Last night, after Joaquin Phoenix won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Joker, I sighed in relief. Not because I’m a fan of Joker and I really care about it winning awards; honestly, I think the movie is pretty dull. I felt relieved because, at long last, the sections of the film community that care way too much about gravitas have sufficient proof that you don’t need to be Heath Ledger to win an Oscar while playing the Joker. Hopefully, this will mean we’ll stop being subjected to increasingly dour, humorless renditions of the character from filmmakers who are unduly concerned about topping the grittiness of Ledger’s take. The long line of would-be Ledger successors—all of them tripping over themselves to say they went “method” while playing a dude who dresses like a clown and plants bombs in a made-up city—saw Phoenix’s victory in the Dolby Theater and realized “It’s been done! There is another!” And the Joker can finally be released from Oscar bait purgatory.
Obviously, the question of how one should portray the Joker wasn’t always so serious. For a while, most actors saw the Joker as a comic book role and treated it as such. Instead of going method and embodying the role in his day-to-day life, Jack Nicholson demanded as many off-hours as possible in his contract. And who hasn’t joked about Cesar Romero’s infamous painted-over mustache? Romero didn’t think the verisimilitude of the Joker was even worth shaving, much less losing all his weight.
Yet, both of these actors were still able to deliver performances that functioned within the stories they were telling, and few complained about them. Romero was able to translate the frenetic, mischievous Joker of Silver Age Batman comics quite accurately to the screen, mustache and all. And sure, when Batman (1989) came out, some people accused Nicholson of playing himself… but who’s going to claim that Jack Nicholson is boring when he plays himself?
The Joker in these early productions—and across Mark Hamill’s tenure in animation—was allowed to be more than just dark, gritty, and damaged. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes he could be those things (The Joker murdered the second Robin in 1988’s “A Death in the Family”, Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” was published in 1989, and in 2000’s Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, Mark Hamill got to play one of the darkest versions of the character put to screen) but what audiences thought was equally interesting about the character was his capacity to bring fun and humor into the self-serious Batman mythos.
The public perception of the Joker fundamentally shifted after two events: Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, and Heath Ledger’s accidental death due to prescription drug overdose in January 2008.
It goes without saying that Ledger’s work on TDK was monumental, and there’s no way to be hyperbolic when describing the effect of watching his Joker transformation for the first time. The day that first trailer dropped was my first real memory of seeing people erupt over a movie. And after Ledger passed away, the anticipation reached a fever pitch.
Ledger’s death was a tragic, incalculable loss and I don’t want to reduce it to a bullet point in a film’s marketing timeline, but there’s no getting around the fact that once it had happened, Warner Bros.’ marketing strategy for The Dark Knight grew to revolve around it. Ledger’s last completed film performance was emphasized in posters, trailers, and the official website. Stories started to leak from the film’s production about how dedicated Ledger was to playing the Joker—how he locked himself in a hotel room for a month with nothing but a diary, and how he encouraged his castmates to hit him if it added spontaneity to the scene. The association between Ledger’s otherworldly portrayal of the Joker and Ledger’s accidental death became so strong in some people’s minds that the myth about stress from the role driving Ledger to overdose is still being debunked ten years later.
Even though the “the Joker led to Heath Ledger’s death” narrative grossly simplifies mental health and drug dependency, and makes Ledger appear less professional than he actually was, there isn’t much of a mystery to the reason why people are so attached to it. The idea of dying in service of or as a result of a role perfectly conforms to the popular view that art needs to be sacrificial in order to be rendered meaningful. In filmmaking, this belief often manifests as a very masculine conception of “method acting”, where actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale will go to extreme and sometimes life-threatening lengths in the name of “authenticity”, when really they just want to be seen working hard. (As Angelica Jade Bastien notes in the article above, Bale once described acting as “a very sissy job.”)
To those who subscribe to the sacrificial view of art and worship at the altar of manly method acting, Heath Ledger’s Joker would seem like the ultimate execution of that process. Ledger became the role so thoroughly that people couldn’t recognize him, and he perished for the most noblest of reasons: the thrill of performance.* Is it any wonder why the actors who have succeeded Ledger in portraying the Joker have had a complex about it?
With both Jared Leto’s and Joaquin Phoenix’s takes on the character, there’s this hard to ignore subtext of “This role is a challenge, and I need to prove my worth as an actor by surmounting it.” It’s a mentality that has more in common with mountain climbing than storytelling. Leto saw fit to send his Suicide Squad castmates used condoms and to watch real footage of violence until “he had to stop himself” during his infamous attempt at going “method” for the Joker. While it’s not nearly as egregious, much has been made about how Phoenix enmeshed himself in the Arthur Fleck role by losing 52 pounds and engaging in reckless, unchoreographed stunts on set.
I don’t want to smear either of these men as being unprofessional (although in Leto’s case with the Suicide Squad used condom deliveries, is that even a question?) but I do want to consider the extreme processes behind these performances in relation to what actually came through in the movie. In Leto’s case, they didn’t even feel like keeping most of it in the movie.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Joker has garnered all the accolades and pretty much everyone agrees he’s the best part about the movie, regardless how they feel about the movie. “Joaquin made the best out of Todd Phillips’ material” is the most negative take on Phoenix’s performance that I have heard. But I can’t help but look back at Ledger in The Dark Knight, and I notice all the different levels he’s working on, all the beats he’s making land, his unpredictability, his nihilistic-yet-genuinely-funny wit… and I return to Phoenix in Joker and it feels so awkwardly one-note.
It’s not because Phoenix has “worse” technique than Ledger—I’m sure Joaquin is accomplishing everything he’s set out to do, in ways that I can’t even register, hence the acclaim. My disconnect stems from a decision that was made way early in Joker’s development to distance this version of the character from every version that came before it—79 years of expression and comic inspiration—in service of instigating the same shocked response of seeing Heath Ledger’s radically reinvented Joker for the first time.
Except Ledger’s Joker wasn’t that radical a reinvention. Ledger and Nolan understood the core of the Joker’s character: he is chaos. And the thing about chaos is that it can be fun. That’s also what makes it dangerous.
Fun is something the makers of Joker neglected while they were busy knocking off Scorsese, and it has paid off for them in ways I could never have imagined. (Meanwhile Birds of Prey, a film that is both fun and embodies the chaotic energy that Joker purports to have, is getting sacked at the box office. What is happening to movies?) I just hope that after Phoenix's victory last night, our next cinematic Joker goes back to basics. Back to painting over a mustache and having a good time. Or maybe we should just cast Tilda Swinton.
*Note: In actuality, Ledger had been struggling with a bout of insomnia that predated his work on The Dark Knight, and he overdosed on a combination of medications meant to treat that, his anxiety, and the possible pneumonia he caught from lack of sleep. He left behind a daughter who by most accounts he loved very much.