A Beautiful Story:
Mates ... Adam Sutton (centre) with Heath Ledger (right) and Orlando Bloom (left) on the set of Ned Kelly.
January 24, 2008
From the Sydney Morning Herald
The tragic news from New York was too hard to bear for Ledger's cowboy mate, writes Neil McMahon in Los Angeles.
IN MANY ways he was Heath Ledger's worst nightmare: a nobody, allowed into the inner circle, who then told the world his story and became a somebody. Ledger hated the spotlight, especially when it was uninvited, and Adam Sutton worried about that, lost too much sleep about what his mate would think. Then, when he asked for the actor's blessing, he got a graceful nod. Go ahead, said Ledger to the real gay cowboy. "I'm proud of you, Bushy."
Sutton, 33, was proud, too. Proud of how he'd told his tale, first in the Herald, then on TV, then in a book, and proud that an actor renowned for his aversion to publicity had looked at what he was trying to do and told him it was all OK. Yesterday, though, he was simply shattered. He was in Los Angeles when word came through. Ledger was dead. A burst of text messages. "So sorry to hear about Heath. Hope you're OK."
He was standing in Olivia Newton-John's Malibu garden, a quick visit for a publicity shot for a charity event he is doing in April. Next door lives Mel Gibson, Ledger's co-star in The Patriot; Sutton had met Gibson on Sunday at a Hollywood cricket game, given him a copy of his memoir, Say It Out Loud, the book the Central Coast horseman had used to describe a life reflected in the script of Ledger's most acclaimed film, Brokeback Mountain.
Heath would be at home here, Sutton thought, stars to the left and right, but it was foreign to him. Truth be told, it probably wouldn't have been much more of a comfortable setting for Ledger, the star who resisted the sparkle at all costs. "He didn't want to be a blockbuster person. He was an actor, not a celebrity," Sutton said last night.
Sutton and Ledger had met on Ned Kelly; where the wrangler from Cooranbong gave the burgeoning star riding lessons. There was a mild tempest that first day, when film-set novice Sutton ordered his celebrity charges to don helmets. They refused, and an actors' walk-off was barely averted. The pair nevertheless became mates. A year later, Ledger was handed a script and brought it back to Sydney on his summer break. As they got ready to go out on New Year's Eve, he said casually to his mate: "I've just read this script and it sounds a lot like you."
It was Brokeback Mountain. Ledger used the film to tell the world just how well he could act; Sutton used the film's profile as a platform to tell his own story.
Hollywood was a new thing. He'd been here only three days, a last-minute visit as part of G'day USA Week to help Newton-John promote her cancer centre appeal. Ledger was his Hollywood connection, but that was about them being mates, not celebrities. Yet here yesterday was the cowboy, a fish out of water, at home with the one household name in the zip code who would surely understand. Newton-John knows something about handling grief, publicly and privately. No one else knew what to say, but she didn't hesitate, stepping forward to hug Sutton, who had held it in until then. "I'm so, so sorry," she told him, a spontaneous embrace defeating country stoicism.
Newton-John's home is built for peace and calm, in parts quite purposefully for lifting the spirits of a woman who has endured everything from breast cancer to the unexplained loss three years ago of her partner, Patrick McDermott. The rear is dominated by a labyrinth, a meditation maze for wandering and reflection. She suggested Sutton take a walk there and find the centre. There he found stones, under each one a word. Friendship. Harmony. Love. Understanding. Acceptance.
It helped. "It was as close as I could imagine to being with my mother," said Sutton later, who had only met Newton-John once before. Now he was speaking as a bewildered and tearful young man cast in the difficult role of a public figure whose flare was sparked by the flint of another man's fame, that man now deceased.
The world was on the phone. Entertainment Tonight; Access Hollywood, morning television in Australia, radio stations everywhere, journalists wanting to know about this: the real Heath.
Sutton wasn't sure he or anyone beyond family was qualified to speak on that, and knew he wasn't ready on the scale now demanded. A flood of tears came first; a stiff drink was proffered and accepted. As Sutton went wandering, Newton-John reflected on her own experience. "He doesn't have to say anything if he doesn't want to," she said firmly, aware of the relentless pressure to simply react. "It's nobody's business."
She also knows something of young talent burning too brightly, too young. There was Karen Carpenter, a friend whose death tore her. Then Andy Gibb, another young Australian who conquered Hollywood and was gone at 30. Gibb had found himself with few places to turn, taking his troubles to Newton-John, his friend and sometime duet partner. "He used to call me in the middle of the night," Newton-John said of the youngest Gibb brother, destroyed by drugs in 1988.
He found himself in the wisest hands, and is grateful, yet Sutton doesn't know what to think. The story from New York remains murky, and having refused to tread on Ledger's private life in his book, it is territory he will not venture into now. "All I can say about him is that he was an inspiration to me. He gave me the strength to find myself and tell my story, and that's something that I know helped a lot of other people. All I want to do now is carry it on as his legacy."
Herald journalist Neil McMahon is the co-author of Adam Sutton's memoir Say It Out Loud: Journey Of A Real Cowboy.