He was next cast in the Hollywood film 10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999), a modern re-working of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. It gave Ledger the chance to verbally joust with co-star Julia Styles as well as to sing and dance (he was a lifelong fan of singer-dancer-actor Gene Kelly). The film was an ideal showcase for Ledger’s talents and proved a box-office smash. But like Johnny Depp, whose work he admired, Ledger had no wish to be typecast as a perpetual teen.
He spent a year rejecting similar scripts while living without income in Laurel Canyon.
After a jittery audition and nearly being beaten to the role by Ryan Phillippe, he truly established himself with American audiences when cast as Mel Gibson’s eldest son in the War of Independence epic The Patriot (Roland Emmerich, 2000). Ledger made the most of his second billing, being able to make an impact as much through the subtlety as the strength of his performance.
Columbia Pictures, who had backed The Patriot, next planned stardom for Ledger as the lead in the light-hearted medieval saga A Knight’s Tale (Brian Helgeland, 2001). The film showed Ledger as a playful yet authoritative leading man fully capable of being the type of dashing hero that had been a specialty of Errol Flynn. Defiantly anachronistic and promoting its leads in rock star terms, the film netted USD$56 million in the US alone. While he enjoyed the making of A Knight’s Tale, Ledger subsequently railed at what he saw as the artificial star trappings manufactured around him on this film, especially at a meeting with Columbia publicists and marketing experts who talked about 'how they were planning to promote me as a product’.
Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster, 2001) showed what a fine character actor Ledger could be in his role as the sensitive, bottled-up son of an abusive prison warder. His character’s suicide 35 minutes into the story has a shattering impact that resonates through the rest of the Oscar-winning film.
His next couple of films, the sixth screen version of The Four Feathers (Shekhar Kapur, 2002) and The Sin Eater (Brian Helgeland, 2003), were box-office misfires. Ledger acquitted himself earnestly as the Four Feathers hero who redeems himself from accusations of cowardice, but the film’s solemnity and excessive length made it seem like an epic relic from the 1960s. Kim Ledger recalls that the film’s release was delayed by the chaotic aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, and that the film received minimal publicity when it was eventually screened.
Ledger’s second Australian feature, Ned Kelly (Gregor Jordan, 2003), failed to recapture the chemistry that star and director had achieved with Two Hands. This film – the seventh feature telling of the real-life Kelly gang story – was a downbeat affair that presented little that was new for a contemporary audience.
Back in the US, Lords of Dogtown (Catherine Hardwicke, 2005) drew another good performance from Ledger in his first genuinely adult role as a burnt-out hippie in a fictionalised account of the birth of skateboarding in Venice, California, in the mid-1970s. This role, and his next as a dreamy version of German writer Jacob Grimm in The Brothers Grimm (Terry Gilliam, 2005), again testified to the actor’s resolve never to repeat himself.