Sunday, February 22, 2009

Heath Ledger: The Joker

Just finished watching the Oscars, one of the most boring in recent memory, but the one endearing memory that i will remember (given that this is a comic book blog) is Heath winning for his portrayal of The Joker. It was a devastatingly dead-on accurate job of acting in front of a director who completely, utterly got the character.

That sort of thing is rare, far rarer than we would suspect in the movie world, but even more so when a beloved character is taken from other fiction and brought into the movie world. Harry Potter has been aptly served by some very competent directors and the excellent casting of Daniel Radcliffe. The Joker has been tortured by any number of directors and actors who never quite got the essence, only skimming the surface with the white face and leering laugh.

Even Bob Kane didn't get what he was creating back in Batman #1. The Joker is an insanely clever jewel thief with a creepy gimmick, but he is not a howling force of nature, given to utter unpredictability in his actions. If the essence of acting is not to simply mirror surface mannerisms but to understand why your character acts the way he/she does, then playing a tabla rasa murderer can be both freeing and maddening. As Michael Caine's Alfred makes the point in the movie, men like that can't be bargained with, or reasoned with, they are simply something that can't be understood in any logical context. You have to deal with them as they are. In our modern day they can be a metaphor for the unreasoning terror the urban dwellers can feel over the possiblity of another terrorist attack, another missing child, another chemical spill, another tsunami.

If the essence of The Batman is to impose order on the orderless world, a way to revenge/prevent the killing of his parents again by another criminal, then The Joker is the giggling essence of disorder and chaos. It delights in its ability to simply do things, whether small or large. The tidal wave has no morality, can't be bargained with, is disconcertingly random in its choices. Nolan gets both The Batman's and The Joker's premises, which is why he's been able to put together not flawless films, but films that engage the hearts of those of us with four colors under our fingernails.

Not too long ago, Heath would have been relegated to having lowered himself to act is a stupid genre picture, and even as recently as a few years ago, I was certain that the Academy would not give the best picture Oscar to Peter Jackson for Return of the King because I was sure that they didn't "get it". That a science fiction picture, fantasy picture, genre picture of any kind would never be given its due. I was wrong, happily, that night, and I'm even more overjoyed to see that the voters do "get it". Ledger's Joker is as much the Oscar worthy villian as Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. It is vindication for the characters of DC Comics, and, since we'll never have definitive answers as to who did what, vindication to Kane, Finger and Robinson as makers of an enduring American mythos.

Heath, an extremely talented actor, will always remain for me any number of people: the Aussie protagonist of 10 Things I Hate About You, the cowboy of Brokeback Mountain, The Joker. Its a shame that he's gone, but we're left with a wonderful, albiet small, body of work to remember him by.


James Meeley said...

The Joker has been tortured by any number of directors and actors who never quite got the essence, only skimming the surface with the white face and leering laugh.

I don't think that's entirely true. It's always depended on the time on which the Joker was shown. The 60's Batman television show fit with what the comics at the time were doing. It might not be everyone's favorite.

Jack Nicholson's performance in the Batman film from '89 was also a solid job, given the times in which it was made.

But even if you want to discard all that, there is ONE other actor, whom I feel perfectly embodied the "Clown Prince of Crime" before Heath Ledger. That man is Mark Hamill. His voicework of the Joker for Batman: The Animated Series, to me, is the best Joker of them all. From the first time he appeared on that cartoon series, he not only got the essence of the character right, but his voice was exactly how I always imagined the Joker sounding in the comics I'd read before then. From the inflections in his voice, to the gutter growl when he'd get angry. And it was topped by the perfect mad cackle. For me, Mark Hamill is the Joker.

Heath gave probably as good a performance as any "live action" film could ever hope for. But there were others before him and Chris Nolan, who "got" the Joker.

And speaking of that, don't be so quick to give Hollywood the thimbs up, because Heath got the Oscar. True, his performance deserved it, but Hollywood gave him the honor, no so much because they "get it," but because more to honor Heath and the body of work he's done, as they know there will be no more. Had Heath lived, Hollywood would have "not got it" like they usually do with sci-fi/fantasy/superhero films. Believe that.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

i'm being nice to hollywood, since they frequently do the "make up" oscar, i mean, c'mon, look at paul newman! 6 nominations and 30 years as an icon before they bother to give him the moment in the sun for the Color of Money. Oh yeah, thats the movie i ALWAYS think of when i think of paul newman.

Of course they don't totally get it, but then again, this isn't the academy that gave the oscar for best visual effects to ET over Blade Runner in 1982. The did get Jackson and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and they did get this more.

hollywood always looked down on the comics. we were dirt under their feet best, less than dirt at worst. Now we have respect for the dollars that our movies command, and who would have thunk that one.

partial "get it".

And Mark hammil's joker was pretty damn good. I'll give ya that.