A villain’s villain: Ledger looms over Dark Knight

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By: Jamie Portman,
Canwest News Service

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – The ghost of Heath Ledger is haunting The Dark Knight these days. That’s inevitable. The Australian actor’s sudden death – officially attributed to an accidental drug overdose – last January at the age of 28 is casting a long shadow over the release of the latest Batman adventure.

That bothers Gary Oldman, who’s reprising his role as Gotham police lieutenant Jim Gordon in the new film. Oldman dislikes the continuing tabloid speculation about Ledger’s passing. He sees it as an unfortunate distraction from what audiences should be focusing on – Ledger’s remarkable performance as The Joker.

Oldman is no stranger to portraying vile villainy in films like True Romance and The Professional, but he says that anything he has done pales beside his late colleague’s achievement.

“There are actors who sometimes go through the sound barrier,” Oldman explains. “I would arguably say that psychologically, this is one of the most frightening screen villains ever. I think it’s up there with Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. That’s pretty scary. We’ve got the original Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum – that is a true villain. There’s Hannibal Lecter. I think he (Heath) moved the bar.”

Oldman remembers being shaken by his first scene with Ledger during filming in Britain last year. “What’s Heath like?” a friend asked him later in the day. Oldman still recalls his answer. “He’s f—ing sensational. It’s like he’s tuned into a frequency. He’s found a radio station that none of us can hear.”

Oldman was also struck by Ledger’s commitment.

“You’re not only watching the skill of how he does it, but you’re responding to a commitment to the work,” Oldman emphasizes. But, he adds in exasperation, “people want to see something in him dying. I think they always look for a darker story and they want to see something a little bit darker and sinister.”

Oldman prefers to remember a superb acting colleague who, when the cameras weren’t rolling, “would come out of character and sit down on the curb with me, have a smoke and laugh and joke.” As for Ledger’s death: “I believe it was an accident, and that was it. He’s probably looking down now and saying, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m going to get nominated for an Oscar? Now?”’

Talk of a posthumous Oscar for Ledger is very much in the air now that Warner is letting audiences have an advance look at the film which pits Christian Bale’s Batman against Ledger’s chilling, smiling sociopath.

“I think the most wonderful thing about Heath, if you look at his body of work, is that he throws himself into a character in a very fearless way,” says producer Charles Roven who had worked with Ledger previously on The Brothers Grimm. Roven says that in casting The Joker, Ledger was the first choice of himself, fellow producer Emma Thomas and director Christopher Nolan – always assuming that Ledger could be persuaded to play it. They needed an actor capable of erasing memories of Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top operatics in the role 19 years ago.

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