The actor died before finishing Terry Gilliam's surreal ''The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.'' Three stars helped complete the movie. But when will U.S. audiences get a chance to see it?
Heath Ledger
Credit: Bryce Duffy/Corbis

When Heath Ledger‘s family stepped on stage to accept his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Dark Knight, the emotional outpouring from the audience at the Kodak Theatre seemed to bring closure to the story of Ledger’s tragically curtailed career. But the story does not actually end there. There is one last Ledger film almost no one, including his closest friends, has seen, and which may never come to a theater near you. Like the Joker in the last act of The Dark Knight twisting upside down at the end of Batman’s rope, the actor’s final performance is hanging in midair.

Ledger was in the middle of filming on director Terry Gilliam‘s latest movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, when he died on Jan. 22, 2008. His sudden death threatened to derail the project, a surrealistic fantasy about a traveling theater troupe. But Gilliam pressed on, recruiting Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to play different incarnations of Ledger’s character, a charismatic con man named Tony. Now, in the wake of Ledger’s Oscar win, interest in the film has spiked. Backstage at the ceremony, his sister, Kate, told reporters that the family had seen some footage and that ”it’s going to be amazing.” But the fate of the $30 million production remains uncertain. Parnassus still has not landed a domestic distribution deal, fostering speculation that it may be too unusual to find a wide audience. (It does have an international distributor and is set to open in the U.K. in June.) ”The script isn’t a slam dunk,” says one acquisitions executive. ”Having Heath in it is appealing. But I’m waiting to see the movie.” As it happens, the filmmakers won’t screen the movie anyway — at least not until April, when postproduction is complete. ”The producers felt that it was better to wait for Terry’s vision to be fully realized on screen so that the distributors can see exactly what they’re acquiring,” says film rep Dennis Davidson, via e-mail.

Speaking to EW late last year, Gilliam didn’t sound at all worried about the future of Parnassus. A director who has long locked horns with Hollywood — just three years ago he walked around New York with a sandwich board that read ”Studioless Filmmaker…Will Direct for Food” — he now finds himself in a pretty interesting spot. ”I think people are going to be astonished when they see the film, and there will be a rush to want it,” he said. ”So I’m happy to wait. Nobody came forward at the right time — and now it’s going to cost them.”

NEXT PAGE: ”He was an extraordinary force. That’s why when he suddenly turned up dead, nothing made sense.”