Generational talents are rare, they are people who pour into their work and become obsessed with portraying their character perfectly. Everyone wants to be remembered for their acting but not everyone is willing to put in the time necessary to do so, those who are willing are the actors we still talk about decades later.
Heath Ledger’s portrayal of ‘the Joker’, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, (2008) is widely regarded, amongst colleagues and critiques alike, as one of the best acting performances of all time. Fellow cast member Maggie Gyllenhaal, who played Rachel Dawes in the film, praised Ledger’s performance in an interview with Comingsoon.net,
“I knew immediately that he was doing something really unusual and rare and extremely special, even for the most talented and experienced actors, which is that he sort of found this stride where he was totally free.”
The character of ‘the Joker’ has origins far before Ledger’s portrayal of him. Beginning as a comic book character in the DC Universe, the Joker was Batman’s arch nemesis. Always playing tricks on and fooling Batman, the Joker ensued chaos whenever and wherever he could. He was depicted first on the big screen by Caesar Romero in the 1960’s telecom Batman as a giggly troublemaker who gleaned at tricking Batman and his sidekick Robin. Jack Nicholson followed Romero in 1989, bringing forth a new version of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman. A deformed mobster, Nicholson’s play on the Joker introduced a more sinister side to the character while still maintaining his funny and quirky personality. Romero and Nicholson both brought forth comedic versions of the character, but still included elements of crime. Each made audiences laugh with their jokes and wit, even managing to get audience members to forget their character was “the bad-guy”.
Unlike traditional comic book scenarios, the hero does not win in The Dark Knight. This is what makes the film, and Ledger’s version of the character, so brilliant. While yes, Batman manages to stop the Joker and capture him at the end of the film, it comes at a cost. The Joker exposes the true nature of Gotham’s white knight, Harvey Dent, by disfiguring him and taking away what he loves most. He also forces Batman to go against his most valued principle and choose one life over another (saving Harvey Dent and therefore allowing his childhood friend Rachel to die). Becoming disfigured and losing the love of his life (Rachel) proves too much for Dent and his true ‘two-faced’ nature is exposed. The Joker knew that even Dent, the shining symbol of legitimate justice in Gotham City, could be broken and that he could turn him into a monster as horrific as himself. In order to save Dent’s reputation, and preserve the little will the city had left, Batman is forced to kill Dent and then take the blame for all the murders he had committed. Unlike any prior version, the Joker wins. His psyche and desire for anarchy are so strong that not even Batman can stop him. This element is huge, never before had audiences seen a villain truly break Batman down in the way that the Joker does in this film.
This interpretation of the Joker by Ledger is so appreciated by the audience because he captures everything that viewers believe such a man would be. Previous versions maintained a “comic book style” look for the Joker. These versions of the character were spectacular, but, none of them possessed any ‘realistic’ elements. Ledger’s Joker feels real, he has a completely different look from any other version and is a true psychopath. He carries his scars with pride and is an expert at turning the world from civilized to chaotic in a matter of days. He translates the chaos of his mind into the psyche of others and manipulates them into becoming the very evil they fight to destroy. He is a villain that keeps you coming back for more. As terrifying as he is fascinating, Ledger’s Joker captivated audiences in a way no other villain ever has. The film is centered around Batman’s fight for justice yet it is not he that made the film what it was. The Joker did, he creates the world in which every other character in the film struggles to understand. He holds all the chips while everyone else is allowed to believe that they are in control.
Ledger’s version of this iconic character is unrivaled, and has therefore become the benchmark for all other interpretations. While the benchmark he set will likely never be surpassed, it remains the standard when a new version of the Joker is released; the character himself is truly as unforgettable as he is disturbing.
Who could ever forget the iconic phrase Ledger coined so well… “Why so serious?”