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Review: Heath Ledger – A Life In Pictures, NFSA

Gina Fairley

This exhibition shows that Ledger was so much more than an actor; he was an inspiration to anyone with a creative inclination to experiment – to just do it.
Review: Heath Ledger – A Life In Pictures, NFSA

Abbie Cornish is Ambassador of the Heath Ledger exhibition, here with costume she wore in Candy; photo ArtsHub

The exhibition Heath Ledger: A Life In Pictures was created by the Art Gallery of Western Australia – in Ledger’s home town of Perth – but was never intended to tour. Understandably, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) felt it was a show that sent the perfect tone for them, and secured the show to relaunch its exhibition program – which has been in stasis for the past five years due to funding cuts.

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As NFSA CEO Jan Müller said, ‘It was a no-brainer’ to bring it to the archive in Canberra, where it will enjoy a six month run.

Curated by Allison Holland, this exhibition is so much more than a kind of “fanish” walk through of yet another Hollywood life cut short. ‘It’s a very complex look at one person’s very intense and short life,’ she described.

When asked what surprised her going through Ledger’s personal archive, she told ArtsHub: ‘I was surprised that he was such a prolific photographer. I was surprised that he was working towards becoming a grand master in chess – chess was a great strategy in his life and a great passion for him.’

She added that she was overwhelmed by Ledger’s generosity of spirit, which for the viewer, comes through in this exhibition.

Heath Ledger with Bell & Howell 70D 16mm motion picture camera, 19 April 2001. Photo: Karin Catt

I would have to concur with Holland points of surprise. Ledger’s capacity behind a camera has a similar magic to that which we popularly ascribe to him on screen. This exhibition shows that he was so much more than an actor; he was an inspiration to anyone with a creative inclination, to just do it!

Müller said of Ledger’s photographs: ‘They are examples of how he was testing things with movement with colour with positioning – this was Heath testing photography to make the best pictures possible. It is an important part of him being an artist.’

Another aspect of that need to experiment as an artist was his video music clips – five rare examples are in this show, along with the storyboards he created in their making.

Overall this is a tight exhibition – dense, packed – but it is still feels comfortable. It is peppered with photographs taken off set, and at home, which are shown alongside costumes, and personal items – such as his collection of cameras, and his Ducati motorbike, which visitors first encounter.

He bought his Retro Sport 1000 in 2007 (the model was discontinued the year later), and would ride it anonymously – clad in his helmet – around LA. Motorcycle News reviewed the bike as ‘gorgeous yet short lived’.

It sets the tone for this exhibition, along with a vitrine of school memorabilia in a vitrine off to the side, and a suite of portraits of Ledger taken by famed photographers.

Among the other key inclusions are the last costume that Ledger wore in the film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (released in 2009 after Ledger’s death); original costumes from The Dark Knight and Brokeback Mountain, as well as the costume worn by Naomi Watts in Ned Kelly, designed by Anna Borghesi, and added especially for the Canberra show from the NFSA’s holdings.  

The costume won by Naomi Watts in Ned Kelly, designed by Anna Borghesi; Collection NFSA, photo ArtsHub

While these kinds of inclusions are perhaps expected of an exhibition of this kind, again I want to press that this exhibition is a much more layered story.   

For example, Ledger had a reputation of really mining the characters he was to play. We start to understand that dedication to his craft in the journal he created for the character of The Joker.

Holland said that the script had been delivered to Ledger on red paper so that it could not be photocopied. Ledger hand wrote out his own copy, with annotated notes, personal research into Freud’s writing, thoughts and collaged cut outs – it is a work of art in itself.

Vincent Fantauzzo Heath (2008); Collection of Art Gallery NSW

Vincent Fantauzzo painting of Ledger, which won the 2008 Archibald Prize, is also a key inclusion. Ledger had died in the January of 2008, just two months earlier. Ledger’s co-star in the film Candy (2006), Abbie Cornish said that Heath loved this painting. ‘He was very excited about it; he felt it captured the different aspects of being human and his personal journey – it really spoke to him,’ she said.

She added that the exhibition presented the fullness of his life with dignity.

What this exhibition does is to allow reality to enter the world of the silver screen and film stars – both its highs and its lows. Holland concluded: ‘I think it is an inspiration if you are young and want to get into the film industry; it teaches you about hard knocks.’ She added that one of the Ledger’s quotes used in the exhibition was that ‘failure helps you succeed’.

Rating: 4 stars ★★★★

Heath Ledger: A life in pictures

10 August 2018 – 10 February 2019
The National Sound and Film Archive, Canberra
Free

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.