Darkness and Light

Evoking the Flip Sides of the Hollywood Dream Machine

Magazine Issue
September/October 2008
Darkness and Light

Sometimes, our most immediate reactions to a film may come not from what’s flickering past us on the screen, but from what we know about the actors’ off-screen lives. I still can’t see East of Eden or Rebel without a Cause without thinking about the death of James Dean and the fragility of adolescence. I can never see Marilyn Monroe sashay across the screen without hearing, somewhere in my head, her breathy, seductive version of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” It’s part of the uniquely dreamlike power of the Hollywood movie experience that the people on the screen can become so much a part of our world of intimate associations—like family.

This past January, Heath Ledger, the young Australian heartthrob who’d just finished portraying the Joker in The Dark Knight, died in bed from an overdose of tranquilizers, pain pills, and sleeping pills. Unless you’ve been boycotting the ubiquitous sources of celebrity gossip since then, you know that he’d had a child with his Brokeback Mountain costar Michelle Williams, then called off their wedding, only to die alone.

I hadn’t been a Heath Ledger fan particularly. In spite of the remarkable intensity of his performance, his range seemed narrow—a James Dean without the omnisexual beauty and charisma. He seemed always to be reaching out for a father or a girlfriend or just about anyone to rescue him. So to better understand the sense of collective mourning that accompanied his sudden death, I recently rewatched several of his movies, including The Patriot, Monster’s Ball, and Brokeback Mountain, in all of which he played a soft, sad son of a hard father.

In real life, Ledger’s hippie father ran out on the family in Perth when the romantically named Heathcliff and his sister Cathy were small children. Ledger grew tall and lean, his face tense, tortured, and unshakably sad. His voice was deep, sepulchral, and soft. On screen or off, he actually said very little, but the little he said showcased his loneliness and his Dean-like awkwardness and inarticulateness.

Both Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain look into the lives of lonely men and their alienation from their fathers. In each of these tragic films, a silent, sad-eyed character is berated by a living or dead father for being “weak.” In Monster’s Ball, when Ledger first assists his prison-executioner father to fry a murderer, he vomits and collapses. After his father, Billy Bob Thornton, beats him up for embarrassing him, Sonny gets a gun, points it at him, and shakily tells the old man that he’s always loved him. When the father responds that he’s always hated the son, the boy punishes the father by shooting himself.

In Brokeback Mountain, Ledger falls in love with fellow sheepherder Jake Gyllenhaal. As the forbidden relationship deepens over the years, he still can’t bring himself to leave his wife and children for the man he loves, haunted by his father’ story about the murder and castration of a man who tried to live with another man back in the old West. Heath grows up wondering if his father had committed the violence personally, or just in spirit.

In Dark Knight, Ledger is the sadistic Joker, a role previously associated with Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top comic turn in that role in the 1989 Batman. Ledger gives us a far scarier take on the clown of crime, making himself up to look like the tragically sad character from Il Pagliacci.

Dark Knight follows in the tradition of the gangster movies of the ’30s and the film noir of the ’40s, sucking us down into a world in which there’s no safety, no hope, and no simple heroes—just villains and false heroes playing on our need for someone to trust and deliver us. (Where’s Humphrey Bogart when we really need him? He was the old-fashioned hero who’d been to the underworld, seen its horrors, and returned.)

Dark Knight, was directed by 37-year-old British filmmaker Christopher Nolan, best known for mind-bending films like Memento, in which time runs backward and its amnesiac hero tattoos the things he wants to remember on his naked, skinny body. In the exotically filmed Insomnia, Nolan assaults with light—the blazing, inescapable light of midsummer Alaska, where it’s perpetually midday.

Nolan’s first Batman film was Batman Begins, an exploration of how orphaned billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne becomes a shadowy vigilante. It had enormous tension, psychological clarity, and tenderness. The film made the most of Christian Bale’s earnestness and physicality in the title role, but was careful not to overdo the explosions and breaking glass. Dark Knight is far more nerve wracking and disconcertingly loud, as if it didn’t trust the power of its own drama and our connection to its protagonists. The incidents and impact are startling, but the plot is hopelessly confusing.

 Ledger’s Joker, who boasts that he brings chaos into the city just for the anarchic joy of seeing it happen, sets the harrowing and assaultive tone of the film. Christian Bale—muscular, intense, and dark in American Psycho and Batman Begins—is controlled and self-contained, but, underneath it all, seemingly as emotionally vulnerable as we are. In his everyday identity as Bruce Wayne, he’s a very lonely man whose only confidantes are the long-time family butler, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman, who develops and takes care of his hi-tech, crime-fighting gadgets. Sweet-faced Maggie Gyllenhaal (Jake’s sister) replaces Katie Holmes as Batman’s love interest and Gary Oldman (Beethoven in Immortal Beloved) is Batman’s solidly dependable friend on the police force, who desperately tries to protect his own family from the scary underworld in which he must work. Aaron (Possession)Eckhart (of the deeply cleft chin and the look of total integrity) is the conscientious new district attorney of Gotham.

