From Conrad Veidt to Joaquin Phoenix - a history of the Joker on screen
Who’s laughing now? Not Joaquin Phoenix, if reports of the demands he placed upon his body when portraying comic book villain in upcoming movie Joker are to be believed.
The actor is said to have shed 23 kilos in order to play an emaciated version of Batman’s most famous foe for the DC movie, out next month.
“You start to go mad when you lose that amount of weight in that amount of time,” Phoenix admitted. He was speaking at a screening of Joker at the Venice Film Festival, which received an eight-minute standing ovation.
Yet if early reviews are any clue, Phoenix may not be the only one driven around the twist by Joker. The advance word is that this is one of the most challenging comic book adaptations yet — a film that plunges so deeply into its anti-hero’s twisted psyche that it becomes difficult to distinguish lucidity and insanity. The shiny, fundamentally happy universe of Captain America, Iron Man, etc, will never have felt further away.
This is revolutionary. How many superhero films have previously essentially come with health warnings? Yet it is also true to the Joker, the perennial awkward weirdo in the comic book pack.
He’s been Batman’s foe almost from the very start. The Dark Knight was a hit the moment he made his debut in Detective Comics in 1939. The following spring he was given his own stand-alone comic book. His very first foe was a evil clown with a painted on smile. One of the great love/hate dynamics in the genre had been born (Batman and the Joker may be eternal antagonists — but without the other, would they have a reason to exist?)
The Joker had a real-life inspiration. Conrad Veidt was a famous German actor of the silent era. Perhaps his greatest performance was as a prince with a permanent grin carved in his face in an 1928 adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel The Man Who Laughs. Though hardly remembered today, the film was a huge hit at the time, its US$1m budget being extremely high for its day.
It is also extremely creepy, thanks to Veidt’s performance as the always smiling and in the end quasi-insane Gwynplaine. It certainly left an impression with Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, the DC Comics power-trio who created the Joker.
“The Joker looks like Conrad Veidt,” Kane would say. “Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, ‘Here’s the Joker.’”
Veidt is today forgotten. The Joker will, by contrast, live forever. That’s partly because he’s that rare comic book creation that truly slips under the skin and chills you to the bone. He has no super powers. The only thing that sets him apart is his madness. Or is it the ultimate sanity? A willingness to acknowledge the world as it truly is — chaotic and cruel — where the rest of us believe in such myths as human decency and the inevitable triumph of good over evil?
That the Joker might actually be the sanest among us was the premise of the Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum (1989). A graphic novel with the depth and ambition of great literature, it argued that the Joker was actually completely lucid but had to whip himself into insanity every day to deal with the cruelty and unpredictability of the world.
Arkham Asylum became a key Batman text. It’s tempting to think that Heath Ledger studied it closely when preparing to play the smiling sociopath in 2009’s The Dark Knight. His Joker is anarchy personified. The Dark Knight goes out of its way not to give him an origin story. The idea is that the Joker is as inevitable as war, famine and the basest human instincts. He lives in us all.
It was a powerhouse turn and deservedly won Ledger the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (Ledger had died of an accidental drug overdose and so the award was accepted by his family). But is Ledger the definitive Joker? This is a little like the ‘who was the best James Bond?’ argument (to which the correct answer is, of course, Pierce Brosnan).
Your feelings on the matter will depend on your age and how unhinged you like your cray-cray villains.
Ledger aside, the definitive Joker is considered to be Cesar Romero, who played the camped-up version on the hippy-dippy Sixties Batman show. Romero was already a well-known actor and veteran of Hollywood westerns from the 30s to the 50s by the time he came to slap on Joker’s white mascara. He was a cackling, somewhat comedic presence.
Romero, however, didn’t commit 100pc to the part. He refused to shave off his moustache. If you look carefully, you can see under the make-up.
Of all the big-screen Jokers, the one perhaps truest to the comic books was Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. His Joker had an origin story vaguely connected to the original strips.
In the comic, the Joker starts out as a villain named Red Hood, who tries to provide for his family by robbing banks.
On a raid on a factory one night he’s cornered by Batman. He escapes by jumping into a vat of chemicals. This transforms him into…well, you’ve already guessed. That storyline is cribbed by Burton. He gives us one Jack Napier, a high-ranking criminal who, just like Red Hood, takes a toxic bath after a face-off with Bruce Wayne.
Burton’s twist is that, though Batman created the Joker, the Joker also created Batman. Decades previously, Napier shot Wayne’s parents in front of their son and set Master Bruce on the path to bat-based crime-fighting. He is responsible for the avenging vigilante we know and love today.
Nicholson’s Joker was merrily over the top — as ridiculous, in his way, as Romero’s. The actor sparkled with glee. Clearly he hadn’t taken the Phoenix route of starvation dieting or gone to the dark side psychologically, as Ledger had.
Nonetheless, he felt his portrayal was definitive and seemed miffed when, 20 years on, Ledger stole his thunder. “Let me be the way I’m not in interviews. I’m furious. I’m furious,” Nicholson would say. “They never asked me about a sequel with the Joker. I know how to do that, nobody ever asked me.”
One actor who was never going to be realistically asked to come back as the Joker was Jared Leto, whose turn in Suicide Squad was deeply divisive.
It didn’t help that the 2016 film itself was a blaring, ineptly scripted mess (“So that’s it, huh? We’re some kind of Suicide Squad,” says Will Smith’s Deadshot at one point). Still, even divorced from Suicide Squad, Leto’s Joker was the worst of both worlds: creepy without the charisma, evil but not fascinating.
Leto had apparently gone all in on the part. He is said to have sent fellow cast members dead animals and condoms in order to dial up the uncanny factor. Yet that couldn’t save his Joker from being a sneery snooze. Just three years later, Phoenix’s reimagining of the great villain already feels overdue.
He certainly looks set to embody the contradictions that were from the start encoded into the Joker. As a student at Columbia University, Jerry Robinson, one of the trio of Joker creators, had read of how human personalities can pull in several directions at once.
That is what makes the Joker so memorable: he’s a bad guy with a keen sense of humour, a clown with a homicidal streak, a lunatic who wants to make the entire world his asylum.
Read more: Is Joker a danger to society?
“I wanted somebody visually exciting,” Robinson would say.
“I wanted somebody that would make an indelible impression, would be bizarre, would be memorable like the Hunchback of Notre Dame or any other villains that had unique physical characters.”
Joker is released October 4