We could debate endlessly the effect Heath Ledger’s death had on how people reacted to the Joker.
We could debate endlessly the effect Heath Ledger’s death had on how people reacted to the Joker. Would he have still won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (probably not) and would The Dark Knight have raked in over a billion at the box office (certainly) had he not overdosed in January 2008? But ultimately, it’s fruitless and distracts from the over majesty of his last fully completed role (his actual final role was Tony in The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, but he died before filming was completed).
The Joker embodies everything that was so revolutionary about The Dark Knight Trilogy. He was one of the most comic booky concepts and yet came out of the Nolan think tank as a realistic (as much a psychopathic clown could be), fully rounded human being. What still really amazes me, however, is that while he stole the show as far as iconography goes, the career defining performance didn’t take away from The Dark Knight’s ensemble nature.
But as much as Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s script (taking inspiration from the character’s vast and varied comic history), written with Ledger in mind, had a big part to play in shaping the character, there’s some amazing little tics Heath brought to the role. Famously locking himself away to perfect the characterisation, he came up with these little things that you either don’t notice initially, or don’t appreciate their importance in making such a formidable screen villain. Here are eight of those genius strokes that defined the great actor’s legacy.
Honourable Mention – The Nurse Name Tag Isn’t Anything Significant.
Anyone who says The Dark Knight Trilogy is devoid of laughs really isn’t appreciating the amount of black humour the Joker brought to proceedings. Things like the pencil magic trick are good for a smile, but the biggest chuckle from me has to be the sheer ridiculousness of him appearing dressed in a nurses’ uniform.
Many fans also find a sweetness to this scene; it’s claimed that the nametag of his costume reads Matilda a loving and warped tribute to Ledger’s daughter. Sadly, the only true bit about that is that Ledger did have a daughter called Matilda; the rest is a silly fan rumour no one cared to fact check. The badge is incredibly worn, but if you look close enough on the Blu-Ray you can see it says Nurse Hemming, a little in joke by costume designer Lindy Hemming.
1. He Never Looks At His Victims
Some things about the Joker have an impact on you without you even realising what exactly it is that’s so disturbing. Sure he’s crazy and the calm moments are accentuated by those brief explosions, but what really nags is just how casual he is.
Look at his kills throughout the film; he hardly ever looks at anyone as he takes their last breath (and even when it’s not directly at his hand, like the exploding phone, he stills looks away from the carnage). This isn’t some trait simply imagined up for the film and neither is it a key proponent from the comics; the whole notion is grown out of a throwaway reference in the source. From the comic run The Man Who Laughs (named after the film that directly inspired the original version of the character), the Joker is described as being so ruthless he doesn’t care to look at people at he kills them. Such a key part of the villain from such a hidden source.
I’m not too sure who’s idea it was to include this, but the execution – incredibly non showy – is pure Ledger.
2. He Purposely Made It Different From Jack Nicholson’s
It seems odd to think it now, pre-The Dark Knight everyone thought Jack Nicholson had done the definitive, untoppable Joker performance in Tim Burton’s Batman. Heath Ledger’s casting may have got a general dislike from the public because of his previous work, but for Bat fans the real problem was the futility of going up against what Jack did.
That all seems a bit silly now doesn’t it? Given how different the films are in tone people don’t really compare The Dark Knight to Batman any more. A key proponent of that was how drastically different the two antagonists were. And it wasn’t by any means a happy accident; when creating the character Ledger purposefully ignored the defining performance. Sure, he wouldn’t have lifted anything directly, but this way there was no chance of any connections.
Now the only people who say Nicholson is still king are the same people who delude themselves into thinking the Burton movies come close to Nolan’s (come at me cine-hipsters).
3. He Directed The Joker Terrorist Videos
Second directorial units tend to focus on a film’s action sequences and other bits and bobs that don’t involve the main cast; that’s for the job of the main, ‘first’ team. Christopher Nolan famously works without one, meaning he oversees every moment of shooting to ensure it fits his tight vision (and that his action scenes actually feel like part of, well, the action). But one time he did give up the directing gauntlets. And I’m sure you can guess who to.
Heath Ledger made no secret of wanting to eventually move into directing and even dabbled before his death, making a couple of striking music videos. But as with everything on his list, the reason Nolan gave him this freedom was because of his obsessive understanding of the Joker character.
Giving him the camera and little direction for the first of the Joker’s video messages (the one with the fake Batman), Nolan was so impressed he didn’t see any need to be on set for the second, leaving Ledger to his own devices. Well, he was either impressed, or just saw an opportunity for a break in the mammoth shooting schedule.
