- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

Underscoring the tragedy of his death, it appears that the late Heath Ledger had turned in a definitive performance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” opening today in area theaters. Mr. Ledger has joined the unenviable, if romantic, company of those whose untimely deaths gave birth to legends.

1. James Dean — Legend has it that, when he was pulled off for speeding just two hours before his fatal crash in 1955, the police officer didn’t know who was. He’d go on to earn two posthumous Academy Award nominations (for “East of Eden” and “Giant”). Today he remains a poster boy for adolescent rebellion.

2. Sylvia Plath — The unorthodox suicide method (asphyxiation by oven gas) probably added to the mystique, but her work has been pored over by young, earnest feminists at elite liberal arts colleges for decades. Miss Plath was the first posthumous recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

3. Vincent van Gogh — The ultimate “sufferer for art,” Van Gogh sold only one painting (“Red Vineyard at Arles”) while he was alive. His influence — and the price of his works — grew enormously after his death in 1890.

4. Kurt Cobain — The Nirvana singer and songwriter didn’t live long enough to make a bad album or “sell out” and has come to define artistic ambivalence toward fame and commercial success.

5. River Phoenix — When one has spent his teen years in the public eye, only to grow deeply uncomfortable in the public eye and, ultimately, die tragically at 23: When all of this happens to someone with the impossibly myth-y name of “River Phoenix,” is there any doubt that the legend would one day eclipse the life?

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