Staunch Characters pays tribute to great character actors by singling out a specific performance that illustrates their mastery.
Like many, I was underwhelmed by the news that Heath Ledger had been cast as the Joker in the sequel to Batman Begins. I liked Brokeback Mountain a great deal and certainly respected his performance. Yet I was also distracted throughout by a molasses-thick Southern drawl that reminded me of Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. Besides, it wasn’t as if Brokeback Mountain was the latest in a string of triumphs for Ledger. One masterpiece does not a great actor make. And Ledger certainly wasn’t Jack Nicholson, who played the character in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. I didn’t realize at the time what an advantage that was. Ledger disappeared into the characters he plays, while Jack Nicholson simply turns them into versions of himself.
The Dark Knight starts off by doing something smart: It creates a sense of dread and anticipation before a central character’s face is even revealed. The movie opens with a Heat-like heist, with the Joker running a crew of criminals wearing clown masks. Before we meet the real Joker, we’re confronted with an entire roster of wannabes. The criminals in clown masks talk about the Joker as if he were both their boss and a mythic figure of darkness; within the context of the film, he fills both roles. The hapless criminals are unaware that the Joker lies in their midst, wearing the same stupid clown masks as the rest of them, biding his time and pitting his henchmen against each other. Some of his underlings he kills; the rest he maneuvers into killing each other. So even before we get a glimpse of the Joker’s horrifying visage, with its toxic mess of puke-green hair and contorted, knife-created smile, we already know just how deadly, brilliant, and manipulative he is.
On a similar note, the early stretch of the film features a coterie of fake Batmen who have taken up the mantle of the Dark Knight and fashioned homemade costumes with the intention of fighting evil. They are figures of fun more than anything else, and the presence of fake Batmen and Jokers makes the real ones seem even more impressive. In the same stretch, Cillian Murphy returns briefly as Scarecow, one of the villains in Batman Begins, and is quickly and easily captured by Batman and his affiliates. It’s as if director Christopher Nolan is implicitly telling the audience that as creepy and effective as the Scarecrow was in Batman Begins, he’s a meek little mouse compared to the Joker.
What makes Ledger’s Joker so terrifying is that he’s genuinely insane. He’s not motivated by money or position. He’s a true nihilist whose only pleasure comes from inflicting pain on others. It’s all a game to him, one whose only real point, if there is any point at all, involves destroying as much of civilized society as possible. As Michael Caine’s Alfred says of the Joker’s unfathomable psychology, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Personas are comforting in their familiarity. We know these people, and we know what they’re about. But personas can also distance audiences from characters, making viewers see the Joker, for example, through the prism of Jack Nicholson’s whole career and not as a new character. When he made The Dark Knight, Ledger had no persona to fall back on, so he and the film were forced to create his version of a character that had loomed large in pop culture for generations. If acting is largely a series of choices, Ledger makes all the right ones. It starts with the voice, an unmistakably Chicago-derived growl that alternates between mocking dark comedy and uncontrolled rage.
Ledger plays the character as so larger-than-life he has the ability to set an entire city on edge. In The Dark Knight, it’s not Batman versus the Joker so much as the Joker versus all of Gotham City. Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance makes that seem like a pretty even match. If movies were sports, Ledger’s Joker jersey would be retired permanently so no one else could ever play him. Yet we live in a culture where superheroes and villains are constantly recycled, so it won’t be long until we see Jared Leto as the Joker in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie. He’ll have some awfully big clown shoes to fill, and while his casting doesn’t thrill me (largely because I thought he was dreadful in both Dallas Buyers Club and Chapter 27), I have been wrong about actors playing the Joker before. It’s kind of my thing.