#351. The Joker

Perhaps the most recognizable villain in the realm of superheroes and comic books, The Joker stands as a stark antipode to the brooding darkness of Batman. The contrast of insane levity to serious vengeance has made The Joker the best example of an archenemy, a feat that has rarely (if ever) been topped. For decades, The Joker has gone through a number of iterations and style changes, some of which have been notorious for their extreme take on the character. Similarly, there have been many different actors who have portrayed The Joker over the years, with a few of them being somewhat questionable in their interpretation of the character as well. While most people associate the quintessence of The Joker via Mark Hamill’s voice acting for Batman: The Animated Series, this week’s two films will examine some different performances of the character in live action films.

The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight
Year: 2008
Rating: PG-13
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours

Following the superhero movie format, after Christopher Nolan’s Batman origin story, Batman Begins (2005), Nolan proceeded to use the Batman franchise’s most recognizable villain for the sequel: The Dark Knight (2008). Many fans of the Batman franchise were upset with the casting choice of Heath Ledger, not only due to his somewhat recent role in Brokeback Mountain (2005) but because there were plenty of comedians who were considered for the role at one point or other. Considering he posthumously won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, these concerns were assuaged by the time the film was released. A similar controversy surrounded the casting of Jared Leto in the role for Suicide Squad (2016), but that controversy was linked more to how The Joker looked, rather than who was playing him.

During a bank robbery that seemed to go wrong, a gang of clown-themed thieves is whittled down until a lone clown remains: The Joker (Heath Ledger). The local mafias of Gotham find themselves in a bind with Batman (Christian Bale) constantly thwarting their criminal efforts. The Joker steps in and offers to get rid of Batman for the mobs in exchange for half of their finances. He doesn’t even want the money . . . he just wants to watch the world burn. To “level the playing field,” The Joker starts interfering with the trial of mob financier Lau (Chin Han), killing people until Batman reveals his identity. District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) says that he’s Batman, but The Joker sees through the ruse, thus providing the real Batman with a choice: save Dent or save his girlfriend, Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal). With The Joker in control of Gotham, only Batman can stop him.

BatmanBatman
Year: 1989
Rating: PG-13
Length: 126 minutes / 2.10 hours

Before 1989, the only version of The Joker to hit the big screen was Caesar Romero’s in Batman (1966). Using the same cast as the 1960’s television series, this Batman film was far campier than the dark and gritty versions we know today. While Tim Burton is known for his dark imagery, there was still a modicum of camp to his Batman (1989). Comparatively, though, the Tim Burton version did succeed in transforming the caped crusader into a much darker motif and helped evolve the franchise into what we know today. If anything, Tim Burton helped people to understand that comic books aren’t necessarily for children. At any rate, for many years, Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker was considered the definitive representation on the big screen, especially as it was faithful to The Joker’s origin story from the comics.

Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is in the crosshairs of his mob boss, Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) for taking his mistress. Jack is saved by Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle), who wants him as a witness against Grissom. Unfortunately, in the ensuing chaos, Batman (Michael Keaton) arrives and knocks Jack into a vat of chemicals. While most assume Jack is dead, he finds that the chemicals have altered his appearance, giving him a clown-like face with a permanent smile. This disfigurement drives him mad, and he takes on the identity of “The Joker.” Through the chemical known as “Smilex,” The Joker terrorizes Gotham, leaving many people dead with a hideous grin on their faces. Realizing the truth about The Joker’s past and origins, Batman sets out to save Gotham and avenge his dead parents.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 takes on a classic villain

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#350. Dead on Release

A variety of reasons can exist for an actor to not be alive by the time their movie is released. Some actors are old and die from more natural causes (like Spencer Tracy, who died 17 days after the end of filming Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)). Others might be involved in accidents either on the set (like Brandon Lee in The Crow (1994)) or in the course of living their life (like Anton Yelchin from the Star Trek reboots). The entertainment community mourns the lives taken so early on in their careers, but many actors have died via suicide due to either their approach to acting or the pressure of acting influencing their decisions. Sometimes a mental illness that gives an actor their creativity can also drive them into a suicide as well. This week’s two films highlight some actors who died before their films were released.

GiantGiant
Year: 1956
Rating: Approved
Length: 201 minutes / 3.35 hours

At the age of 24, James Dean was a star to be reckoned with. In four short years, he appeared in a handful of uncredited roles, but he also earned two back-to-back nominations for Best Actor in 1955 for East of Eden and in 1956 for Giant. The trick with his nomination for Giant was that he had been killed in a car accident late in 1955, thus making this nomination the first of its kind to be given posthumously. Not only did Dean die before the release of Giant, but he also died before the release of his most iconic role in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). One can only speculate the amount of prestige such an actor would have accrued over a lifetime of acting. Even with only three credited movies to his name, the American Film Institute still placed him as #18 on their list of 50 top actors of the last century.

Jett Rink (James Dean) is a farmhand who works for Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) on his Texas ranch. When Bick brings home a lovely wife in Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), Jett is immediately stricken with her. He helps show her the ropes of the property, thus inspiring her to change some of the living conditions for the migrant workers. After the accidental death of Bick’s sister, who also ran the household and had a spat with Leslie, Jett is bequeathed a small portion of the property. After Jett finds oil on his land, he manages to become wealthier than the Benedicts. Jett, still enamored with Leslie, eventually starts dating her daughter, which further sours the relationship between him and Bick. After realizing his children will not follow in his footsteps, Bick finally allows Jett to drill for oil on the remainder of the Benedict property.

The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight
Year: 2008
Rating: PG-13
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours

Some actors die before their movies finish filming, leaving a noticeable gap in their performance. Actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman are noticeably absent from certain scenes in movies like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015). Some actors have their performances digitally completed and adjusted using CGI, or even sometimes completely created decades after their death (as was the case with Peter Cushing in Rogue One (2016)). While Heath Ledger had completed filming on The Dark Knight (2008), none of his scenes were altered after the fact by director Christopher Nolan. Ledger died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, but some feel his “method acting” approach helped push him over the edge via his role as The Joker. He is only one of two people who have posthumously won a Best Actor Oscar, the other being Peter Finch of Network (1976) fame.

After Batman (Christian Bale) has raised the stakes for Gotham’s crime-fighting, a new force has appeared to oppose him with a gospel of violence and chaos: the Joker (Heath Ledger). As Batman tries to rid the city of crime via his vigilante actions, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) tries to do so within the confines of the law. The Joker, having taken control of the majority of Gotham’s gangs, continues to escalate the situation to get Batman to reveal his true identity. Eventually, Batman finds himself in a corner as the Joker makes him decide between the lawful justice of District Attorney Harvey Dent, or Batman’s girlfriend, Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal). On top of this life-or-death decision, the Joker pits a ferry full of tourists against a ferry full of terrorists in a game of “Who will die first?” Batman, finally able to catch the Joker via an ingenious use of technology, must now retreat to the shadows.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 young actors gone too soon