Arts & Culture

Heath Ledger: Macho Man

The tragic death of Heath Ledger — just determined to be an overdose — has robbed Hollywood of one of its Australian stand-ins for American machismo. Never mind the trade deficit, or even Barack Obama's "moral deficit"; Hollywood is suffering … Read More

By / February 6, 2008

The tragic death of Heath Ledger — just determined to be an overdose — has robbed Hollywood of one of its Australian stand-ins for American machismo. Never mind the trade deficit, or even Barack Obama's "moral deficit"; Hollywood is suffering from a macho deficit, and it's having to turn to the land of beer-swilling, sheep-shearing men-in-denim to find its cowboys and cads.

When Hollywood first flirted with all things Aussie in the 1980s, it was a bit of a po-mo joke. "Look at Crocodile Dundee with his big shiny knife and taste for lager – how quaint!" laughed cinema audiences. It's no joke today. At a time when American stars have been feminised, preened and plucked, it's Australia that is providing the muscle for the grittier acting jobs. In recent years, Ledger had joined Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Eric Bana as a Real Bloke who could play gruff cowboys, lascivious bastards or any other role that required the leading man to have hair on his chest. In his breakthrough film 10 Things I Hate About You, a high-school spin on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, Ledger looked like he had been shuttled in from another planet rather than simply another hemisphere. Where the hairless, super-tanned jock (Andrew Keegan) was boringly arrogant, and the geek with a crush (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was predictably nervous, Ledger's scruffy, unkempt and slurry-voiced Patrick Verona was a complex macho character – nasty to begin with, but later opened up by the love of a good woman. The director even allowed him to keep his Aussie accent, as if to accentuate this untidy, unruly character's exoticness amid the cardboard cut-out boys and girls of a typical high-school movie. In later films, Ledger played American rather than Australian; his rugged Down Under temperament meant he was frequently more convincing as a manly American than many of the prim and waxed actors who are actually American-born. He even played cowboy better. In Brokeback Mountain, Ledger's tortured and mumbling Ennis Del Mar is far more believable than all-American Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist. (In one scene in that film, Ledger and Gyllenhaal were required to leap naked off a cliff into a lake. Ledger did it, but Gyllenhaal was replaced by a stuntman because he is scared of heights. If you want an actor to take risks, look Down Under.)
In Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, in which six actors play characters based on Bob Dylan, Ledger's "Robbie Clark" is the most convincingly American. Half-James Dean, half-Jack Kerouac, Ledger certainly makes a far better fist of his role than Brit actor Christian Bale, whose American accent and demeanour are so contrived that he ends up sounding like George Bush with a quiff. Amongst the ragbag of American and British actors tackling Dylan in I'm Not There, Ledger best captures the swagger and sexism of the American male with a 1950s mentality who is desperately trying to adapt to life in 1960s America. It is striking that Haynes employed an Australian woman – Cate Blanchett – to play the character most clearly and literally based on Dylan. It seems even women from Down Under, otherwise known as "Sheilas", are better at playing American heroes than American men are. Again and again, Hollywood looks to Australians to inject testosterone into a movie. Like Ledger, Russell Crowe recently played a cowboy: Ben Wade in 3.10 to Yuma. If an American actor was to play Wade, a coach-robbing outlaw, he would first have to put on weight (and then give numerous interviews telling everyone how difficult it was to "be fat") and then do some method-style research with menacing men who have been involved in hold-ups of one kind or another. Not Crowe; his jowls and his sense of menace are real; attributes of his Australian manhood.
It is striking that Ridley Scott called on Crowe to play a hard, 1970s drug-busting cop in his epic American Gangster. Young American actors only seem interested in playing 1970s crime-busters for post-machismo laughs; think of the awful Starsky and Hutch and Dukes of Hazzard remakes. It took a full-bodied, croaky-voiced Australian to breathe life back into that old American character, the committed, flares-wearing cop, who was a staple of 1970s TV shows and cinema. And let us not forget Crowe's greatest cinematic moment, as General Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator, a role many said was symbolic of the true American values of valour and loyalty over backstabbing corruption. Hollywood, if you need an American symbol, phone for an Australian. Australian men are called upon to play Hollywood's edgier superheroes, too. Sure, pretty but dull American boys can safely play Superman and Spiderman (Brandon Routh and Tobey Maguire respectively); but if you need a superhero with hair on his chest and mad thoughts rushing through in his head, only an Australian will do. Hugh Jackman's fearsome Wolverine, huge, hirsute and with sideburns to die for, is the spiritual leader of the pack in the X-Men movies. Surrounded by young men and women who experience their superpowers as mental and physical afflictions (all played by young American actors, of course), Jackman's cocksure and principled Wolverine is the natural American leader, the steady-minded figurehead of this band of freaky rebels. It took Eric Bana to play the Hulk, American pop culture's most obviously tortured macho soul. Part shy scientist, part raging beast, Bana played out America's own crisis of masculinity on cinema screens, bringing both his notable acting skills and his innate Australian swagger to a role that required him to be both wimp and whack job. In our PC, flaccid, image-obsessed times, new American actors seem to lack the personality and resources to play hard American, crazed American, tortured American or heroic American. Instead that faraway land where old masculine values still survive is having to send its young men to American shores to roleplay American virture and fury. Heath Ledger's death is not only a great tragedy for his family and friends; it has also lowered Hollywood's quota of blokes.

Also in Jewcy: So many of Hollywood's American-born macho men have been Jews that we had to make a slide-show to hold all the pictures.