Every Heath Ledger performance, ranked
On what would have been his 43rd birthday, we chart the late star's finest moments on film.
The year 2022 marks 30 years since Heath Ledger’s first (albeit uncredited) movie appearance, but it was a career cut short by his death 14 years ago. On what would have been his 43rd birthday, we look back over the burgeoning body of work that he left behind — work that earned him a posthumous Oscar win and a still-growing legion of dedicated fans.
Heath’s early work consisted of small parts in Australian feature films interspersed with television roles (including a stint on Home and Away), before he burst onto the Hollywood scene with the cult classic 10 Things I Hate About You. From there he worked steadily, partnering with famed agent of chaos, director Terry Gilliam, twice: first on the astounding The Brothers Grimm, and later, on his final film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Highly skilled in embodying all manner of extreme characters, it is understood that Heath wore their impact heavily; with speculation that his dedication to playing the Joker may have played a part in his eventual death.
Is Heath Ledger the greatest actor of his generation? Probably. He was an incredible movie star, and an astonishing talent. His untimely death means we have no idea of the projects he would have worked on as he got older; or indeed if he’d have continued to work in front of the camera or preferred to step behind it. There are reports that Heath, an avid chess player since childhood, had been working on an adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit (which more recently, in a separate project, was made into a Netflix series starring Anya Taylor-Joy). We can only imagine what that would have been like.
What we don’t have to imagine are the 19 feature films he did star in. Without further ado, here are all of Heath Ledger’s films, ranked.
19. Clowning Around (1992)
This early 90s Australian film has a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ role for Heath, in this run-of-the-mill story about a foster kid dreaming of becoming a circus clown. His role was so small he doesn’t even appear in the credits.
18. Paws (1997)
Another 90s Australian family film for Heath. This time round he’s an unnamed student playing Shakespeare’s Oberon in a comedy that sees a tech-savvy talking dog team up with a pair of students to prevent some ‘baddies’ from getting an important computer disk. Heath’s performance isn’t bad — there’s just not much of it.
17. The Patriot (2000)
This 18th century war picture from director Roland Emmerich, a guy who’s known for making some seriously exciting films (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow), is surprisingly dull. Heath plays the eldest son of a retired war hero (Mel Gibson), who defies his father’s wishes and joins the Continental Army. Despite a considered performance, Heath’s fresh-faced and earnest portrayal doesn’t do enough to lift the film from sinking under its own weight. Even his (spoiler!) understated death scene can’t overcome the fact that the film is little more than a vehicle for Mel to cosplay as an American hero.
16. Blackrock (1997)
Blackrock is Heath’s first officially credited feature film, and this time he appears for more than a single scene. Despite only having a small part, there’s a hint of the future star here in his performance as teenager Toby Ackland. This teen thriller generated some controversy in its native Australia for being based on a real-life murder, but it didn’t harm Heath’s career prospects; just two years later he would star in the mega-hit, 10 Things I Hate About You.
15. The Order (2003)
In this horror film, Heath teams up with director Brian Helgeland, and actors Mark Addy and Shannyn Sossamon — all of whom he’d worked with previously on A Knight’s Tale. The Order sees Heath play Alex Bernieri, a conflicted, demon-fighting priest, competently enough. The character’s inner turmoil is evident without being overdone. The problem is that once again Heath is let down by the rest of the film: baggy plotting, a poor script and questionable special effects.
14. The Four Feathers (2002)
With a cast that reads like a who’s who of early 00s British TV and cinema, Heath was in excellent company in this war film. In The Four Feathers, Heath plays a cowardly aristocrat who resigns from his military position on the eve of being shipped out to war in the Sudan, ultimately getting ostracised by his friends and family. Heath is, as ever, great in this role, but the film doesn’t centre his character nearly as much as it should do. We are treated to a number of scenes between Heath and Michael Sheen though, which are brilliant.
13. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
It’s impossible to discuss this film without dwelling upon Heath’s death. He died part way through filming, so director Terry Gilliam was left to find a way to finish without his lead. Heath gives an eclectic performance as Tony Shepard, a former criminal who is rescued by Dr Parnassus’ troupe. But the rest of the film is predictably messy, especially in the scenes where it’s clear Heath was replaced.
12. Two Hands (1999)
A comedy gangster film in which Heath stars alongside Rose Byrne, David Field and Susie Porter. Released in 1999, the same year as 10 Things I Hate About You, this was technically Heath’s first leading role. It suits him: he’s comfortable occupying that space and plays the comedy lightly.
