Ledger vs. Nicholson: Who is a better Joker?

I’m going to forgo my usual stock trailer entry where I just present it for your viewing pleasure. I’m also going to forgo a supplemental Top 5 list for now (I’ll do that tomorrow). What I am going to do is do a commentary/preview. Yes, a preview. I’m not going to review a film. I’m going to preview a film. And not just preview it. But put it in a historical perspective, and get a bunch of people pissed at me.

I’m going to incur the wrath of many a movie fan with the following proclamation, but it’s something I feel very strongly about. Even though the release date for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is still around 8 months away, and I have yet to see the actual film and have only seen the trailer (see trailer at the end of the post), Heath Ledger is a better Joker than Jack Nicholson.

What?! BLASPHEMOR! HERECY! HOW DARE YOU! You, sir, are a liar and a braggart! Apparently my reading audience is comprised mostly of villagers from an early 19th century horror novel. Anyway, I’ll say it again for those of you who don’t really believe I said what I just said. HEATH LEDGER IS A BETTER JOKER THAN JACK NICHOLSON!

Why would I say something like that? Especially a full eight months before I’ll be able to see his full actual performance? Well there are many reasons why. And I do intend to explain myself. Trust me, I’m not all talk on this one. I can back it up.

1) The actor is not bigger than the character.

This is the primary reason (hence it’s number). When Batman came out in 1989, he was JACK FUCKIN’ NICHOLSON! He still is. But he was then. Biggest goddamn star in the world. And the way it worked, the movie needed Jack more than Jack needed the movie. And he came in, and was Jack Nicholson. He wasn’t the Joker. He was Jack. It seemed like they had based the character on Jack. Someone explain the difference between the following four characters to me: Randle P. McMurphy, Jack Torrence, Jack Napier/Joker and Frank Costello. The only difference is that when it comes to mainstream pop-culture, The Joker was a pre-existing, long standing character. Sure McMurphy and Torrence existed in novels, and Costello based on an actual guy, but they weren’t part of pop culture till the films came out.

But the Joker has been around for, at the time Batman came out, 50 years. He had a few incarnations in comic books, and on TV by both Ceasar Romero on the live action series in the 60’s and Lennie Weinrib in the 70’s animated series. So he was a long established character for comic book nerds (it’s ok, I’m one of you) and mainstream fans a like. Then JACK FUCKIN’ NICHOLSON comes in. And he’s bigger than god at this point. Meaning he’s also bigger than the character. So Jack’s not going to come in and find the nuance of Jack Napier/The Joker. He’s gonna do whatever the fuck he wants to do. And that’s exactly what he does. He comes into the production, that Tim Burton and Michael Keaton seem pretty jazzed about, and says “So what’s this, a movie about a flying rat? As long as I can watch the Laker game I’ll stand wherever the hell you want me to stand.” It shows in his performance that this is just a paycheck to him. And of course, because he’s JACK FUCKIN’ NICHOLSON he gets one of the most lucrative upfront deals ever brokered. So there it is. Jack is bigger than an iconic character, and it shows, and the audience suffers. Because all we get is Jack Nicolson, sorry, JACK FUCKIN’ NICHOLSON playing JACK FUCKIN’ NICHOLSON, while wearing a funny suit with goofy make-up on.

Fast forward to 16 years later. Batman Begins gets made by Christopher Nolan. Christian Bale and Gary Oldman, two actors widely regarded as the finest of the era, are portraying Batman and Lt. Gordon. Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson and Ken Watanabe were tapped to play the villains. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer and Linus Roache rounded out the supporting cast. Oh… and Katie Holmes was in it too. But that’s 10 Oscar nominations with three wins. You’ve got a cast of consummate professionals, particularly in Bale and Oldman who are known for just burying themselves in their characters.

