It was just this past weekend that I rented the film, A Knight's Tale, starring Heath Ledger, to watch with my youngest son who is six. I wanted to enjoy it with him because I figured that he was at an age where he would love its action and its fantastical play on the world of medieval jousting.
OK, I'm confessing here, I also rented it because I have loved watching it every couple of years. Its overriding message of pure optimism about making your own fate was completely inspirational and uplifting. Heath played William, the young son of a poor English thatcher who wanted to give his only child an opportunity to have a better life than his. The father believed that the only way that could possibly happen in the times in which they lived was to apprentice him to a wealthy knight who traveled through Europe, competing in sword and jousting tournaments. As the dad says goodbye to his little boy, who he won't see for years, he urges him to take this opportunity to "change his stars."
Cut to a now-20-year-old, William Thatcher, who proceeds to do just that. When his knightly employer dies suddenly one day, he takes up the identity of a knight himself, hooks up with "The" Geoffrey Chaucer as a sidekick, becomes a star of the jousting circuit, falls head over heels for the beautiful noblewoman/girl, gets friendly with Prince Edward, the Black Prince of England who eventually knights him. And finally, "follows his feet" home again and finds his now aged father. He has fulfilled his father's dream, proving that if you work hard and learn you can change your dreary fate into something wonderful.
A wonderful fate is surely what Ledger's parents had in mind when they named him "Heath," short for Heathcliff. After all, how could anybody named for the most romantic male character in English literature ever not grow up to have a dramatic and wonderful life?
And certainly with his blond, brawny good looks he was totally crush-worthy in not just A Knight's Tale, but also as the outsidery good guy, Patrick Verona, who tamed Kat Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You, and as the idealistic young American, Gabriel Martin, during the war of independence in The Patriot.
Now it seems that despite the stardom and an even bigger career ahead — what with his upcoming role as the Joker in the new Batman movie — and with a mini-me of a baby daughter he couldn't avoid Heathcliff's tragedy. None of his gifts, neither talent nor family, appears to have been enough to combat the demons that apparently led Heath to take the pills that could have ended his young life.
Heath, perhaps if you had just re-watched your old film you would have been inspired to stay with us and to have "changed your stars."
For more coverage of Heath's life and tragic death, go to Starmagazine.com