When Heath Ledger played the Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight” and won a posthumous Oscar a year later, his take on the green-haired, clown-faced Batman supervillain set a garishly high bar for anyone who dared to play the character after him.
Then Joaquin Phoenix colored his hair, slapped on some face paint and perfected a maniacal cackle. It’s not exactly the cinematic equivalent of “Hold my beer” but pretty close.
When the 92nd Academy Awards goes down Sunday night (ABC, 8 EST/5 PST), Phoenix is expected to win the best actor Oscar for “Joker” – and the only person who may be able to stop him is a Caped Crusader crashing through the Dolby Theatre roof. If victorious, it’ll be only the second time in history two actors have scored an Academy Award playing the same character: “The Godfather” star Marlon Brando took best actor in 1973 for Mafia boss Vito Corleone, the role that garnered Robert De Niro a supporting actor trophy two years later for “The Godfather: Part II.”
The killing joke
The heavyweight debate about the best Don Corleone is for another time. More of the moment is who will history view as the best Joker of them all: Ledger, whose legend has lived on far past his fatal overdose, or his friend Phoenix, who’s called Ledger “my favorite actor”?
Even with an Oscar win this weekend, Ledger’s legacy is undoubtedly safe.
The two versions look similar on their colorful facade but they are very different portrayals. In “Joker,” Phoenix’s troubled outcast Arthur Fleck suffers from mental health issues and constant bullying, and one violent and fateful night on a commuter train leads him down a dark path toward becoming a nihilistic symbol for Gotham City’s downtrodden population. It’s essentially an origin story, whereas “Dark Knight” is an excellently told Batman tale in which Ledger’s Joker is a mercurial agent of chaos who inserts himself into Gotham’s underworld but mainly wants to watch the world burn.
The latter is a purer distillation of the bad guy from the comic books whose mysterious background is core to his identity. “Joker” clearly charts the journey to an antagonistic nature and even how he got his name. Ledger’s “Dark Knight” villain wonderfully plays with an audience wanting to know his origins: His Joker has multiple stories at the ready about how he got his infamous mouth scars – one involves an alcoholic father, another his gambling ex-wife – and Ledger sells it so you want to believe him but know you can’t.
Ledger also benefits from having a worthy adversary, in his case Christian Bale’s Batman. So much of the intriguing depth Ledger brings to Joker comes alive in their faceoffs. Phoenix doesn’t really have that sort of scene partner – his fight is more against society. (The Dark Knight is a kid when “Joker” takes place, so Arthur meeting young Bruce Wayne involves a red clown nose rather than a Batarang.)
Still, Phoenix brings exceptional artistry to his Joker. Arthur’s emotional transformation goes hand in hand with his physical alterations: Contrast the way Arthur painfully trudges up a long flight of stairs to his apartment near the beginning of the film to the way he confidently bounds down that same route in full Joker regalia. Then there’s how Arthur’s first taste of violence leads to a freaky little dance he does, wordlessly, to the sounds of a haunting cello score.
Each Joker’s charms
Phoenix’s character is a tormented soul yet Ledger’s Joker revels in the madness he causes, making him that much more enjoyable for a viewer. He does weird little things like fixing his hair with a knife, sticking his head outside the window of a speeding police car in pure delight, or dressing up as a female nurse and blowing up a hospital. Ledger’s anarchist is so incomparably charming that it’s impossible not to root for him on some deep, dark level.
The Joker might in time become like Macbeth or Hamlet, a tragic jester of Shakespearean proportions that actors take on to test themselves. Phoenix may reprise the role for a “Joker” sequel or perhaps yet another take with a younger star is on the horizon – say, Timothee Chalamet if Robert Pattinson’s new movie Batman needs a clown prince of crime.
Whoever’s next will just have to grin and bear it. Ledger’s Joker casts a long shadow, even over Phoenix’s award-winning portrayal, as a dastardly dynamo the likes of which we may never see again.