#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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#149. Jack Nicholson

It’s easy to name off the most nominated Actress, as Meryl Streep has the most Oscar nominations in film history, even more than the actors. However, one would be challenged to know who the most nominated Actor is. This is probably due to Streep continuing to be nominated regularly, receiving an acting nomination every two to three years since 1978. Of course, if you haven’t figured it out by now (and the title of this post), the most nominated Actor in film history is Jack Nicholson. Similar to Meryl Streep, Nicholson has won three times for acting, making him part of a handful of people who have completed this feat (only 6 people have won three or more Oscars). This week, we’ll look at two of Nicholson’s films, one of which even earned him one of his 12 Oscar nominations for acting.

The ShiningThe Shining
Year: 1980
Rating: R
Length: 146 minutes / 2.43 hours

Even though he wasn’t nominated for his performance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Jack Nicholson truly helped make this film into the iconic piece of popular culture that we know today. I mean, who hasn’t seen his grinning face peeking through the axe-chopped hole of the bathroom door as he delivers the line, “Here’s Johnny!” This role is just one of a few that Nicholson seemed to excel in: the role of a crazy person. Just consider his role as the Joker in the 1989 film, Batman, and you can start to see the parallels. What’s almost ironic is that he actually won one of his Best Actor Oscars for his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where he portrays a criminal in a mental institution who is probably the most sane person there. At any rate, even if the Academy overlooked his performance in The Shining, the American Film Institute named Jack Torrance as the 25th best villain in film history.

As an author myself, I know how useful it is to become isolated in order to write. In The Shining, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) does just that by taking on a job as a winter caretaker in the Overlook Hotel. While he and his family watch over the empty building, he finally has the chance to get writing. Unfortunately, being an isolated writer only works if you’re productive. After a long time of being stuck with writer’s block, Jack is soon affected by the madness of the Hotel brought about by its placement on top of an Indian burial ground. Both Jack and his son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), have connections with the building, known as “shining”, which show them the gruesome past that has occurred due to the induced madness of the place. Jack fully succumbs to the madness, eventually chasing after his family into the icy cold winter outside.

ChinatownChinatown
Year: 1974
Rating: PG-13
Length: 130 minutes / 2.17 hours

While about one third of Nicholson’s Oscar nominations were for Best Supporting Actor, the other two thirds were for the award of Best Actor. Chinatown was just such a nomination for him, in between his 1973 nomination for The Last Detail and his aforementioned win for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. What’s nice to see about the nominations he’s received is that at least a few of them were for comedies, partly due to his partnership with Director James L. Brooks. With his trademark smile and laugh, these nominations just make sense. However, even though Nicholson played a clever character in Chinatown, this film is by no means a comedy. In fact, it was probably this role that helped him to continue to be nominated for acting awards for the next three decades, stringing his streak of nominations across five decades.

In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson portrays J.J. “Jake” Gittes, a private investigator who specializes in exposing cheating wives and husbands. Unfortunately, when he’s tasked to keep an eye on the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, not only does he eventually find out that he was set up, he soon enters into a huge conspiracy involving Los Angeles’ water rights. Working with the real wife of the engineer, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), Jack soon finds himself up to his nose in gangsters and government officials trying to make a profit off the limited water supply to the city. As the obituaries pile up, Jake finds himself falling for Evelyn, which causes him to delve deeper into her past in an attempt to figure out what her relationship is with her “sister”. When all the pieces fall into place, Jake is powerless to stop it, simply being told, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 notable Nicholson performances

Bacon #: 1 (A Few Good Men / Kevin Bacon)