Editor’s Note: The following contains references to addiction that may be triggering to read.
The Big Picture
The Queen’s Gambit was one of Netflix’s most-watched limited series, reaching fourth place on the list. Heath Ledger had plans to direct the adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit before his untimely death. Ledger’s fascination with directing can be seen in his music video projects and his desire to direct a biopic of musician Nick Drake.
The Queen’s Gambit is one of Netflix’s great success stories. It’s consistently listed as one of Netflix’s top shows in critics’ polls. It’s also been one of Netflix’s all-time most-watched shows, currently sitting fourth on the list of most-watched limited series. The show, which starred Anya Taylor-Joy as a cold-war-era chess prodigy, was adapted from a novel written by Walter Tevis in 1983. Though Tevis only wrote a handful of novels, several of them were adapted into films that have now become classics: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. So it comes as no surprise that The Queen’s Gambit had previously been considered for adaptation long before it became a Netflix project. The one time the project came closest to reaching production sparks intense curiosity. It was once slated to be the directorial debut of the actor Heath Ledger and was only derailed because of the actor’s untimely death.
The Queen’s Gambit
Orphaned at the tender age of nine, prodigious introvert Beth Harmon discovers and masters the game of chess in 1960s USA. But child stardom comes at a price.
Release Date October 23, 2020
Cast Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Camp, Marielle Heller, Marcin Dorocinski
Heath Ledger Is Best Known for His Acting, but He Wanted To Direct
Heath Ledger is best known as an actor. He first came to prominence in the 1999 teen romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, playing — with a swooniness the world was unprepared for — the only man who could ever hope to win the heart of Julia Stiles’ Kat. Despite his success in comedy, Ledger pivoted to more dramatic work, with supporting roles in The Patriot and Monster’s Ball. By the mid-2010s, Ledger was one of the world’s most well-liked hearthrobs. Still, it was a shock that he then delivered two of the most important performances of the decade. His tender portrayal of Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain was a milestone for LGBTQIA+ representation on film. His casting as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was a bit of a surprise, as the character tended to be played by older men. But Ledger delivered a mesmerizing performance whose inflections are still an influence on actors playing villains. Check out, for example, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, in which Rafe Spall and Toby Jones, as the two main villains, both seem to be channeling Ledger’s Joker, often at each other.
Ledger would go on to win an Oscar for playing the Joker, but it was awarded posthumously. In 2008, Leger passed away suddenly at 28, before The Dark Knight was even released. His loss as a performer, at that stage of his career, was profound, and it largely overshadowed his aspirations as a director, which he only just begun to explore. However, in 2017, a documentary titled I Am Heath Ledger (part of a series of documentaries that also includes I Am Chris Farley and I Am Paul Walker) highlighted Ledger’s budding directing career, and discussed his plan to adapt The Queen’s Gambit for film.
Ledger Developed His Skills by Directing Music Videos
I Am Heath Ledger intercuts interviews with those who were closest to Ledger with home movies, most of them shot by Ledger. His friends and family paint a picture of him as a guy who always had a camera in his hand. Of the footage Ledger shot on his own cameras, his most expressive and creative work was shot by him alone, featuring himself. Though he was still an amateur noodling around at this point, the footage illustrates his approach to film-making, and what his priorities were. He was most interested in exploring what the camera was capable of, and what images it could create, rather than instrumentalizing it to tell a story that was already in his head. Inevitably, his camera is drawn closer and closer to his own face, as if he was using it to see himself more clearly.
As his career as an actor progressed, Ledger took time between films to shoot several music videos. The shoots were small and intimate productions, in which he elaborated on his tendency towards extreme close-ups and narrative-free abstraction. His video for the Australian hip hop artist N’Fa Jones, a childhood friend, was shot in Ledger’s garage. Using nothing but costume and psychedelic face paint, Ledger and Jones created a work of undeniable panache.
As one of Ledger’s friends describes him, “He was always a director. Acting was just a way to get there.” But it’s Ang Lee, Ledger’s director on Brokeback Mountain, who ends up sharing the most telling anecdote. Though Lee, like many directors, had a general rule against letting his actors watch their own performances on the on-set playback monitor, Ledger fought back, and would watch himself regularly between takes, making adjustments based on what he saw. Not only did he have the eye of a director, but many of the director’s (sometimes irritating!) personal qualities.
What Do We Know About Ledger’s Version of ‘The Queen’s Gambit’?
Image via Netflix
We know very little about what The Queen’s Gambit would have been like if it had been directed by Heath Ledger as a feature film, as the project was still early in development when Ledger died. Most of what we know comes from an interview with Allan Shiach, a screenwriter who optioned the novel in the early ’90s and had been trying to get it made for many years. He attracted interest from various directors over the years, including Michael Apted and Bernardo Bertolucci. Shiach (who wrote numerous scripts under the pen name of Allan Scott) would eventually see the project made by Netflix, with Scott Frank as co-creator. But before then, the closest he got was a series of creative conversations with Ledger and the executives at Ledger’s production collective, The Masses. Reportedly, the lead role of Beth Harmon was offered to Elliot Page. The rest is up to our imaginations.
The topic of Ledger’s personal connection to the material is difficult to talk about. Of course, there’s Ledger’s little-known love of chess and experience as a young competitive player. But, aside from that, in the novel and show, Beth’s central struggle is with an addiction to prescription drugs that are first given to her at the orphanage at which she grows up. The medical examiner’s report released after Ledger’s death revealed that he had died from “acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine.”
After Ledger’s death, his family and publicist took care to present his overdose as an accidental misuse of medicine that the actor was taking to treat a chest infection. It was a time when addiction was considered more of a personal failing than it is today. There were plenty of rumors that Ledger struggled with addiction, but it was considered inconsiderate to discuss, and perhaps that’s correct. In the 2017 documentary, friends describe being concerned about Ledger in the time just before his death, but it is never said directly that the reason they were worried had anything to do with addiction.
Heath Ledger Wanted To Direct a Biopic on Musician Nick Drake
It’s an open question whether Ledger was drawn to the novel because he personally identified with Beth’s struggle. The only other point that bears mentioning is that Ledger had also repeatedly stated his desire to one day direct a biopic of Nick Drake, the English singer-songwriter whose work was only celebrated after his death, in 1974, from an overdose of prescription medication. Ledger cut a video for “Black-Eyed Dog,” one of Drake’s songs, using images of the singer, and of himself. The fact that Ledger was twice drawn to material that related to addiction is often thought to suggest that he may have wanted to express something auto-biographical through his directing that he couldn’t through his acting.
The Netflix version of The Queen’s Gambit that exists does center around Beth’s addiction. But the series’ main strength is its coziness. Every interior space in the show is warm and inviting, even the orphanage. The pills themselves have a soft beauty, capsuled in two shades of green, and first seen housed in a handsome antique glass jar. Meanwhile, critics noted that, while the show was largely faithful to the plot of the book, it sanitized many elements, particularly the sexism that Beth faced from the largely male community of chess players. Would a Ledger version have been less gauzy, more raw? It would likely have had a smaller budget than The Queen’s Gambit and less oversight. Like many films directed by actors, it could have boasted a cast full of big names, and the eclectic style of a filmmaker who took an alternate route to the director’s chair. But beyond that, we can only guess. This film can only exist in your mind.
The Queen’s Gambit is available to stream on Netflix in the U.S.
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