on Ledger’s chest, thought Ledger may have been stressed right before Christmas: “When you’re the kind of guy that has to be creating and documenting and expressing all the time, it’s hard sometimes to be horizontal and dormant. He had a really hard time turning it off.”
A director friend who spoke with him by telephone in January said that people had been worried about him. “The thing I feel worst about is that because I was a little bit in awe, and didn’t want to lose him as somebody I could talk to, I didn’t say what was on my mind,” he says. “I think that’s another way that famous people isolate themselves is that sometimes people find it very difficult to say, ‘You’re killing yourself.’ ”
Christopher Plummer, who was working with Ledger on the set of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, told reporters that Ledger was in such bad shape he appeared to have walking pneumonia.
“Of course there’s going to be a stampede to understand him—even understand literally how he died,” says Todd Haynes. “I think people just want some concrete explanation. I think we’re grappling for something. What’s so hard about this is that there is not a real character arc—arguably, there never is, no matter how long someone lives. But this one was so full of promise and so in bloom that it feels just savage to have it be foreshortened so brutally. That’s what makes it so intolerable to the public, which makes the search for more clues so intense.”
One clue, offered by the Los Angeles Times as evidence of the actor’s downward spiral, was a clip from an interview with Ledger in December about his role in I’m Not There. The interviewer claimed Ledger “was clearly slurring and unfocused,” but viewers would find a video of a disappointingly lucid Ledger, discussing his view that biopics run the risk of defaming their subject: “Because you’re assuming too much. I think this movie avoids it gracefully by not assuming to know who Bob Dylan is. He’s kept in the shadow … It’s preserving his mystique.”
When Haynes met Ledger in 2006, the actor was already struggling with similar questions about the art of biography, having taken a two-year sabbatical from acting to write a script about the life of singer-songwriter Nick Drake. “Trying to squeeze this complex, beautiful, and mysterious subject into the confines of the traditional biopic he found reprehensible and kind of cruel,” says Haynes. “He was starting to approach it through a more allegorical method, where it was going to be about a woman traveling on a train ride through Europe—which Nick Drake I think did do—and he was going to have Michelle play that role.” Now, the idea that Ledger had spent two years trying to get inside the head of an artist who suffered from depression and insomnia and died at 26 from an overdose of a prescribed antidepressant has become one more detail to be used as either tragic irony or psychoanalytic insight.
The fact is, Ledger probably did cocaine. He might have snorted, smoked, or even injected heroin (in his glam-hipster milieu hardly the gutter death-trip many assume), although he convincingly denied it when describing preparations for his junkie role in Candy. He certainly took prescription pills, possibly not always for medical reasons. And as he said, he used to smoke several joints a day.
But contrary to the binary thinking of the media’s Ledger debate, his drug use doesn’t negate the “good Heath” story line. The arbitrary distinctions between good and bad drugs, and good and bad star behavior, obscure the fact that there likely was no bad Heath Ledger. As it happens, he might have been better off if he had behaved more horribly, if he weren’t so widely adored. An addict’s best hope for recovery is being an intolerable asshole when he’s using. And to say the least, few remember that kind of Ledger.