Monday, January 20, 2014

Dark Phoenix Rising
Remembering River Phoenix & Heath Ledger

Phoenix in Dark Blood
     Do we tend to overpraise our young actors once they abruptly leave us? River Phoenix and Heath Ledger left us with only a handful of performances (a little over a dozen each). Phoenix's last film, Dark Blood (1993/2012), has not been seen by a wide audience.

Dutch director George Sluizer (Spoorloos, 1988) was able to re-edit the film and add his own voice-over narration to fill in some of the missing gaps. For anyone who doesn't know the true story of Phoenix's last days, the Utah-based shoot for Dark Blood (and subsequent interiors shoot in L.A.) played a large part in the buildup to the actor's tragic conclusion.

Likewise, those who knew Ledger closely, said the actor had undergone enormous stress following the completion of I'm Not There. (2007) and The Dark Knight (2008). Thankfully, Terry Gilliam was able to work around the unfilmed portions of Ledger's last released project The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) with an inventive device casting several actors to fill in Ledger's missing parts.

Against the odds, it somehow worked, and provided us with one last glimpse of Ledger's enormous potential and gifts as a true translator of the human condition. Then they gave him an Oscar after he died for something he didn't deserve it for. 
Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (2005)

All artists, great or small, wrestle nearly every day with demons. Most humans do to some degree but for an artist, it's usually the thing that leads them to one dangerous form of escape or another.

It's the price of seeing (or feeling) the world in such horrible detail and in some way being unavoidably responsible for processing it through the use of this device we call talent.

When I was young, I was led to believe the word "talent" was a virtue. As I have shuffled around this mortal coil a bit (and fallen off the turnip truck a time or two), I have come to recognize the word has a paradoxical effect. For the record, to possess a talent for something is indeed a blessing.

We are all talented in some way. More often than not, with regards to art or theatricality, it can subconsciously make one susceptible to anxieties, depression and self-destruction.

Phoenix and Ledger were authentic talents. They both had the demons to prove it. But do we over-value them as artists simply because they expired too soon? Let's be honest. They both lost their battles with demons. My understanding of Phoenix's condition is that he was enormously sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others.

His last project was a tough shoot and he did not get on well with his female co-star, Judy Davis. For whatever reason, method acting or not, Davis chose to give the gentle and passive Phoenix a hard time while filming and barely acknowledged his presence at all between takes. This bothered Phoenix greatly, especially considering the personal respect he had for Davis as a fellow artist.
Aussie actress Judy Davis

Phoenix, who began using hardcore drugs full-time when filming My Own Private Idaho (1991) had been clean for several months prior to the start of Dark Blood. He was a fragile soul to begin with. In the film, his character is the antagonist to Judy Davis' character.

Phoenix had worked with many serious actors before (Harrison Ford, Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Sidney Poitier, Richard Harris) and none of them likely gave him the treatment that Davis did on set. For Davis, it was probably professional (her character despises his) but for Phoenix, it went beyond personal. When the filming finally wrapped, after an unbearably stressful scene that required him to be physically intimate with the ice-cold Davis (allegedly, Davis walked off the set after filming their last scene without uttering a single word to Phoenix), he was drained and ready to unload.

The plan was to meet up with a small group of friends and family and do the thing that made him feel most at ease, playing music. His close friend Flea, bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whom he met while making My Own Private Idaho, was set to perform onstage at The Viper Room, a Hollywood nightclub partly owned by Johnny Depp at the time.

Phoenix brought his guitar along after the terrible shoot. He was soon dismayed to learn that not only were there too many musicians scheduled to be on stage that night, but his best buddy Flea had to break the news to him that Phoenix had been personally denied permission to play. Phoenix immediately retreated to the nearest bathroom where he saw a bevy of drugs being administered by patrons.
entrance to the club where Phoenix died

He mistakenly accepted a toxic speedball (with either too much cocaine or too much heroin) and immediately began convulsing and vomiting. Someone thought the actor just needed to come down, so he was given a Valium and he staggered out of the bathroom back to the table where his siblings and girlfriend, actress Samantha Mathis were seated.

Phoenix looked ill and was in an out of consciousness. He complained that he couldn't breathe. He was rushed out the nearest exit where he quickly collapsed on the sidewalk and went into violent seizures. He then went into cardiac arrest. By the time the paramedics arrived and rushed him to Cedars Sinai Medical Center, it was too late. River Phoenix was dead at 23.

