Features and Columns · Movies

The Original Oscar Winning Clown Prince of Crime

We look back at what made Heath Ledger’s Joker so remarkable.
anticipated films 2008 The Dark Knight
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on February 12th, 2020

Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles.

“It’s the most fun I’ve had with a character and probably will ever have,” Heath Ledger told MTV News in late 2007 – two months before his untimely death – about his performance in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This quote alone seems to demystify the entire image we have in our heads of Ledger and his complex performance as the Joker. We know he famously isolated himself in a hotel room for six weeks when creating the character, formulating “a voice and a posture and found a real psychology” to the role. In the months leading up to filming, he kept a diary filled with dark images and ideas that would crystallize his performance on set. While never released to the public, you can see glimpses in the documentary about his life, Too Young To Die.

From an outsider’s perspective that journal can look like the ravings of a mad actor losing himself in a role. But losing yourself in a performance doesn’t equate to losing control of yourself. Because part of what makes Heath Ledger’s Joker so extraordinary is how much control he has over his character. And that control only comes from extensive, exhaustive preparation.

You can see this clearly in the brief peeks at his diary. It’s brimming with the imagery he was using to inspire himself, ranging from Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange to wild animals like hyenas. If you look closely at the writing, you’ll notice that it’s a mix of in-character journaling and monologues that he’s handwritten out. These exercises for an actor are not only a way to learn your lines, but also can be used as touchstones to quickly pull yourself into character. It’s a way of mimicking the thought process so as to make your character’s words your own. Reading these journals back to yourself helps blur the lines of reality so it’s easier for you to be present as your character on set.

Being able to quickly do this is vital, because method acting doesn’t mean staying in character 24/7, inconveniencing crew members, or sending dead pigs to your first read-through. The Method was just a way to describe Konstantin Stanislavski’s teachings that evolved through the 20th century by practitioners like Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, and Lee Strasberg who put their own unique spin on the process. This inspired actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean to make emotional realism popular at a time when realism wasn’t always expected of an actor. Method acting plainly is feeling emotional resonance with a character and conveying that in a lived-in, realistic manner. And that doesn’t need to be arduous to be effective.

And it’s not even how it’s taught. Acting typically is learned with the caveat that solely using personal emotional experiences to prepare for a role can be mentally unhealthy. That’s why actors develop these ways to easily slip in and out of character so they are not constantly living with the weight of the part they play.

That’s conceivably all Ledger’s diary is. It’s not the rantings of an actor who has lost touch with reality. It’s a catalog of his method, something he could refer to on set to put him back into the frame of mind he developed in that hotel room. It’s the safety net he weaved so that he could stay grounded in the role. And grounding the Joker is part of what makes his characterization so electrifying.

It’s not a stretch to say that there’s a performative aspect of the Joker that’s baked into every live-action version. Jack Nicholson borrowed from Cesar Romero for his own brand of cartoon lunacy, goaded on by Tim Burton’s comic aesthetic. Jared Leto showed us what the Joker would look like as a juvenile, trolling Soundcloud rapper. Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, a manic pixie incel lost in Gotham’s social services system, is an egoist representation of a character performing solely for himself.

But Ledger’s Joker, especially in the scenes with Batman in the interrogation room and Harvey Dent in the hospital, has this laser-sharp connection between his co-stars. The energy of those scenes fluctuates between the actors as they volley their dialogue back and forth, exemplifying the adage of “acting is reacting”. Ledger’s not making a conscious choice to “act crazy”, rather he is letting his given circumstances inform how he is in the scene. It’s why the Joker’s dialogue, despite the vocal effects, sounds like it’s coming from a real person, and not a comic book character.

But in spite of his commitment to emotional realism, Ledger still stays true to the Joker’s larger-than-life personality. He adopts exaggerated mannerisms like a Tom Waits-esque voice or a physicality not unlike Jerry Lewis in The Bellhop. Scene to scene, Ledger keenly adjusts these affectations, using his tics to purposefully mislead the audience as to who the Joker really is, much like how the screenplay changes the story of how he got his scars throughout the film. It gives purpose to his choices, grounding them in an emotional truth about the character. Christopher Nolan said of Ledger’s work:

“What I like about them all is they all feel that they come from the character. They don’t feel like actorly touches. I read them as genuinely part of the fabric of a real human being.”

All of the meticulousness that went into Ledger’s performance, down to his hands-on approach to his character’s make-up, clothing, and props all say one thing to me: he had the time of his life creating this role. Remember, people initially hated the idea of a Heath Ledger Joker. And since no actor lives in a vacuum, he must have known what was being said about his casting.

But I ultimately think it’s what helped drive his performance. If no one believes you can do something – but you believe in yourself – you’ve got nothing to lose, right? If people expect you to fail, you have the freedom to go for broke. This sort of “fuck ‘em!” attitude inspires its own kind of confidence – one that is perfect for Joker – and could have been the spark he needed to throw himself into this fun, meaty role.

The Joker didn’t kill Heath Ledger – that can be blamed on prescription drugs and addiction – but the moviegoing public still likes to glamorize serious acting as something that is tortuous. That the greatest performances can only come from some dangerous ringer an actor must put themselves through.

But actors that take their craft seriously, as Ledger did, don’t do it because it’s some emotional endurance test that’ll bag them awards. They do it because it fulfills them. Why do you think so many actors continue to work well into their nineties? There is a joy that comes from building a character and allowing yourself to play in this adult version of pretend. What one person sees as an obsessive actor, I see as an excited artist. And no one was more excited about what Heath Ledger was able to do in The Dark Knight than Heath Ledger.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)