In many ways actor Heath Ledger, who was found dead today at age 28, represented the best and the brightest of the current crop of young screen talent.  His skill, artistic courage, and presence will be sorely missed.  Here's one moviegoer's heartfelt goodbye...

Heath Ledger may end up being best known for his Oscar-caliber work in Brokeback Mountain, his breakout role in A Knight's Tale, or perhaps for his turn in the posthumously released The Dark Knight.

While not taking anything away from these films, I'd like to draw attention to three other, perhaps less celebrated, roles.

He first came to my attention in 10 Things I Hate About You.  He practically leaped off the screen, singing and joking, and being one of the key elements that turned what could have been another forgettable teen movie into quite a charmer.  I remember thinking, "It's a real shame if he doesn't become a big star."

Then there was his supporting role in Monster's Ball.  In it he gives a performance so touching that to this day it's probably what stays with me most about that fine film.  I see his face and I think about all the sons in this world who would do anything to avoid disappointing their fathers.

 

And finally, his sun-frayed, unvain, and funny turn as the would-be skateboard mogul in Lords of Dogtown.  He so nailed this part that he instantly added a much-needed layer of gravitas (and credibility) to the story.  More importantly, he gave the younger actors, such as Emile Hirsch, someone solid they could play off of and shine as a result--like a good point guard, Ledger made everyone else look better.  I don't know if his work was generally lauded for this film, but it should have been.  And what I liked most about him at this point in his career is that he could see the value in a role like this at such a young age, not waiting until later in life to turn to "character actor"-type parts.  You could tell that he cared about the scripts he was given and judged each on its merits, not on what it could do for him or his screen persona. 

Indeed, because of his amazing versatility one could argue that he never developed a persona per se.  Yet every movie he was in was better because of his presence.  He could be flat-out entertaining or unbelievably moving.  Heath Ledger was a true star, the kind whose self-challenging instincts makes going to the movies interesting, if not exhilarating, in the first place.  And so now I'm thinking, "It's a real shame if he's not remembered that way for a long, long time."