I wanted to write about the Joker today because actors are fascinated with roles like this. Maybe you’ve heard it said that the Joker role has become this generation’s Hamlet. The parallels between the Joker and Hamlet are easy to see. It’s one of the few characters in modern times that has transcended the comic book genre and become almost Shakespearean.
As the “Hamlet of villains,” loads of top-level actors have wanted to take a crack at the role. Even though the character was created in 1940, Caesar Romero was the first actor to portray the character in the 1960s Batman television series. At the time, the character was not seen as multi-layered and complex; Romero played him as a clown.
It was Jack Nicholson who took the character to a dark place in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie. Nicholson played the character with Mafioso flair, almost like a gangster. Interestingly, other actors considered for that movie include David Bowie, Willem Dafoe, Brad Dourif, Tim Curry, and even Robin Williams.
The next live action Joker was Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight, and it was reportedly tough stepping into such big shoes; Nicholson’s character was so iconic. Some say Nicholson made the Joker an extension of his silver screen identity, conversely, the character engulfed Ledger, and he disappeared into it. Ledger’s Joker was more cunning and tactical than the Nicholson character, and certainly qualifies as iconic, even immortal.
Suicide Squad was next, in 2015, and Jared Leto played the Joker. This character was not well-received, we hear stories about how hard Leto was to work with, and how he took “method acting” too far. This Joker was more cyber punk and thug-like. Moving on…
In 2019, the Joker finally gets title billing in Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. Phoenix shows the Clown Prince of Crime’s slow decent into madness, done so brilliantly that you actually relate to Joker, you feel his pain, you almost root for him. Exploring themes surrounding mental illness and isolation, Phoenix portrays the character not at all as a showman but rather as a lost loner. Amazing acting.
Irrespective of the actor playing this coveted role, one thing is clear: Joker represents chaos no matter what form he takes whereas Batman represents order. Shakespearean, right?
Do you have a favorite Joker?