2020 Oscar Gold: A Tale of Two Jokers

9 Feb

I am a huge fan of Heath Ledger and thought his posthumous 2008 Oscar-winning The Joker in The Dark Knight was one of the few times The Academy got it right. His performance was transcendant, in that it rose above the film’s comic book genre and became something more. It was also noteworthy because playing the role had had a profound effect on the actor himself – even to where many speculated that it contributed to his untimely death. I never put any stock in that theory even though I’m sure playing a homocidal psychopath is probably not the most pleasant day job for an actor.

Fast-forward to 2020 and Joachim Phoenix’s Oscar-nominated reincarnation of The Joker in Todd Phillip’s movie of the same name. This one is no less profound a performance of the titular villain of The Batman mythology. What is even more remarkable is that this is a Best Actor Oscar nomination, whereas Heath Ledger’s was a Best Supporting Actor win. Batman doesn’t even make an appearance (well, not really) in “The Joker” movie, and for all intents and purposes – it’s not really a comic book movie but a gritty, New York City circa 1980s crime story. Phoenix’s “Joker” is the main character and carries the film from start to finish. And that’s where I think things falled apart for me this time around.

I’m a fan of comic books and by extension – comic book movies. I think what moviemakers have been able to do is incredible in bringing beloved superheroes to life, spandex or not. I even understand and appreciate where a movie can have an anti-hero (anti-superhero?) as the main character, such as in “The Joker” movie. But where things took a left turn for me in Phoenix’s characterization of the flashy villain – was that the backstory of his character that fueled an essentially “origin story” movie premise was significantly less-interesting than the character itself. And I can prove it.

Take Heath Ledger’s The Joker: In The Dark Knight, every time Joker engages with someone he is trying to intimidate, he tells them the story of how he got his scars. What is fascinating is that every time he tells his “origin story” it changes. He tailors the tale to the person he is talking to. Now, taking it a step further, director Christopher Nolan has Alfred (Michael Caine) give his own loose version of The Joker’s origin when he tells The Batman (Christian Bale) about his time chasing a bandit in Bhurma who was stealing precious gems,then casting them aside. When Batman asks why he was doing that, Alfred replies: “Because some men don’t want money or power – they just want to see the world burn.” By keeping The Joker’s origin story a mystery – it embued the character with even more depth and depravity. It made Heath Ledger’s character as sympathetic as he was menacing. It was an Oscar-worthy performance in literally half the screen-time of Phoenix’s The Joker. Another classic case of less is more.

I’ll be rooting for Joachim Phoenix at the 2020 Oscars to win. I may not think his performance, or the filmmaking surrounding it rises to the level of Heath Ledger’s now legendary performance – but I still enjoyed the movie and think he deserves to win. And I’m hoping, really hoping this is the last The Joker performance we’ll be seeing on the red carpet for awhile!

JOKER poster

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: