Heath Ledger's Performance Wows His Peers

07/15/2008 at 02:15 PM EDT

Heath Ledger's Performance Wows His Peers
Maggie Gyllenhaal (left) and Blake Lively at The Dark Knight premiere
KEN BABOLCSAY/GLOBE PHOTOS; Jim Spellman/WireImage
Stars turned out for Monday's New York City premiere of The Dark Knight – and to honor their friend and fellow actor, Heath Ledger.

Ledger’s onetime girlfriend Naomi Watts, with her current flame Liev Schreiber, attended the gala screening, along with celebrities including Ethan Hawke, Blake Lively and Penn Badgley, Regis and Joy Philbin, Lauren Conrad, Patrick Wilson and Emile Hirsch.

Knight costars Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal (who came with boyfriend Peter Sarsgaard), Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman paid tribute to Ledger as they walked the black carpet.

"Heath will always be in our hearts,” said Eckhart. “I admire him as an actor and enjoyed watching him work.”

Producer Charles Roven said, "Out of tragedy, we tried to make something inspirational."

An orchestra playing parts of the movie's score kicked off the screening, along with a light show.

When Ledger’s name appeared on the screen in the closing credits, followed by the message "In memory of our friends Heath Ledger and Conway Wickliffe,” the star-studded crowd erupted in cheers and applause.

Wickliffe, a special-effects technician for the film, was killed last September in a stunt-car accident.

In a performance Roven calls “extraordinary and captivating,” even Batman himself knew that Ledger had outshined everyone. “He steals the movie, and I’m quite happy to say that,” Bale told PEOPLE.

Ledger, who died of an accidental overdose in January at age 28, may receive an Oscar nod for his turn as the Joker, according to his costars.

“He was so inspiring,” says Gyllenhaal.

Ledger's family also attended the premiere, though they skipped the red carpet and did not speak to reporters.

After the screening, attendees mingled well past midnight at an afterparty at the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Reporting by Jesse North and K.C. Baker

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