CATEGORIES Celebrities and Controversy, Columns, Film Clips, Trailers and Clips, Columns, CinematicalJeff Wells has stirred up a sh*tstorm of controversy over on Hollywood Elsewhere with a post about the Heath Ledger autopsy report. In a post bluntly titled, "Heath did it to himself," Wells says, in part:
New York's medical examiner report was predictably dry and succinct and non-judgmental, but the implication is that Heath Ledger didn't care to calculate or remember which prescription drugs he'd taken, much less assess their combined effect upon his body. You can say "accident" over and over but the blunt answer is that Heath did it to himself. Like I wrote the day he died. A tree didn't fall on him. Actions have consequences.
The post has generated the predictable array of comments, from the sympathetic to the angry to the truly asinine. Which all goes to show, if nothing else, the impact the death of a celebrity can have on people who never even knew him. Of course, with the release of the autopsy report today, no matter which way it came down, people were going to make judgments and jump to conclusions they shouldn't be jumping to. It's easy to judge Ledger, even if his death by overdose was accidental, because he should have known better, right? It's easy to look at what we (think we) know of his life and say, hell, the guy had everything going for him, what the f*ck? That's what most everyone was saying around Park City on the afternoon of January 22, as we all got out of press screenings to the news of his death. Shock. Profound sadness. Disbelief. Vehement indignation and anger, even.
I didn't know Heath Ledger personally, and I doubt very much that even those who knew him best know what was in his head in the days (maybe weeks or months) before he died. But here's what we do know that's indisputable fact: he died with a lethal cocktail of drugs -- Oxycontin, Vicodin, Xanax, Valium, and a couple of sleeping meds -- in his system. And I know this much to be true: Nobody takes that much of that combination of drugs because they're in a happy place in their lives and just want to feel a nice high. You want to get a little comfortably numb, you maybe smoke a bowl of weed. You want to numb yourself completely and obliterate whatever sh*t you have going on that feels too painful to deal with at the moment, you look to those kinds of drugs. And Ledger, by all appearances, numbed himself too far, and went past the point of no return.
If things had swung the other way -- if the housekeeper had come in to see if he needed anything, or the massage appointment had been a couple hours earlier --we'd maybe have had an "Owen Wilson"-type situation, where Ledger would have been rushed to the hospital, had his stomach pumped, spent some time on the psych ward to assess if he was suicidal or just dangerously foolish, and six months from now he'd have been on Letterman talking about his close call and how it made him reassess his priorities. But that's not how it all played out, and the real tragedy of that, of course, is not to the people who enjoyed watching Ledger perform in his films and would have loved to see him for many more years, but to his family, especially his young daughter.
Here's the other thing I know: It's completely idiotic for anyone to sit in judgment of Ledger and assume he didn't care about himself or his daughter or he wouldn't have taken all those pills. I call bullsh*t on that. Depression and anxiety and sleep deprivation are all, as one commenter on Wells' site noted, real motherf*ckers, and anyone who says otherwise has never wrestled with those particular demons. Here's a true confession for you of the type you don't normally see on a movie blog -- I don't know what Ledger was personally going through, but I do know what I've been through in my own life in struggling with depression and anxiety and insomnia over the past couple years. It's not something most people talk about in polite or casual company, but a lot of people deal with those issues.
When you're in mired in depression and anxiety (and we don't know what exactly was going on with Ledger, but the fact that he was numbing with some hard core pain meds and anti-anxiety drugs is pretty revealing), the simple truth is, you aren't always capable of thinking straight. And as anyone who's ever taken Oxycontin in particular can tell you, once you take one (or two, or more) of those little white pills, your ability to judge whether it's safe to mix in this or that other drug is compromised. Oxycontin and Xanax together, in particular, put you in a very blissed out state of utter non-functionality and impaired judgment -- there's a reason you're not supposed to drive or operate machinery while taking them. If (and this is a big if, as there's supposedly an investigation into how Ledger got the drugs to begin with) Ledger had legit prescriptions for those drugs, it might have been relatively easy to rationalize in a f*cked up state that it was safe to mix them, or to forget when or how much he'd taken. It happens, folks.
And there but for the grace of God, or Buddha, or whatever higher power you choose to call it, go I and a lot of other people who've been down the winding rabbit hole of depression and anxiety. If he was having sleep deprivation issues on top of that, as the use of sleep meds would indicate, I can tell you from personal experience that rabid insomnia coupled with depression and anxiety creates a Big Bad Wolf of a mental state that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with who you really are, your morals, your ethics, your ability to make sound judgments when you're in a normal state of mind, or how much you care about your children, your partner, your parents, your friends, or anyone else. To assume that just because he had money, fame as an actor, and a beautiful daughter, Ledger was somehow immune to the effects of whatever personal sh*t he was going through is the utmost in ignorance.
Maybe if Us Magazine, and Perez-freaking-Hilton, and TMZ and all the paparazzi asshats didn't hound people who have famous faces into the ground every time they have a problem, it might perhaps be a little easier for people who work in a very public profession to seek help before they get to the point that they're medicating into an early grave, accidental or not. Say what you will about how it was Ledger's choice to be an actor -- no one deserves the kind of shit celebrities have to take on a daily basis from the gossip sites and magazines. If any one of us had to endure the kind of scrutiny these celebrities face for every single move they make, every wrong turn they take (and hell, who among any of us hasn't had screw ups in our own lives? Please.), do you honestly think it wouldn't have an impact?
I read what I see about Ledger on some of these sites, and the comments from their readers, and most of it just turns my stomach. The judging, the who-cares-about-the-poor-rich-celebs attitude, the "he did it to himself" nonsense. Utter bullshit, all of it, and much of it from people I've seen at film festivals tossing back drinks like there's no tomorrow -- you think those five or six or seven free drinks at the film fest parties aren't a form of self-medicating? The hypocrisy is revolting.
Enough, already. The autopsy report is out, the ruling is accidental overdose. It could have (and has) happened to countless other people who weren't Heath Ledger. Maybe -- I hope -- his death will be a wake-up call to "normal" people wrestling with their own demons to seek help, or at the least, to be more cautious in their own self-medicating. More likely, not. In any case, can we please knock it off with the throwing of stones in glass houses, folks? Let Ledger rest in peace, and let his family grieve and heal without the mean-spirited judging of how he met his tragically early end.