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Heath Ledger & The Joker - An appreciation

Heath Ledger as The Joker

Feature by Rob Carnevale

FOR once you can believe the hype. The Dark Knight is every bit as good as critics suggest… and Heath Ledger IS amazing in it.

Eyebrows were raised when the late Australian actor was first announced as The Joker. Having just come from the brooding intensity of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (a role that won acclaim for its quiet introspection), few could have predicted how Ledger would tackle a role made famous for its outrageous, even maniacal, flamboyance. Jack Nicholson’s pantomime clown-like shoes seemed awfully big boots to fill.

Director Christopher Nolan clearly had faith, though. Having worked with some of the best actors in the business – Al Pacino (Insomnia), Sir Michael Caine and Christian Bale (The Prestige/Batman Begins) and Guy Pearce (Memento) – he was quietly confident in his choice of casting when approached on the subject (by IndieLondon) during a promotinal tour for The Prestige.

Nolan said: “Heath is, if you look at his performance in Brokeback Mountain, a very fearless actor. He will really throw himself into a part with utter conviction. He just has an extraordinary intensity and dedication to his craft and that’s exactly what I need for that iconic role.”

It’s this intensity that shines through. His co-star, Sir Michael Caine, hits the nail on the head when he says of the performance: “Jack [Nicholson]’s Joker was a very nasty old uncle, this Joker is a maniacal, murderous psychopath. I couldn’t see how Jack could be topped but he [Heath]’s at least equal to him. It’s extraordinary.”

Extraordinary indeed. Heath Ledger doesn’t so much portray The Joker as inhabit him. It’s a near-faultless performance. Some critics have almost inevitably tried to be different by suggesting it’s one-note, or pandering to the Oscar voters.

But that’s a nonsense. I don’t believe many (if any) actors enter a summer blockbuster assuming they’ll be in the frame for an Academy nod come the following February. This is purely about dedication to one’s craft. And thanks to his grotesque make-up, it’s also an immensely selfless piece of acting as well.

The magic of Ledger’s portrayal is that when you’re watching it unfold, you can quite easily forget about the actor behind the make-up. It’s only after the dust has settled that you realise just what an immense talent has been lost following his death earlier this year.

The Joker is – finally in Hollywood – a criminal mastermind worthy of living up to the name. So often, we see the brilliant bad guy thwarted by a foolish act, or an indestructible hero. In The Dark Knight, The Joker is as good as his word amd whereas Jack Nicholson’s Joker spent most of his time being thwarted by Batman, with Ledger’s Joker it’s quite often the other way around.

He wants to test Batman’s limits – and he does, to breaking point. He wants to plunge Gotham into chaos; and he achieves that too. When he sets up the kind of elaborate death that would make a James Bond villain green with envy, he even has the audacity to make sure it succeeds.

Ledger’s Joker may possess the face and demeanour of a warped clown; but there’s a cold, calculated genius working within. The make-up itself is a ruse; a cover to conceal his true identity. It’s also a useful way of ensuring that he can build his reputation and craft his grand plan without attracting too much serious attention – until the moment he wants you to.

Bruce Wayne, himself, dismisses The Joker “as just one man”, adding that “he can wait” at the beginning of the film, while the criminal element in Gotham write him off as “a freak”. But a sneaky little insight comes from The Joker himself during an early meeting with Gotham’s Mob bosses, when one is foolish enough to suggest that he’s insane.

Ledger looks, comes over all serious, and states: “No I’m not. No (pause) I’m not.” It’s slow, deliberate, with the emphasis in all the right places. It’s at that moment we know we MUST take him seriously.

It’s the subtle nuances of the performance that make it so great, though. Prior to that warning, The Joker has performed a magic trick with a pencil, making it “disappear” inside the head of a henchman. It’s a quick-thinking flash of murderous genius that shocks and exhilarates in equal measure.

Earlier, a bank heist has been perfectly orchestrated with a crew of specialists to ensure that just one man is left standing alone with the loot at the end (need we point out who)?

And then there’s the amibiguous glimpses of his own back story – the reasons he became what he is. Were his scars the work of a drunken, abusive father (as he suggests during one exchange)? Or self-imposed as an act of love that backfired (another suggestion)? Or are both stories designed to further the mystery surrounding his origin?

Later on, there’s more to savour. A hospital demolition that includes some wonderfully ambivalent expressions (just check out The Joker’s odd shuffle of a walk as he strolls from the exploding building, pauses to muse over why the bang isn’t bigger, then presses the buttons to make sure that it is).

Or the joy he exhibits at the prospect of facing off against his adversaries even once in custody – practically rolling up his sleeves to take the inevitable beatings, confident in the knowledge that the last laugh will be his.

And boy how it is… ensuring that the legacy of The Joker remains with you long after the final credits have rolled.

But it’s all part of The Dark Knight‘s elaborate triumph. The Joker remains an enigma; but a formidable one at that. The layers, the complexity and the mystery all serving to ensure you’ll want to revisit it over and over again.

And therein lies Ledger’s ultimate success. In successfully creating such a formidable screen villain (arguably one of the greatest, if not THE greatest of all-time), the late actor has ensured that his memory will stand the test of time whether he lands that posthumous Oscar or not.

Read our verdict on The Dark Knight

  1. Kudos to the article writer. This only makes me want to see it more. I’m seeing it at the IMAX on first Saturday!

    John    Jul 24    #
  2. How about the input of Christian Bale? Or Aaron Eckhart? Let’s not get carried away in our gushing about one performance; this is an ensemble piece. Everyone deserves the same type of glowing credit.

    Kate    Jul 24    #
  3. Heath is/was a genius. His work and memory deserves to be recognised in this way. If you have to die young, then leave a lasting legacy…

    Toby    Jul 24    #
  4. I love Heath. This article is lovely. He was awesome as The Joker, creating one of the most fascinating characters/villains I have ever had the pleasure to watch.
    He made me laugh one minute, flinch the next and his actions were never predictable.
    How Nolan tops this – and Heath’s performance – is going to be an interesting one to see.
    RIP Heath, your special talent is sorely missed…

    Rita    Aug 10    #
  5. Here’s a reviewer who recognises something special when he sees it. Not since Anthony Hopkins slurped his his ‘nice chianti’ to the shuddering disgust of a ‘green’ Clarice Starling have we been visited by such a perfect realisation of perfect bad guy. The whole ensemble reeks of quality, but young Mr. Ledger clearly had talent falling out of his ass.

    P.S. Just in case we didn’t see the blindingly obvious, Christopher Nolan employed IMAX technology, not that we should need to have our faces ‘rubbed’ in it.

    Stephen Wilson    Aug 11    #
  6. Heath deserves the Oscar. His Joker is a performance of calculated menace, psychotic brilliance and cold-blooded efficiency. It’s just a shame that, to coin his own phrase, he won’t be around to continue to do this forever with Batman!

    Susan    Aug 18    #
  7. Heath’s performance is legend. He’d always been fantastic, but this takes the acting craft to a higher level. The Day-Lewis, Brando references are spot on… The acting world has been deprived of a rich talent; while viewers have lost out on the opportunity to see what Heath did next. He is already one of the greats… but the mind boggles at what he might have achieved.

    Macey    Aug 20    #