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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 08:04 GMT 09:04 UK
Hollywood's young pretenders
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal's work is centre stage this autumn
Heath Ledger had something of a false start in 2001.

Labelled the year's "hottest new star", he remained firmly on the edges of the A-list.

But four years on he finally seems to be living up to the hype.

The 26-year-old Australian has three films opening at the Venice Film Festival on consecutive days, including the lead role in this year's gala film, Casanova.

It was Ledger's good looks that first won him attention in his 1999 Hollywood debut 10 Things I Hate About You, a modern reworking of Taming of the Shrew.

Part of the Australian new wave in Hollywood, Ledger was spotted by Mel Gibson who cast him as his son Gabriel in the action blockbuster The Patriot in 2000.

Heath Ledger in 2001's A Knight's Tale
Heath Ledger won a following in 2001's A Knight's Tale

But it was his role in the 2001 comedy A Knight's Tale, as a peasant who passes himself off as a knight, that saw press attention build to a clamour.

However poor choices subsequently marred his predicted ascent.

Eager not to be typecast, Ledger deliberately steered away from roles which depended on his looks in favour of character roles.

A small role in Monster's Ball met with some praise, but The Four Feathers, ghoulish horror The Sin Eater and biopic Ned Kelly all met with a hostile reception from critics and filmgoers alike.

For a while Ledger was better known as actress Naomi Watt's other half. The Down Under duo met in 2003, but split up in May last year.

However, directors did not lose sight of the talent that had marked Ledger out in earlier films.

Sienna Miller (Casanova)
Elijah Wood (Everything is Illuminated)
Sarah Polley (The Secret Life of Words)
Garrett Hedlund (Four Brothers)
Julia Stiles (Edmond)

His three movies are all by Oscar-nominated directors: Ang Lee, Terry Gilliam and Lasse Hallstrom of Chocolat fame.

Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm sees Ledger co-starring with Matt Damon in a fictional comedy adventure which turns the author-siblings into 18th Century ghostbusters.

More controversial will be Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, which focuses on the relationship that unfolds between two young men, a rodeo cowboy and a ranch hand.

Hallstrom's Casanova takes a light-hearted look at the amorous adventures of the infamous libertine, as he finally falls head over heels in love with a Venetian beauty.

Brokeback Mountain co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal, another young star featuring in a spate of forthcoming films.

Heath Ledger and Matt Damon (r) in The Brothers Grimm
Ledger (l) co-stars with Matt Damon in Gilliam's fantasy adventure

At 24, Gyllenhaal is a contemporary of Ledger but his roots are considerably more Hollywood.

Younger brother of Maggie Gyllenhaal (of 2002 indie hit Secretary), Jake grew up in California with his director father and screenwriter mother, and took his first driving lesson from Paul Newman.

Close friends with Natalie Portman and Bryce Dallas Howard and sometime boyfriend of Kirsten Dunst, he is an established figure among the LA "brat pack".

Having made his name in the 2001 cult hit Donnie Darko, he has since starred opposite Jennifer Aniston in indie hit The Good Girl and shared top billing with Dennis Quaid in the 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow.

Jake Gyllenhaal in The Day After Tomorrow
The Day After Tomorrow marked Gyllenhaal's first action role

A stint in London's West End in This is our Youth saw Gyllenhaal win outstanding newcomer at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards.

Now Brokeback Mountain and Proof - also showing in competition at the Venice Film Festival - should put him centre-stage for the award season.

Proof sees Gyllenhaal in a high -profile role opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, who reprises her London theatre debut.

Anthony Hopkins and Hope Davis (About Schmidt) also star in the movie directed by Shakespeare in Love's John Madden.

Gyllenhaal also stars in Jarhead, Sam Mendes' film about a US marine in the 1990 Gulf war, due out in November, and recently signed up to make David Fincher's Zodiac, about a serial killer in 1970s San Francisco.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhaal in Proof
Gyllenhaal plays an unlikely maths student in Proof

But the wonder boys should beware the curse of Jude Law, whose fiancee Sienna Miller incidentally stars opposite Heath Ledger in Casanova.

Law's blockbuster cache of films in 2004, which saw the actor appear in six films in four months, proved the saying "less is more". Law's ubiquity met with mediocre reviews that quickly descended into derision.

Wisely Ledger, who also stars in forthcoming Australian drama Candy, has vowed to take a year off and enjoy fatherhood with his girlfriend and Brokeback Mountain co-star Michelle Williams.

After all, nobody wants to be the butt of Chris Rock's jokes at the Oscars.


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