Well, we certainly didn't see that one coming.
When news filtered through at about 10pm last night that the Australian actor Heath Ledger had died at the obscenely early age of 28, it was with a numbing sense of shock. While the world's media continue on their crusade to chronicle Britney Spears or Amy Winehouse's spiralling decline into an early grave, Ledger wasn't known as a party animal. Instead, those who knew him described him as a quiet, introspective man, uncomfortable with the trappings of fame and happy to completely immerse himself in a character.
When Ledger first burst onto the screen with a witty, charismatic performance in the superior teen flick 10 Things I Hate About You, he could easily have taken the heart-throb role to success. Instead, he began carving out a career similar to that of Johnny Depp - one of character actor, unafraid to take roles that less brave figures in Hollywood would run screaming from.
Impressive work in films like Monster's Ball, Ned Kelly and The Brothers Grimm followed, before the film that was to secure his reputation - Brokeback Mountain. It seems ridiculous that two straight actors playing gay characters could cause such a controversy in the apparently liberal and accepting 21st century, but Ang Lee's epic was one of the most talked about films of the year for that very reason. That, and the sheer excellence of the film itself, of course.
Jake Gyllenhaal may have had the more showy role, but Ledger had the more difficult work, playing the repressed, initially reluctant Ennis Del Mar. It was one of those rare performances where years of hurt and regret could be conveyed just by Ledger's eyes and was justly rewarded by the Academy with his first, and as it turned out, only Oscar nomination.
Ledger's premature death is all the more sorrowful as 2008 would have no doubt seen his stock skyrocket. His perfomance as The Joker in the forthcoming Batman film The Dark Knight has astonished those who have seen preview clips. It takes quite an actor to reclaim Jack Nicholson's iconic image and make the character his own, but that's exactly what Ledger appears to have done. Christopher Nolan's film is due for release this July, but it will be impossible to watch without a very real sense of poignancy. What happens to Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which Ledger had just begun filming at the time of his death, is anybody's guess.
Given the nature of Ledger's death, there are already whisperings and speculation about whether the actor was suicidal or battling a drugs habit. Yet this isn't the place for such gossip and tittle-tattle - instead let us remember an extremely talented actor who has died long before his star could really shine.