Accounts vary as to the specific nature of Ledger's drug use. After the actor's death, a mere five years older than Phoenix at the time, it was hard to tell what was nonfiction and what was tabloid fodder. What isn't debatable is the chronic battle he was having with insomnia; a condition that had plagued the actor for some time.

above left: Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho (1991); above right: Ledger in I'm Not There. (2007)

He had just wrapped up filming two intense shoots back-to-back (in addition to breaking up with actress Michelle Williams, his girlfriend and mother of their daughter Matilda) and had crashed at the SoHo, NY apartment of friend Mary-Kate Olsen. He died there alone of acute intoxication from oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine.

In other words: two downers, two sleeping pills and two hardcore painkillers (used to treat people with bone cancer). Almost a year (and one month) later he was the posthumous winner of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight.
opening titles for Ang Lee's film

Personally, I stopped caring about the Oscars years ago. While it's still a treat to see a favorite performer be honored for giving a career topping performance, it's also a political boon amongst an industry of multimillionaires out to pat themselves on the back and applaud their own investments. If it were any different, they'd let the audience do the voting.

If I hadn't already seen Ledger give a career topping performance in Brokeback Mountain (2005), I may have dismissed him as just another Hollywood tragedy claiming a posthumous consolation prize (a few performances too late). The truth is, Ledger really did deserve an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain and not for The Dark Knight.

I have never been a fan of Christopher Nolan's films. Dark does not equal substance. It also doesn't replace story logic. These films are huge investments for a movie company, and the marketing machines (from the publicity department down to the critics-for-hire) went into overdrive promoting the edgy conceits of this franchise.

I'm fine with edgy, when there's a point to it. When it becomes a vacuum that sucks the life out of a script or a character, it serves no purpose. The point of Nolan's Batman films was to be edgy because the other attempts to film them had not. For me, that's not good enough. It's defrauding the audience. It's betraying the characters, and the actors who play them.
Ledger as the Joker

When I saw Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, I immediately felt something was missing. It felt technically proficient and consistent, but something was off.

Initially, I seemed to be missing the big problem, and it had little to do with Ledger (doing a very weird and introverted interpretation) or the flaccid character direction I'm sure Nolan (the faux visionary) was barely able to supply him with.

The writing was sub-moronic. The entire purpose behind the Joker's nefarious plot was to burn a pile of money? He sewed a bomb into a guy's stomach while incarcerated in a holding cell? Then the film started getting praised for it's realism. The critical reaction just all seemed scripted to me. So the big problem, next to the staggeringly puerile storyline and screenplay, was that Ledger's performance was simply not able to rise above it.

I started this post with a question. It's a question (after all this rambling) I'm still not sure I'm able to answer. River Phoenix and Heath Ledger were both singular artists. In addition to the camera loving them, they were able to enlighten us and capable of translating a writer's message from page to screen. It's the whole gestalt of what an actor must successfully do.

When the writer's message isn't necessarily clear, or it simply isn't an idea worth selling (as I believe was the case with The Dark Knight) it's then up to the actor to take their performance to some other place or another level. I feel Ledger was betrayed by the film that ultimately pushed him to the edge of his own personal limits. He deserved more than that particular movie draining all his energy and leaving him physically and emotionally spent. Perhaps then, a bit ironically, he did deserve the Oscar after all. Just not for the merits of his performance.

above left: Phoenix in Running on Empty (1988); above right: a message left for Phoenix at his place of death

Phoenix and Ledger will be remembered because they continued to challenge themselves, to not sell out and to improve with every part. Unfortunately, the game has changed in Hollywood only recently. It's not an artist's town anymore. There are very few (if any) actors of this caliber on the map.

The average age of a Hollywood leading man seems to grow older and older (DiCaprio will be 40 in November) with each passing year. The fact that Ledger was able to embody a lifetime of regret and pain in Brokeback Mountain, his finest role, at a mere 25 years old (and what Phoenix was capable of doing at only 18 in Running on Empty, 1988) is the real reason we mourn their passing.

They plumbed their own inner depths in order to teach us something about ourselves. Something that praise alone seems hardly an adequate response.

above left: memorial tribute for Ledger; above right: Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

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