Here's a tip: If you're in a jam, find the nearest Heath Ledger fan. They are among the most charitable people in the world--forgiving, long suffering and loyal. How can you tell? Because they have put themselves through some spectacular duds on his behalf. (The Order, anyone? The Four Feathers?) Having captivated them as a rascally but tender heartthrob six years ago with teen catnip like 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight's Tale, Ledger, 26, then virtually disappeared from the kind of movies they--and almost everyone else--enjoy. The chisel-jawed Australian is decent enough to acknowledge this. "I feel like I've never been in a film that people have liked before."
Those who have missed Ledger's work to date are in luck because they can start with his latest, Brokeback Mountain, an elegiac western about two gorgeous, lonely young people who find in each other a passion and a long-sought sense of belonging but who cannot be together. Oh, and they're both guys.
Ledger plays a tightly wound sheepherder named Ennis Del Mar, who if this were a more traditional romance would be the female. He is the one who's pursued, who withdraws, who has to be won over. But there's nothing girly about Ledger's Del Mar. He's classic cowboy, from the way he wrangles his words out through lips opened barely half an inch to his habit of donning his hat to ward off anyone coming too close. Del Mar doesn't have too much to say, but he's got a Russian novel's worth of body language, most of it about loss. "If you can't fix it," he tells Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), his lover, in a rare moment of reflection about his life, "you've got to stand it."
That is not a philosophy Ledger subscribes to. Shy in demeanor but headstrong as a buffalo, he's not much for talking; he just up and does what he wants to. When he arrived in Los Angeles seven years ago, pursuing a woman, he had done some Australian TV and a few small movies and was completely broke. "We were going to dinner one night," says Gregor Jordan, a friend and the director of two of his films (Two Hands and Ned Kelly). "He put his credit card in the ATM, and it swallowed it because he was so overdrawn. But then later at the bar, I found a margarita in my hand, and someone said Heath had bought everyone a round of drinks."
That devil-may-care charm, plus what director Lasse Hallstrom calls "those eyes and that physicality," twigged the antennae of Amy Pascal, head of Columbia Pictures, who took him under her wing and laid out a buffet of starmaking career moves. In short order, he was Mel Gibson's son in The Patriot, and then--without so much as an audition--he was given the lead in A Knight's Tale. The posters proclaimed, HE WILL ROCK YOU.