4. The Clapping Was Famously Improvised (But Made Iconic By The Trailer)
OK, this isn’t really one you could have escaped before given how often it does to rounds, but at the same time it really should be included. That iconic, sarcastic clapping at Jim Gordon’s promotion stuck with fans because it was so emblematic of the character and it brilliantly came entirely from Ledger on the spot. It’s odd to think of the scene ending rather ignominiously without it, but really stands as testament to how much Ledger understood the character.
One funny little tidbit about this moment you may not have noticed before is how it appears in the trailer; coming at the climax, the Joker’s clap that signals in the crescendo of Hans Zimmer’s theme. Check it out below (it’s at 1:55 in the video). It may not say much about the character but it explains why the pre-release material felt so fresh (and how it was iconic even before the film hit cinemas).
5. That Tongue Stick Out Was Ledger’s Own Personal Tic
Sit down and watch some real life footage of Heath Ledger and the acting achievement of the Joker is only heightened; they have next to nothing in common. The accent, the demeanour (Ledger always seemed pretty chilled in interviews) and obviously the look (it’s not just the prosthetics; his entire face changes when in character) are so distinct that it’s hard to think of them as the same person, an effect helped by Ledger not wanting any behind the scenes footage of him being shot.
There’s only one thing really liking them that’s so subtle you probably haven’t even noticed it before; they both have a tendency to stick their tongue out while speaking. With the Joker it may be a lot more pronounced – check it out in the almost nervous way he prepares himself to torment Rachel – but it’s born out of the actor’s own tic.
Given that with Ledger it’s little beyond a lip smack, it’s hard to notice, but it’s most certainly an adaptation of his own habits to make the Joker feel like a real person.
6. There’s Make Up On His Hands So He Looks Even More Unhinged
Come the end of next month people of all ages will be running around trick or treating/getting drunk dressed as the Joker. Such a simple, immediately memorable look helped make him so enticing in the pre-release and afterwards a perfect Halloween costume. Everyone tends to plump for the clean makeup and purple trench coat, but for my money the look to mimic is the worn, jacketless look he unwittingly sported while locked up in Gordon’s fortress; it’s just so raw.
Although maybe that’s because hidden in that outfit is a cracking eye into what makes the Joker. Diverging from the favoured origin (and thus setting up Man Of Steel’s very lax take on the Superman mythos), Nolan axed the chemical bleaching of the skin in favour of the more traditional makeup. But this wasn’t the clean version we got with Cesar Romero, but a rough and ready application that thinned through the action.
So far, so Nolan. What Ledger added was the notion of Joker having the paint all over his hands, suggesting not only he applied it himself, but was nonplussed by having his hands messy (or, if metaphors are your thing, dirty). At least he was considerate enough to wear gloves when he knew he’d be groping people’s faces.
7. The Explosion Was Planned, The Reaction Wasn’t
It wasn’t just the name badge that fans have wrong about the hospital sequence. When Joker destroys Gotham general because why the hell not and there’s a delay in the explosions, leading to some serious tigger fumbling, many people are quick to assume that the whole moment wasn’t planned.
Not quite, my trivia mistaking friends. Although the delay in the explosion was always intended – there wasn’t any cock up on the pyrotechnics part – Ledger’s reaction certainly wasn’t. The thing is, it’s only the way the Joker reacts to the explosion, drawing attention to the delay, that makes it look like a mistake. Had he just walked off screen (as I assume was originally intended in the script) it’d have look like a simple domino-esque explosion.
When you think about it, it’s a little ridiculous to expect Ledger to react the way he did so spontaneously. If the technical stuff behind the explosions had broken then odds are the take would be useless, so even though he allegedly stayed in character while on set, there’s nothing to be gained from a little bit of extended improv.
8. He Asked Christian Bale To Give Him A Proper Beating
The interrogation scene really splits The Dark Knight in two; we’ve reached the point where another less daring superhero movie would end (with it’s Harlem brawl The Incredible Hulk did) and are now poised to leap into the psychotic explosion of madness the Joker has set up. It’s a cracking sequence that really pushes just how far the Joker can go. And, it seems from behind the scenes stories, Heath Ledger too.
In a shocking pre-filming aside that rivals George Lucas telling Mark Hamill just who Darth Vader was, Heath Ledger asked Christian Bale to hit him as hard as Batman would. A pretty startling ask made only more amazing by the criticism of many fans against The Dark Knight Rises that it was clear the blows weren’t hitting.
This is the purest example of the lengths Ledger was willing to go for authenticity in the character, showing a devotion that most method actors would baulk at, and it more than shows up on screen.
Know of any more Heath Ledger-isms that he incorporated into his Joker? Tell us them in the comments below.