As the film begins, law and order in Gotham has broken down completely and Batman is being blamed for modeling such superheroism that he dispirits the police force. District Attorney Eckhart is jealous of Maggie’s obvious interest in Bruce Wayne, but doesn’t know that the billionaire playboy is secretly his other rival, Batman. Eckhart wants to be as big a hero as Batman, but, unlike the caped crusader, has more ordinary needs and isn’t totally incorruptible. Into this already explosive mix falls Ledger’s Joker, who, once he makes his appearance, is promptly crowned as the new superhero, as terrified citizens flock to whomever simplifies complex problems in a sound bite or bumper sticker.

The Joker likes to set up tests to expose the moral callousness, hypocrisy, and self-interest of those who oppose him. He fills two ferries with people and explosives and tells the hostages in each that the only way to save themselves is to blow up the other ferry first. The Joker next straps Maggie and the D.A. to barrels of explosives on opposite sides of the city, so Batman can only rescue one of them. The Joker’s thesis is that in a corrupt world, the only sensible position is to have no morality at all. He sees morals as weakness, and shows people that, despite their pretensions, if pressed, they’ll choose to live with no concerns for anyone else. Once Eckhart has lost his fiancee and half his face, he turns sadistic himself, flipping quarters with crooks to determine whether or not to kill them, much like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.

Dark Knight is a daring and politically provocative film, at times simplistic and at other times profound. Each of Nolan’s stars reveals a complex character. Eckhart, in the film’s most absorbing performance, is a spotless moral hero who, like Eliot Spitzer, loses his halo in the end. Bale’s sheer gymnastic agility is astounding as he does many of his own stunts, but his greatest accomplishment is showing us he knows he’s only human. Ledger steps outside his usual range of adolescent suffering to reveal the anger and pain of being the permanent outsider to ordinary human experience. The explosions keep us on edge as we reflect on the moral issues Nolan slaps us with. Unlike the preceding Batman films (with painfully miscast Michael Keaton as Batman and inherently absurd Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the villains), Dark Knight isn’t a comedy, and the Joker is clearly no joke.

Ledger isn’t trying to entertain anyone, just broadcast his contempt for all things human, even Batman—as he mockingly remarks to Bale, “You complete me.” He gains his power over Gotham by showing the quivering sheep of the city how easily he—and, by extension, the rest of us—can violate the moral standards we’re usually too unimaginative and lily-livered to break.

We leave The Dark Knight terrified of the chaos around us, fearing the specter of the Joker—i.e., al Qaeda, global warming, the rising prices of Arab oil, or whatever other forces lie beyond our control.

Fortunately, the same weekend that The Dark Knight opened, its cinematic antidote appeared. Mamma Mia! takes us to a wedding in the great Meryl Streep’s crumbling, whitewashed inn on a sunny Greek island, where her big-eyed daughter, played by Amanda Seyfried, has never been told who her father was. But Seyfried finds the diary her mother kept 20 years ago and invites to her wedding each of the three men from Meryl’s past who might be her father.

They’re played by the unlikely trio of Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgerd, each of whom has long ago outgrown his hippie days. Also on hand are Streep’s old friends from her rock group of yore—fireball Julie Walters and stork-legged Christine Baranski—to bring comedy and energy to the proceedings.

The film depends on our falling in love with a sunny world of happy people who just get off on tapping their toes, trilling their vocal chords, and living happily ever after, even if they aren’t young, beautiful, or talented. There are no chorus lines of perfect bodies with feathers in their hair. It’s a film in which even minimal musical ability seems unnecessary, maybe even intrusive.

Mamma Mia! is directed by a first-time film director Phyllida Lloyd, from Broadway, who doesn’t know how to light a scene, move a camera, or set things in motion between musical numbers. However incompetent the film, and however much most critics reviled it, it’s already become one of the most successful musicals ever made. What’s distinctively seductive about it is seeing the cast, of every imaginable age, size, shape, nationality, and level of talent, all joining in on the musical numbers, all becoming part of this joyous world of hope and optimism.

To be sure, Streep is no Cyd Charisse or Lena Horne, but her voice is serviceable enough and her dancing energetic as she smiles joyously throughout. We don’t care much who gets the girl or who gets the mother of the bride, but we assume it’ll all work out.

On Meryl’s Greek isle, the sun always shines, there are unlimited second chances, and the world doesn’t need superheroes to help us get through the night. Best of all, we don’t even have to sing on key.

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.