Jan 24, 2020
by Diane McCurdy, Film and Book Reviews
The Joker, spawn of the DC Universe, is an arch-villain who has captured the imagination of the American public for decades. He is Batman's nemesis, usually flamboyantly attired, clownish but sinister.
In 1966, the TV series cast Caesar Romero to play the evil buffoon. Romero was an unusual choice because he was your typical dark and handsome Latin Lover and a dancer. When asked how he could slip into a role so against type he said, "When you get into an outfit like that you fall right into it." The Joker just emerged with the clothing. In 1989, Jack Nicholson was the malevolent jester in Tim Burton's adaptation of the comic book. Burton often times has a dark vision which suited Nicholson's own dim visual imaging of the character. Perhaps Heath Ledger made 2008's rendition of the story the most famous or notorious because of his death due to an drug overdose shortly after it was released. A method actor, Ledger had spent weeks locked in a London hotel room alone in order to inhabit the persona of the demonic clown. In 2016's Suicide Squad, Jared Leto assumed the role . He starred along with Will Smith and Margot Robbie. The actor is a little bizarre in his personal life so he added a particularly maniacal touch to his portrayal. In keeping with his character he would offer the cast and crew "gifts" of live rats, condoms, and even a dead pig!
In 2017, Zach Galifianakis of the over the top Hangover movie voiced the crime clown in the animated Lego Batman Movie. It featured frenetic action, Bat songs and jokes that targeted previous films. There have been myriad animated features and video games that have used the clown as a protagonist that will be skipped. This one is mentioned only because it received a 90% rating by the critics and took in 300 million at the box office!
The most recent film starring Joaquin Phoenix provides the origin story. Why is this guy so twisted and sadistic? It is brutally nihilistic and audacious in its unpleasantness. Even with its ultimate artistry it is not always easy to watch. The director, Todd Phillips, is mostly known for comedies but in this he goes way beyond solemnity into Shakespearean tragedy. In an odd but maybe clever bit of casting Robert De Niro plays a late night TV talk show host. Frances Conroy from the TV series "Six Feet Under" plays the Joker's mother. She is a semi-invalid in the dark, drab, depressing apartment where they live. Arthur Fleck, the Joker's alter ego, has been undone by outrageous misfortune. He has been bullied, ridiculed, betrayed and abandoned. All this angst is set against a background that is equally squalid, a dimly lit , rat rampant, garbage strewn Gotham City. It is a tour de force performance for Phoenix.
Three previous Jokers were all Oscar winners. Jack Nicholson won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets , Health Ledger for The Dark Knight and Jared Leto for The Dallas Buyer's Club. It is a tough act to follow but Joaquin Phoenix lives up to the challenge.
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