11. Ned Kelly (2003)
Based on the 1991 novel Our Sunshine, Heath once again teams up with Gregor Jordan (director of Two Hands), this time starring opposite Orlando Bloom. Heath plays the eponymous Ned Kelly, legendary Australian bushranger, giving him the chance to lean into his natural Aussie accent and his physicality. At over 6 foot, he puts that height to great use in this; giving us a rare gruff and intimidating performance.
10. Monster’s Ball (2001)
In this award-winning film, Heath holds his own alongside Halle Berry’s masterpiece of a performance as Leticia Musgrove, a widow dating the man who executed her husband. Heath is the most violent we’ve seen him in this film, which culminates in a truly shocking scene. It’s a dramatic turn, and damn near one of his best.
9. Candy (2006)
Heath returned to leading man territory in this poignant Australian romantic drama. It’s the eccentric love story of a heroin-addicted couple who can’t extrapolate their love for each other from their dependence on the drug. Heath is stunning as Dan, the desperate, beautiful lover. The energy between his Dan and Abbie Cornish’s Candy is electric, and as ever, Heath’s performance grounds the film.
8. I’m Not There (2007)
Todd Hayne’s musical drama film portrayed Bob Dylan as six separate characters, each embodying a different aspect of the musician. I’m Not There is widely remembered for Cate Blanchett’s captivating performance, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, but our boy does good here too. This ensemble cast flits between versions of Bob — from Cate, to Heath, to Ben Whishaw, to Christian Bale and repeat. While the other actors seem content doing impressions of the famed artist, Heath tries to capture his essence. His performance has hints of James Dean about it — a young, energetic superstar with the world at his feet.
7. The Brothers Grimm (2005)
Heath’s first collaboration with acclaimed director Terry Gilliam produces an astonishing performance in a film as messy as it is beautiful. Heath is wonderful in The Brothers Grimm, playing the elder of two conman brothers (Matt Damon plays the business-minded younger half). Heath’s natural charms are hidden behind large glasses and a long wig, which he twirls like an absent-minded school girl when speaking to a woman he wishes to woo. It gives him space to play someone awkward and encumbered; proof he knows how to get inside a role and make it his own.
6. Casanova (2005)
2005 was a big year for Heath — with every one of his four films released being either critical or box offices successes. The underrated Casanova is no exception. Heath plays the infamous lover with warmth, charm and wit.
5. Lords of Dogtown (2005)
A tour de force of a film, which is often considered to be the ultimate skateboarding movie. Based on a true story and written by one of the protagonists (Stacey Perolta), Heath plays Skip, a Svengali-type surf store owner who puts together a skateboard team. Heath knows that the stars of the show are the young skateboarders, and his performance supports them, rather than overwhelming them here. He’s delightful and strange as the leader of this gang — so much so that only occasionally do the false teeth he’s wearing for the role seem jarring. Change the dentures, and this role would jump up a few rungs.
4. A Knight’s Tale (2001)
Heath’s first outing with director Gregor Jordan is arguably a real fan favourite. In A Knight’s Tale, he flexes the same acting muscles he uses in Casanova to portray charming, roguish William, a servant to a knight. A hint of comic genius, a lot of levity; both he and the film are a timeless joy to behold.
3. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Considered Heath’s breakout performance, this movie, also starring Julia Stiles and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, was a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. It’s fun, energetic and surprisingly deep. Heath’s turn as the charismatic anti-hero, Patrick Verona, could have seen him portray the character manipulatively, turning him into someone unlikeable. Instead, Heath’s decision to play him with subtle charm, openness and an easy-going air, gave Patrick hidden depths; an accessible bad-boy. Coupled with his good looks and Aussie accent, Heath helped to launch a thousand teenage crushes, and the careers of the film's three young stars.
2. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Heath does some of his best work here in Ang Lee’s queer, 60s-set romance. In Brokeback Mountain he plays Ennis Del Mar, the confused cowboy who finds himself married to Michelle Williams’ Alma, but in love with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist. Heath’s understated, Oscar-nominated performance centres the men and their love. He’s at his best here, capturing the sensitivity and anger, confusion and dejection of the character, not once putting a foot wrong. The fact that he didn’t win the Academy Award for this performance is a travesty in itself.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath’s turn as the unhinged Joker in Christopher Nolan’s comic book masterpiece is surely one of the most shocking and lived-in performances from any actor on screen. With a cast of A-list talent, it would have been easy to see Heath overshadowed, but instead The Dark Knight belongs to him. His maniacal performance stays with you long after the film finishes. It’s hard to believe that in a film that’s over 2.5 hours long, Heath is only on screen for 33 minutes. The strength of his performance means that, today, it’s impossible to separate the man from the movie. It’s a bittersweet performance, leaving us in awe of what could have been. If Heath had made more movies, what heady heights could he have reached?