Since premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival last month, Todd Phillips’ radically polarising ‘Joker’ has been generating all the buzz, basically splitting the online world in two. The comic book origin film, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Batman’s greatest nemesis, went on to win Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion, before heading to the Toronto International Film Festival where it again courted praise and infamy in equal doses.
While Phillips has repeatedly insisted that his ‘Joker’ is a 1970s character study in the garb of a comic book movie — not unlike how James Mangold’s Oscar-winning ‘Logan’ was a Western hiding inside a superhero story — fans have been split over Joker’s backstory in the film, especially the details regarding gun violence and mental health.
While Phoenix has attracted some negative press over his set antics, he has received unanimous praise for his performance from critics and fans alike. His sensitive portrayal of a man chewed up and spit out by the system and his subsequent transformation into a criminal psychopath is a thing of marvel, and we wouldn’t be surprised if more awards came his way.
Ahead of the Warner Bros and DC film’s release in the UAE on October 3, Gulf News abloid! ranks all the major actors who have played Joker, from worst to best.
5. Jared Leto
Following on the heels of Heath Ledger’s universally-adored performance in Christopher Nolan’s much-lauded trilogy was never going to be easy. But having been put in that unenviable position, Jared Leto gave audiences a Joker unlike anything they’ve ever seen before, really pushing his psychopathic tendencies to the fore, while adopting a rock star persona and fashioning himself as a ladies’ man (Leto is a good-looking guy and no amount of clown make-up was going to hide the fact). His chemistry with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn character was what you can only describe as electric, and it’s the first time in the character’s live-action, on-screen history that he’s ever been given a girlfriend. But Leto’s performance was mostly overshadowed by his off-screen antics involving his infamous method-acting, which included shutting himself off from the rest of the cast only to only emerge to take his shots and send his castmates gnarly gifts like dead rats. Also, Leto’s portrayal was considered so different from any Joker we knew, it took audiences out of the whole experience.
4. Cesar Romero
The first actor to ever bring Joker to life, Cesar Romero played the Clown Prince of Crime in the ABC-TV show Batman, which ran from 1966-1968, and featured Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, respectively. While his performance lay down the blueprint for every actor to have come after him to play the character, his portrayal, over the years, has also been mocked for being too cartoonish or silly. But if you take into account the fact that the show was made more than five decades ago, it’s easier to appreciate the finer points of this established actor’s performance — the trademark maniacal laugh, the deranged lunacy and the unhinged obsession with all things Batman. He famously refused to shave his moustache for this role that involved heavy make-up, and instead simply painted over it.
3. Jack Nicholson
If there was any actor who could have benefited from playing the Joker in a stand-alone movie, it was probably Jack Nicholson. Being the first ever “Movie Joker”, following Cesar Romero’s TV stint from two decades ago, Nicholson was tasked with reinventing the wheel, and he went on to give a performance of a lifetime in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, ‘Batman’, which saw Michael Keaton take up the lead Caped Crusader role. While Nicholson gave a darker spin on the character, much closer to his comic book counterparts, he didn’t also completely dispense with the unhinged glee that was such an intrinsic part of the Joker package. It was impossible to take your eyes away from Nicholson’s performance, which greatly overshadowed Keaton’s not-too-shabby Batman portrayal, so much so that critic Roger Ebert wrote that it was important to remember not to root for Joker.
2. Mark Hamill
Despite the cultish fandom surrounding Jack Nicholson’s performance of Joker, the actor who comes out close to topping this list is a person most people might neglect to associate with the character: Mark Hamill. Yup, the very same guy who captivated geeks around the world with earnest take on the lightsabre-wielding Luke Skywalker in the ‘Star Wars’ franchise, gives voice to the most iconic DC villain to have ever existed. Starting from 1992’s ‘Batman: The Animated Series’, the actor has voiced the iconic villain in other animated series, movies and video games. He’s gone on record to say that his key influences in creating the character were Hannibal Lecter and Jerry Lewis, and honestly, we see what he’s talking about. All trace of the innocent Skywalker is gone as he transforms into the deranged Mr J, with his trademark cackle and maniacal energy. We only hope that we’ll someday soon get to see a live-action version.
1. Heath Ledger
Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008) came out six months after Heath Ledger fatally overdosed, but the tragedy couldn’t deflect from the fact that here was an actor who defined a generation. His Joker was a loner, schemer, anarchist and ultimately, a terrorist. But in his portrayal, it was easy to see that Joker and Batman were but two sides of a coin, two “freaks” out to change the world in different ways, and both products of the same society, ready to be cast out at a moment’s notice. Ledger was unafraid to show us the vulnerability behind the chaos and the method to his madness, and all of it clicks into a beautiful portrait of a deeply unhinged man, and he manages to do it all without ever making you root for the character itself. No matter who comes next, Ledger will go down as one of the best actors to portray a comic book villain.
Don’t miss it
‘Joker’ releases in the UAE on October 3.