So what does Nolan do for the sequel? Gets that cast back (this time with a real actress for Rachel Dawes, thank you Maggie Gyllenhaal), and adds two equally fine actors to round out the sequel cast. You get Aaron Eckhart who gave one of the more brilliant performances of 2005 in Thank For Smoking as Harvey Dent. And he gets Heath Ledger. “Who? The kid from A Knight’s Tale? Heath Ledger? That gay cowboy?” Yes the very same. Because believe it or not, Heath Ledger has blossomed into one of my favourite contemporary actors. Really, it’s been since Lords of Dogtown that I finally began to take notice of his talent, as I had initially written him off as a pretty-boy pin-up actor. Then he does Brokeback Mountain, which despite my misgivings with the film (standard love-story hampered by bland filmmaking), still has stand-out performances from all involved, but particularly Ledger.

But Ledger is still Ledger. He’s not HEATH FUCKIN’ LEDGER. He’s just Heath Ledger. But The Joker is THE FUCKIN’ JOKER! Ever since about 2:30am on June 15th, 2005, people have been wondering who is going to play the Joker in the sequel. And then they announced it. Heath Ledger. And at the time, I think I was the only one I knew that really defended the choice. Because I had recently come around to him as an actor, and I had seen what he was capable of. In one year he was four wildly different characters with Skip Engblom (Lords of Dogtown), Jacob Grimm (The Brothers Grimm), Ennis del Mar (Brokeback Mountain) and Casanova (Casanova). I had seen what he could do, and thought he could bring something to the character.

Now that I’ve seen the trailer, and seen him in action, based on a two minute clip, he’s definitely the right choice for the role. Can anyone watch that and tell me that they’re seeing Heath Ledger in that. Is that Heath Ledger playing Heath Ledger with a funny suit and goofy make-up? Or is it Heath Ledger playing The Joker? I think it’s the latter, as opposed to the former. Now go back, watch JACK FUCKIN’ NICHOLSON as the Joker, and try and tell me that it’s not just Jack playing Jack with a funny suit and goofy make-up.

Heath Ledger is not bigger than the character, which makes it easier for him to become the character. And he can do a better job as the character because he can really explore the Joker. Which I think he does.

2) Batman gets top billing

You sure as shit don’t give the villain top billing over the titular hero. But noooooooo, JACK FUCKIN’ NICHOLSON had to be top billing. Above the title on promotions. It was Jack Nicolson in Batman, with Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger. Now, I realize he’s JACK FUCKIN’ NICHOLSON, and don’t get me wrong here, I enjoy most of what he does. But, in Batman, shouldn’t the guy actually playing Batman get top billing? In Batman Begins, there were six names above the title, and who was first? Christian Bale. Christian Bale wasn’t the big star he’s become. Outside of certain circles, people were saying “Christian who?” And he’s getting top billing over Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman (the sixth name was Katie Holmes, but I think at this point, anyone could get billing over Katie Holmes). Because for a Batman movie, the guy playing Batman is the most important. Not the ego of the guy playing the villain.

I had another point to go here, but I think that has come out in my previous two. I just want to take this opportunity to say, that while it may seem like it, this is not an “Anti-Nicholson” rant. I’m a fan of his work, and have a good portion of his good movies. But I’m just tired of hearing everybody say “Well, Heath Ledger’s no Jack Nicholson.” Of course he’s not. If Nolan wanted Nicholson, he would have cast Nicholson. He cast Ledger because he wanted to see what Ledger could bring to the character. Nolan’s quoted as to saying “Because he’s fearless,” when asked “Why Heath Ledger?” Ledger beat out the likes of Paul Bettany, Adrien Brody and Sean Penn for the role. I think we all need to end this love affair with the Nicholson take on Joker, as when you really look at it, it’s just Nicholson in a funny suit with goofy make-up. Ledger actually immerses himself in the character. If you didn’t know that it was Ledger, you wouldn’t know it was Ledger.

Anyway, after pissing off so many fans, I present you with the trailer. This copy doesn’t really do it justice, but I can’t really post the HD versions. Go to the Dark Knight video page here, and check the HD versions for both Quicktime and WMP.

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