10 years of The Dark Knight: the insane campaign to stop Heath Ledger playing The Joker
“This award tonight would have humbly validated Heath's quiet determination to be accepted by you all here, his peers, within an industry he so loved,” these were the words of Kim Ledger, the father of Heath Ledger, as he collected his son's Best Supporting Actor Oscar on February 22, 2009.
For once, the announcement of that year's winner wasn't met with respectful smiles, but straight faces, as Kim, joined by his wife Sally Bell and their daughter Kate, walked up to collect the award on behalf of Ledger's three-year-old daughter.
Ledger had died, exactly 13 months earlier, from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs at the age of 28. He was recognised by the Academy for his "menacing, mercurial, droll and diabolic" Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, released 10 years ago in July 2008.
Needless to say, it was a poignant moment. Ledger's death, which happened shortly after he had received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain, shocked and saddened his family, fans and the film industry. There had been a sense that the accolade had been some time coming. As Kate told the Oscars audience, “Heath, we both knew what you had created in the joker was extraordinarily special and had even talked about you being here on this special day.”
In this context, it was difficult to remember the scorn that was poured upon Ledger's casting as the Joker in July 2006. But Nolan was roundly criticised for choosing the actor to play the Batman villain over the likes of Robin Williams, Steve Carell and Paul Bettany, all of whom had expressed interest in the role.
Part of this was due to Ledger's earlier roles – as closeted gay cowboy Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain the year before (in spite of it earning him an Oscar nomination), and bad boy Patrick Verona in the teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You.
But misplaced prejudice definitely played its part, too. Certain sections of the comic book community found it difficult to understand that Ledger could play the Joker merely because he had also played Ennis, and there was plenty of room for homophobia to cloud objective opinion. Forum users posted comments such as: "I won't be able to watch it. I'll keep expecting him to have sex with Batman. YUCK!" Numerous others made "BrokeBat Mountain" and "Gay Batman" jokes.
Others thought that "pretty boy" Ledger, who had risen to fame as a Noughties heartthrob, wouldn't be able to bring sufficient malice to the twisted character: "Heath Ledger's face says 'boy next door.'"
"Seeing him dance around like the Joker would be more of a 'laugh at' than 'laugh with' thing", wrote one commenter. "Joker is seriously a screwed-up character and I don't think that Ledger has what it takes to portray that," concluded another.
"Sorry but Heath Ledger doesn't carry the weight necessary to play this crucial role," posted forum user BwanaBob. Rumored to have been in the running was Christopher Eccleston (Elizabeth, Gone in 60 Seconds, etc). He would have been a much better choice. My excitement for this movie has just plunged."
Elsewhere, users believed that women's admiration for Ledger as an actor would dampen his performance as The Joker. One commenter posted: "I imagine it will be hard to immerse myself in the dark setting of [The Dark Knight] with Mandy turning to Cindy giggling and saying, 'Oh my god, his dimples are sooo cute... he is so hot."
But it wasn't just antagonistic forum posters who were sticking the knife in. Pop culture blog i-mockery.com were also unconvinced by Ledger as the Joker, writing in 2006:
When I first heard rumours about Heath being considered for the role, I simply thought to myself, "Yeah right, there's no way they'd go with that guy for the zenith of comic bad guys!" And yet here many of us are, confounded with how he got the role, let alone was even considered for it. I mean look at the guy, he's not the kind of person you look at and go, "You know, he looks just like The Joker!"
With time, the anti-Ledger Batman brigade was soon won over by the Australian's eccentric, troubling performance as the superhero's nemesis – and curiously little was mentioned about his previous, acclaimed roles in the wake of the film's release and Ledger's death.
Skepticism continued to reign though. In December 2007, in these pages, Catherine Shoard reviewed the newly released trailer for The Dark Knight by saying: "Slo-mo can't quite dampen one's fears about the new Batman. Or, rather, fears about the casting of Heath Ledger as The Joker - looking like a boozy clown after a long children's party, all smeary lipstick and sledgehammer cynicism."
Days earlier, even Jack Nicholson had shared his thoughts, although one suspect his tongue was firmly in cheek: "The Joker; I know how to do that," Nicholson told MTV on the red carpet in Hong Kong. "Nobody ever asked me... Maybe it's not a mistake. Maybe it was the right thing [to do].But to be candid, I'm furious. I'm not inclined to watch it because of what I said. But if it's a good movie, I'll catch up with it somewhere. I don't think they ever really captured Tim Burton's spirit. They kind of drove the franchise into the ground."
Nolan, of course, was thoroughly behind his choice. "Our challenge in casting The Joker was to find an actor who is not just extraordinarily talented but fearless," the director said when the news broke in 2006. "Watching Heath Ledger's interpretation of this iconic character taking on Christian Bale's Batman is going to be incredible."
Ledger explained his own take on the role in an interview that took place later in 2006. "You know, I want it to be a very sinister kind of thing," he told IGN. "It's so early that I'm trying to leave it open at this point and I don't want to be glued down to any one idea. I've been kind of trying to delay my commitment to the preparation process on that because I'm just trying to extend my holiday. I definitely have an image in my head and I definitely have something up my sleeve."
But his co-stars were complimentary, too. In an interview in November 2007, Michael Caine shed some light on what would become Ledger's best-known character: "The problem with playing The Joker, " he told The Express, "is how do you top Jack Nicholson? But Heath is absolutely fantastic. I couldn't see how anyone could beat Jack, but Heath is at the very least his equal. It's extraordinary.
"Jack's Joker was a nasty old uncle, but Heath's Joker is a maniacal, murderous psychopath. And when you see the make-up, he looks like he's mentally gone. He first puts it on in the movie to disguise himself for a raid, and then never washes it off. Gradually it comes to look like leprosy. It's quite weird."
Furthermore, he seemed only to antagonist the comic book hardcore by noting that he'd never really read them, a fact he thought was "kind of helping me a little bit, the fact that I was never really a fan."
Were those naysaying forum users the same ones who posted death threats underneath film critic Marshall Fine's negative review of The Dark Knight before it went on general release 18 months later? Who knows. But Ledger's last laugh remains on screen – a decade later, the film is still considered one of the greatest ever made.