Yesterday marked the seventh anniversary of the death of actor Heath Ledger. All of us that frequent this site know of him because of his portrayal of The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s epic, The Dark Knight. While it is truly sad that this fine actor was taken from this world far too soon, let us celebrate the actor by examining the role that he will forever be linked to.
I can still remember when I first heard about Heath Ledger’s casting as The Joker. The world was a happier place (comic book movie-wise, anyway) because Batman Begins helped erase the foul stench of Batman and Robin from our nostrils. The end of the movie produced a huge Easter egg by revealing that the villain of the next film would be The Joker. Then we heard that Christopher Nolan cast Heath Ledger as the iconic Batman villain; and the internet went crazy. Many (including me) were confused. At the time, Heath Ledger’s biggest role was in Brokeback Mountain. Then the jokes and memes began. I can’t remember anyone defending the casting choice. In fact, it was the opposite. It really looked as though Nolan really made a critical error in casting The Joker. How was this guy going to bring the role to life the way Jack Nicholson did in 1989? He couldn’t! I remember seeing set photos of Heath Ledger with his long, scraggly hair (which was barely green) and being very confused and disappointed. I didn’t like the way this Joker looked. I was ready for a huge let-down.
Then we got our first official glimpse of Heath Ledger as the Clown Prince of Crime. The viral marketing campaign for the Dark Knight was in full force and the image of the Joker was revealed slowly over the course of the weekend, pixel by pixel. It was a brilliant campaign but maddening. We finally got to see The Joker and I remember being underwhelmed overall, but I liked the scars on his face that formed his smile. I thought that was a neat take on the character, wondering how he got those scars.
As time wore on and we saw trailers for the movie, I became more impressed with what I was seeing. Maybe Nolan knew what he was doing. Could it be that the entire internet was wrong about the casting of Heath Ledger? The time was fast approaching where our questions would be answered and our fears allayed (or confirmed).
When the bank raid to The Dark Knight was released in IMAX theaters seven months before the film’s release, our fears were definitely allayed. I really liked the way Ledger handled the role and it seemed as though the internet agreed with me. Now we just had to wait until July to see the finished film.
Then tragedy struck on January 22nd, 2008. Heath Ledger died and there were numerous rumors about his death. I remember hearing that he took his role of the Joker so seriously that he became an insomniac and that’s why he overdosed on medication. Then there was the rumor that he was warned by Jack Nicholson about taking on the role and the darkness that surrounds it. There seemed to be a new rumor about Heath’s death and its ties to the role of the Joker. Sadly, there were many that were concerned with how his death would affect the release of The Dark Knight, ignoring the fact that a child just lost her father and a family was grieving for their lost member.
When the movie was released in July, I got to see it opening weekend, and so did the rest of the U.S. I was mesmerized by Heath Ledger’s performance. He was absolutely perfect in the role and brought the house down. His performance in the film was one for the ages. This Joker was so much different from any take on the character that I had ever seen on film or in the comics. He didn’t use the traditional Joker gags and he certainly wasn’t a clown. His appearance wasn’t the result of a chemical bath. He wore white make-up, almost like war paint. No one knew the true origin of his scarred grin. He was, as he stated, “an agent of chaos.” And it was glorious chaos. He stole the show completely and his version of The Joker has now become THE interpretation of the character. His performance was universally loved, earning him a posthumous Oscar and the adoration of movie lovers everywhere. But it was a bit jarring when The Joker gave Batman his little speech at the end of the film about being “destined to do this forever”, knowing that was not to be.
Rumor has it that Ledger’s death had an effect on the next film in the series. There was a chance that there wouldn’t be another Christopher Nolan Batman movie. There were numerous rumors about the role The Joker was to play in that film. He wouldn’t be the central villain, but he would play a part in the film. Eventually, Nolan would return and we got the final film in his trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.
Heath Ledger taught all of us a very valuable lesson in film casting: don’t react too quickly when a role is cast. When he was cast as The Joker, it was one of the most hated casting decisions at the time. But he showed us that he was perfect for that part. As a result, I haven’t been as quick to judge when a role is cast (Ben Affleck, anyone?) now. I’ll watch the movie, and then decide if I like the actor in that role.
Rest in peace, Heath Ledger. Thank you for your interpretation of The Joker and leaving your mark on the role forever. No matter who is cast in that role going forward, yours will always be the benchmark which others will be compared to.