It has been just over eight years since Heath Ledger passed away in New York City at just 28 years old after an accidental overdose on pain, anti-anxiety and sleep medications.
Although his film career spans roles which saw the thespian able to achieve everything from playing a teenage heartthrob to a closeted cowboy, he will perhaps be best known to most for his portrayal as The Joker in director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films.
While Hollywood movies at their core rely on the notion of “good versus evil,” Ledger’s turn felt more like a descent into madness than a voyeuristic look at the ploys of a foe whose motivations only served to strengthen the hero. If Batman were the “light,” Ledger’s Joker refused to counterbalance it by simply only playing the “darkness.” The late Australian actor didn’t just hit one note – his Joker had the full range of 88 keys.
By the time Heath Ledger stepped into the role as The Joker in 2008, the character had already been a mainstay in public consciousness since he first appeared in the coming book, Batman #1, in 1940. Although the origin story for the character differs for creators Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, all three did share a universal acceptance that the character was inspired by actor Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of Gwynplaine in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs.
The initial plan was for The Joker to be killed off after the first issue, but ultimately, then editor Whitney Ellsworth, overruled the creators and had him appear in the first nine of 12 comic books in the series despite the thought that their titular character of Batman would appear inept if he couldn’t vanquish a foe in a single comic book.
By 1942, the character had slowly morphed from a sadistic killer into a more goofy portrayal that played up his clownish antics and diminished his more sinister undertones.
Like any other popular medium of the era, the television executives lined up to try and bring Batman to the small screen. Between 1966-1968, Adam West portrayed the Caped Crusader – notably battling Cesar Romero’s take on The Joker for 18 episodes.
Whether the television executives and Cesar Romero were following the actual comic book source material at the time – which had turned The Joker into a cackling prankster – his portrayal is perhaps best remembered for his refusal to shave off his signature mustache which resulted in gobs of white makeup being applied directly over it and gave the character the feeling of an old lady whose slip was showing rather than an actor taking a more “method” approach to the role.
By the time Batman was scheduled to make the jump to a modern, big-screen interpretation, director Tim Burton had put Jack Nicholson’s name at the top of the list for the casting of The Joker. However, Nicholson initially turned down the role and Burton turned to Robin Williams to fill the spot. Ultimately, Nicholson reconsidered – perhaps after renegotioting his contract which included a take on the merchandise – and portrayed Batman’s foe in the 1989 film.
Renowned film critic, Roger Ebert, noted of the film at the time, “Nicholson’s Joker is really the most important character in the movie – in impact and screen time – and Keaton’s Batman and Bruce Wayne characters are so monosyllabic and impenetrable that we have to remind ourselves to cheer for them.”
When Heath Ledger was announced as Christopher Nolan’s choice to play the character in his decidedly darker imagining of Gotham City, the internet was set ablaze with criticism of the decision. A Reddit thread at the time mentioned things like “Heath Ledger has the charisma of a lettuce leaf,” “the guy couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag,” “the Joker is a character that needs an actor with gravity. Not some little twerp that got lucky,” and finally, “all that comes to mind is a straight-laced cowboy-top who can’t admit it.”
The bemoaning of Ledger’s casting wasn’t only reserved to fans of the series and industry outsiders. Jack Nicholson even chimed in, saying, “Maybe it’s not a mistake. Maybe it was the right thing, but to be candid, I’m furious.”
Christopher Nolan was steadfast in his decision. “Really, in a sense, Heath chose me,” the director said, remembering that Ledger wasn’t interested in comic book films prior to the release of Batman Begins. After the release of the film – and having seen the darkness Nolan captured – Ledger said “yes.”
Since Heath Ledger died shortly after the release of The Dark Knight, little was known about what had influenced him to play the character the way that he did.
Two weeks after the film was released, a then 30-year-old interview with rocker Tom Waits from an Australian talk show, The Don Lane Show, began floating around after someone had noticed the uncanny similarities between his behavior, and that of The Joker on screen. As Slate noted at the time of the various connections, “After all, Ledger’s performance goes far beyond this one peculiar voice—think of his duck-footed walk, the way he licks his lips, and even the way he drops unexpectedly into a growl.”
“I feel very, very proud of being involved in that performance, and it really was a collaboration,” Nolan remembers. “But I hesitate to take too much credit for it because Heath really was a self-starter in that regard. We talked a lot about reference points and I tried to free him up with the tone. But he really came up with the goods on that one. I’m very proud to be involved with that.”
After filming was completed, Ledger told reporters he “slept an average of two hours a night” while playing “a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy,” and that “I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.”
At the 2009 Academy Awards, actor Kevin Kline was tasked with introducing Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker, saying “in a year of striking film images, perhaps the most unforgettable was that of a man – his face smeared in clown makeup – gleefully sticking his head out of a speeding car – relishing the night wind and reveling in the chaos he has unleashed on the streets of Gotham City. Menacing, mercurial, droll and diabolical. Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight kept us all on edge and anxious to see what act of appalling mischief he might commit next. With this bravura performance – as well as with a wide range of other roles to which he put a unique signature – Heath Ledger has left us an original and enduring legacy.”
In the documentary Too Young To Die: Heath Ledger, there is a scene where Ledger’s father, Kim, can be seen flipping through a journal that his son kept during his preparation to play the iconic film character. Things as diverse as Alex DeLearge’s character in A Clockwork Orange to pictures of hyenas can be seen in glimpses. The most chilling detail can be see on the final page of the diary where the words “bye bye” can be spotted in bold letters.