Joker – A Cinematic History of the Clown Prince of Crime

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In preparation for the new Joker movie coming out in October, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays the titular clown-criminal, it is important to remember the most memorable Joker portrayals that built the character into who he is today. Jack Nicholson brought the playful trickster side of Joker to heel and made it work with the character’s homicidal tendencies. Heath Ledger’s performance brought an edge of real fear to the character that made him feel like an equal to Batman. Joaquin’s Joker has yet to be seen in full, but the fact that the movie not only deals with the character but also the build-up to what he becomes gives a sense of building suspense.

In the 1989 movie, simply titled “Batman,” Jack Nicholson plays the Joker, but others auditioned for the role. Brad Dourif (Voice of Chucky from Child’s Play), Tim Curry (Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show), David Bowie, John Lithgow (of Footloose fame), and James Woods (voice of Hades in the Disney movie Hercules) were all considered for the role, but Nicholson was the original and final choice by the studio. Nicholson wanted his scenes shot in three weeks, and to receive top billing. Unlike his co-star, Michael Keaton, he was a popular choice for the role.

One of the most notable things about Nicholson’s Joker, though, was his very… unique smile. His unsettling grin was made possible through firm, silicone dental inserts to help stretch his grin. The red makeup he wore then helped to give the impression of it stretching even further.

Funnily enough, talking of makeup, Nicholson reportedly said to his co-star Keaton on the first day of filming, “We just gotta let the wardrobe do the acting, kid.” His portrayal of the Joker was actually quite campy, reminiscent of the Joker in the comic books of the time. He uses comedic one-liners to make it seem like everything he does is a set-up for a punchline.

In the 2008 Batman film The Dark Knight (a follow-up to Batman Begins), Heath Ledger played the Joker. He was initially apprehensive towards acting in a comic book movie, but after being impressed with Batman Begins, he was eager to play the part. Originally in his career, he wasn’t as immersed in his roles as he would later get, but after watching some of the movies he was in, he decided he needed to approach the roles he received differently. The casting director of The Dark Knight, John Papsidera, had said that the filmmakers wanted someone courageous to play the part. Heath Ledger was then cast, before a script for the film had even been written.

Ledger’s Joker was a far cry from Nicholson’s. He made fear a driving force for Joker’s crimes, whereas Nicholson’s Joker made light of his own goofy plans. Ledger’s Joker joked, sure, but it was dark humor he fancied, with a twisted edge to it. The Joker of 1989 made his sinister schemes seem like nothing more than practical jokes in comparison to what Ledger’s interpretation. 

Like I mentioned above, Ledger felt that he didn’t spend enough time getting into and understanding his characters. Reportedly, in order to really perfect his Joker, he locked himself in a London hotel room for six weeks, with only himself and a notebook he used as a character diary. From what’s been discussed, it was reported to have had Joker cards, photos from A Clockwork Orange, pictures of hyenas, and strange poetry he wrote in it, an excerpt of which was publicized.

‘Inside. He’s laughing red and black and red and black till there’s nothing left to laugh. Until, almost tenderly, he turns inside out through his mouth.’

Now, from what we’ve seen in the trailer for the 2019 Joker film, Joaquin Phoenix is putting all he’s got into this role. In just the trailer, there’s so much about this Joker that we see. Arthur Fleck is a flagging stand-up comedian and he works as a promoter for businesses, putting on clown makeup and spinning signs. He is repeatedly beaten up and battered down by the city, and it leads to a downward spiral of his mental state (which may not have been too great to begin with, considering his notebook of material for stand-up was written in a childish manner).

Joaquin has been very tight-lipped about this role. He’s told both IndieWire and Collider about his opinion on getting the role, as well as the movie as a whole.

He told Collider, “It feels unique, it is its own world in some ways. It might as well be the thing that scares you the most.”  In IndieWire, Phoenix said. “If there’s something that feels unique, then I don’t really care what genre it is, what budget it is…Those things aren’t important…What gets my interest is examining people.”

This movie doesn’t tell the story of an already long-gone Joker blowing up city blocks and getting in skyscraper-leveling battles with Batman. This is a story of a man, beaten and pushed down by the society he lives in, and pushing back against it the only way he can. The movie gives the character an emotional spin that hasn’t been explored before. No one ever wondered what made Cesar Romero’s Joker become Joker. All it took was the sudden drop into the chemical vat for Jack Nicholson, and his Joker was made. Heath Ledger’s Joker alluded to his backstory, but it was never followed up on. This is a first for the Joker, and from the looks of it, it’s going to put a smile on the faces of its audience, especially with chilling quotes like this one.

“I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s a comedy.”