Heath Ledger fans worry 'The Dark Knight' will define him

"The Dark Knight," opening Friday, is likely to make Heath Ledger a bigger star than he ever was in life.

The ingredients are there: the iconic role, the tragic death and that most essential component, the touch of genius.

It's why James Dean, the actor to whom Ledger, in death, has been compared, still adorns posters in teenagers' rooms. And why the music of Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur, even at its most nihilistic, tugs at the heartstrings of Gen X'ers.

Ledger's performance as The Joker will take its place in the annals of posthumous fame in record time, thanks to our age of viral videos and message-board hypothesizing. The performance already has been deemed legendary, based only on the movie's online trailers and buzz from early screenings.

But for fans of Ledger, the certain popularity of "The Dark Knight" elicits a fear that The Joker, a soulless villain, might serve as the legacy of an actor whose defining trait was emotional authenticity.

The teenagers flocking to "Dark Knight" probably haven't seen most of Ledger's other work. Neither have their parents, frankly. Before "Brokeback Mountain," Ledger's films rarely made an impact. Unlike Dean, who burst onto the scene in "East of Eden" and had two big films ready for release when he died in a car crash in 1955, Ledger started out modestly.

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