Todd Phillips’ Joker continues its unlikely reign at the top of the box office, despite the storm of controversy it has endured since before its release. Joaquin Phoenix seems like a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, at the very least, and maybe another statuette will go the clown prince of crime. What is it about this character that draws such deep, evocative, career-defining darkness from the stars who play him? In this article, I will speculate on the stranger side of playing the villain to end all villains. You don’t even need to like the films in question to appreciate the commitment of these actors, hunting the homicidal harlequin through the funhouse convolutions of their own haunted psychologies.
Even the critiques of Joker that dismiss the film as a whole begrudgingly admit that Joaquin’s performance, on which the film is built, is passionate and fascinating. Even nay-sayers are mesmerized by this consummate method actor at the peak of his powers focusing all the introspective energy that lit up his performances in Walk The Line, The Master, and You Were Never Really Here on a portrait of a mass murderer in the process of finding himself. If anything, the haters argue, Joaquin’s commitment to the performance deepens the film’s problematic nature, in that it subtly coerces us into empathy with a narcissistic sociopath who is on the brink of embracing mayhem as his vocation. The irresponsible undercurrent to presenting this moral vacuum as pop spectacle is open to endless debate, but even in the concept stages, this film was always a recipe for genius and chaos. When a professionally obsessive actor like Phoenix explores an archetype as charged with iconic energy and spooky showbiz voodoo as The Joker, some kind of chaos was bound to get summoned. Thus far, this particular invocation does not have a body count.
Something about this character seems to insist on such an absolute commitment in the process of bringing that anarchic energy into flesh. The first attempt (by the dashing Cesar Romero) theatrically kept the character’s more devilish aspects at a distance that tonally matched and counterpointed Adam West’s cartoon of moral rectitude. I suspect the possession-style psychological trauma inflicted on actors by the Joker’s later representations might have been instinctively averted by Romero through his insistence on keeping his mustache. In the same way, I suspect that voice actors who have been inhabited by animated Jokers are somewhat protected from complete psychic invasion by their disembodiment.
However, on the big screen, at much greater expense and with greater viral exposure, the Joker’s invocation has taken its toll on those who have chosen to channel it. There are residual genetic memories of the ancient pagan temple still alive in our experience of the cinema, where we collectively consume mythology through the ear and eye, seeking wonder in a wonder-starved world and consolation in the midst of chaos and survival strategies in the midst of uncertainty and occasionally, an initiatory confrontation with the abyss in us when we are called to become something other.
Experimental auteur Kenneth Anger has called cinema an inherently evil art, and I don’t think he’s wrong. The passionate practice of it invites many forms of madness. A serious attempt to “play” the Joker seems to insist on a kind of voodoo. Comics writer Grant Morrison has suggested in his handling of the character that Joker represents a caucasian culture avatar of Baron Samedhi, the Haitian voodoo loa, who embodies the antithetical energies of sex and death, always laughing in skeleton make-up and opera jacket and top hat, possessing random worshippers in the frenzy of their dancing, making fools of all the powerful people, drinking enough rum to kill a horse, desecrating the temple of the body he’s in.
Jack Nicholson was allegedly in one of the most decadent phases of an infamously decadent life when he chewed up the funhouse Gothic scenery of Tim Burton’s Batman. His reckless spasmodic chemistry electrifies the screen whenever he appears. He would later speak of the dangerous attractions of the character: as an actor, you’re always trying not to go over the top. With Joker, there is no top. Nicholson reportedly dined with Heath Ledger when Ledger was just cast in the role in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, explaining those dangers, suggesting that too close of an identification with a character like this might do some damage. It doesn’t look like Ledger listened.
Ledger’s preparation process involved holding up in a room at the Chateau Marmont for a month, cutting himself off from most human contact, avoiding sleep by any means necessary to enter a fractured, paranoid headspace, and keeping an extensive collage diary in the voice of the Joker, incorporating photographs of killers and clowns and passages from various Joker comics (mostly Morrison’s). His incandescent invocation of Joker as angel of anarchy, a chaos god from nowhere with apparent special forces training, living to fuck with the billionaire vigilante whose ego is so huge he needs two of them. To say that his commitment to the unique demands of the Joker role killed Heath ledger would be facile and irresponsible. Nonetheless, he was dead of chemical complications a few months after shooting ceased, and he received a posthumous Oscar for dancing so perfectly while his mind was filled and driven by a voodoo god of death.
Jared Leto’s palpable narcissism does seem to capture a certain facet of the Joker in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, and he is visually interesting, but this was an underwritten Joker, and Leto seems to be trying too hard.
Joaquin’s Joker is obviously the fruit of deep commitment and an application of The Method to its utmost extreme, but he seems in public to have processed the experience in a balanced fashion. Through the slightly spooky but metaphorically true lens of my argument, I’d suggest that the soul-shredding temptations of the character might have been mitigated in Joker by several factors: the character is given its own dismal but reflective world to bloom in that does not hinge on the shadow of Batman, the character is not presented aspirationally like previous diabolically glamorous and highly functioning Jokers, and by exploring a possible origin story for the first time, the filmmakers invoke not just the horror of the character but also the trauma that makes him so dangerous. And they put us through it, a little bit. The chaos is contained in the text of the film, and in the discourse that has ensued around it.
A fictional character who has affected human psychology on these levels and to these lengths is worth talking about. Like the most resonant and resilient archetypes, the Joker can play the vessel for so many symbologies and projections. He will, in one form or another, haunt us forever. Joker will always mean what you want him to mean and then make that meaning seem crazy.