“You knew he was special when you met him, both as a person and as an actor,” says a producer who worked with him on Brokeback. “Literally, everybody loved him.” Partly it was his bravery in taking on the role of gruff, repressed gay cowboy Ennis Del Mar. (“People forget what an incredibly bold move it was to play that character,” says the producer.) Partly it was the impression he gave of being, in Haynes’s words, “a real seeker and a real explorer,” still trying on different identities. Partly it was his behavior on set, where he steered clear of chauffeurs and trailers, preferred skateboards to SUVs, and worked alongside the crew between setups. And partly it was his rejection of the trappings and attention of Hollywood, his attempt to live an ordinary artist’s life.
“There’s something about Heath,” says Haynes. “We somehow figured, through his work and the ways people saw him, that he was above and beyond this kind of an end.”
Strangely enough, considering the number of paparazzi and “friends” and bartenders and cell-phone-camera users in the city, there is no accurate account of Ledger’s final 24 hours. He was last seen at the Beatrice Inn the Sunday before he died, wearing, in either a misguided bid for anonymity or a sign of serious psychic trouble, a ski mask over his face.
Ledger didn’t hide his insomnia, stress, or poor health. He was on a break from shooting The Imaginarium on cold, wet outdoor London sets. He was flying back and forth to New York, flipping time zones, missing his daughter, going into his usual creative hyperdrive, and wandering the city into the early hours. On the night before he died, he may have been suffering from any combination of depression, anxiety, insomnia, pneumonia, drug addiction, and/or drug withdrawal. The only thing for sure is he was doing it alone.
On February 6, just three days before Ledger’s body would be cremated, the putative epilogue to this story was delivered by the office of New York’s chief medical examiner: “Mr. Heath Ledger died as the result of acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam, and doxylamine. We have concluded that the manner of death is accident, resulting from the abuse of prescription medications.”
As a final chapter, this reads like William Burroughs doing Lewis Carroll, its logic confoundingly circular. Xanax, Valium, Unisom, Restoril, Vicodin, OxyContin—two downers, two sleeping pills, and two painkillers of a caliber used for bone cancer. This would indeed make one acutely intoxicated. And if one died, one would indeed have died of acute intoxication. It was an accident, certainly, but in the same way that driving drunk off a pier would be an accident. Or ODing on heroin.
Ledger’s parents cited the pharmaceutical provenance of the drugs as proof that their son was the victim of a simple prescription-drug mix-up. “Today’s results put an end to speculation,” they wrote in a statement. “While no medications were taken in excess, we learned today the combination of doctor-prescribed drugs proved lethal for our boy.”
In the end, Heath Ledger’s official cause of death was a toxicological character sketch—masterfully vague, all facts with few answers. Much like his life, we could read it any way we wanted.