Why The Joker Is A Magnet for Awards Buzz

First, it was Jack Nicholson in Batman, followed by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Now, it's Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Phoenix Joker Stairs

As early reactions to Todd Phillips’ Joker roll in on a positive note, it’s no surprise that the newest player in the clown shoes has stepped into awards buzz. After stunning audiences at the Venice International Film Festival, Joaquin Phoenix has been named as a likely contender for the Academy Award for Best Actor. And with Joker set to continue on the festival circuit, screening at Toronto and New York film fests before its theatrical release on October 4th, there’s a chance for further awards discussion to build. 

If Phoenix was to garner an Oscar nod for his stunning work in Joker, his would be the first nomination for a comic book/superhero film role in any of the acting categories since Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the same character in The Dark Knight (2008). The past decade has brought plenty of awards recognition for the genre but mainly for below-the-line categories honoring achievements in visual effects, sound design, hair and makeup, and other crafts. Nothing for onscreen talent. 

The Joker’s first appearance in comic books was in 1940, introduced as a psychotic clown with a dark sense of humor. The character, dealing with scars and skin bleaching from acid burns to the face, has a crooked sense of self-image and a displaced role in society. He is definitively wild, just as a joker might be in a deck of cards. Because the Joker has no real superpowers, he is reliant on his trickery, adding to the outlandish wonder in performances of the role.

Cesar Romero was the first to play the role of the Joker in the flesh, serving as an important transition as the character expanded from comic book strips to the world of onscreen media. Romero became the Joker in 1966 for the campy television show Batman, a role he reprised in a theatrical feature the same year. While the part was played as a more light-humored, goofy clown with evil tendencies, instead of the dark, twisted version known today, his quirky handling of the role allowed for later Jokers to balance the manic state with an added sense of wit.

In Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Jack Nicholson brings a great deal of comical energy to the character, balanced against Michael Keaton’s brooding and subdued portrayal of Batman/Bruce Wayne. As a penchant for chaos is a required attribute for the role, perhaps this is one of the reasons the Joker strikes a chord with critics and awards organizations — there is so much room for actors to go for broad insanity in a showy supporting role. Nicholson actually received Oscar buzz at the time, and he picked up a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Golden Globes for the effort.

Ledger’s take on the role is the most acclaimed, at least as far as Academy favor. He brought fantastically maniacal quirks and tics to the Joker, which led him to a posthumous Oscar. His undertaking of the role focused heavily on the nuances of mental insanity within the character — he actually kept a “Joker diary” full of pictures of hyenas, clowns, and other imagery he found necessary with which to prepare himself. Some have even suggested the connection between Ledger’s untimely death and the absurd dedication to becoming the Joker; after finishing shooting The Dark Knight, he even wrote “Bye Bye” in the back of the diary.

Joker made another live-action feature film appearance recently with Jared Leto’s stint in the 2016 DC Extended Universe installment Suicide Squad. The actor is rumored to be continuing the role for future projects, alongside Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, though his grill-wearing, tattooed take on the character has not been as esteemed as his peers’ portrayals. Perhaps he leaned too far into the crazy? In an exercise of method acting, Leto apparently sent the rest of the Suicide Squad creepy gifts and stayed in-character at all times, leading to a bit of uneasiness in his handling of the part.

The role has obviously attracted actors who are already of a certain level of esteem. Before signing onto the role, three of the live-action movie Jokers (Nicholson, Ledger, and Leto) had already earned Oscar nominations for prior performances (Nicholson had won both a lead and supporting Academy Award out of his then-nine nominations; Leto won on his single nod, for a supporting role). The addition of Phoenix continues this trend, as he’s a three-time Oscar nominee.

Given that in the last 30 years only actors with prior awards attention have attached themselves to live-action depictions of the character, the part has seemed, itself, to hold greater weight as far as being Oscar-worthy. There’s something to the fact that established award-caliber talents welcome buzz for most future films during production, or even earlier in their casting alone, sight unseen.

Interestingly enough, the core of comic book roles that have earned major awards recognition consists of villainous characters. In 1990, Al Pacino was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor categories at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes for his role as Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice, the big bad of Disney’s comic strip-based film Dick Tracy

Others include Paul Newman, who earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his role as John Rooney in Road to Perdition (2002), and William Hurt, who picked up an Oscar nod for his portrayal of Richie Cusack in A History of Violence (2006). Both movies are based on graphic novels. Then there’s Ryan Reynolds, who garnered no Academy love but received a Golden Globe nomination for his antihero lead role in 2016’s Deadpool.

Just this past year, Michael B. Jordan’s name was frequently tossed into the awards ring for his domineering performance as the main villain Eric Killmonger in Black Panther. The Marvel Cinematic Universe installment did itself accrue seven nominations — including the first-ever Best Picture nod for a comic book movie — and three wins at the Oscars, but none were for its performances.

There is now some discussion of a potential nod in the supporting actor category for Robert Downey Jr.’s concluding performance as Iron Man in Avengers: Endgame — a rare heroic part under consideration. With a good number of films in the MCU receiving critical acclaim, much of it for its extensive ensemble full of big names in the industry, the lack of actor or actress nominations so far has been surprising. Then again, Marvel movies have also long had a reputation for having a villain problem, with most of the franchise’s big bads being poorly written and hardly a showcase for award-worthy performances. 

Part of the Oscar appeal of the Joker, as well as the other comic book nominees, is that villainous side-character status. The recognized performances have always been in the supporting actor category, in alignment with their roles as villains. Characteristics typically found in such parts make for greater acting challenges. Phillips’ Joker presents a different dog, though: Phoenix’s Joker is the lead role. His nomination would be a unique honor for the genre.

Phoenix originally expressed doubts about signing onto Joker, hesitant in part because of his fear of not being able to delve deep enough into the role. He also commented on his avoidance of archetypal villain roles; however, he argued in favor of the Joker’s character depth and the audience’s connection to his dichotomies. Phoenix is somewhat famous for turning down superhero roles, which adds a layer of obscurity and mystique to his portrayal of the Joker. This role is a bit more specialized and has enticed Phoenix to exit his comfort zone.

The role has proven once again to be taxing for the actor who chooses to accept the challenge. In preparation, Phoenix reportedly lost 52 pounds and started to drive himself insane (the former being the sort of transformation that Academy members also take note of). But in the hands of a performer dedicated to such psychological depth, the payoff can be huge — Oscar-size, even.

Fletcher Peters: Student and writer of film. Frequently enticed by mockumentaries.