Ever since “The Dark Knight” came out there has been a debate about who was the best Joker. The question seems to be phrased “Nicholson or Ledger?” With Heath Ledger recently winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, the debate has come up yet again. This hardly seems fair, considering there have been more actors to play the Joker than just these two. With this in mind, I am going to take a look back at all four of the actors who portrayed a live-action Joker in a theatrical film.
I must have already raised a few eyebrows by saying I am looking at four different Jokers - when people think of live action Jokers, they think of Romero, Nicholson, and Ledger. While the fourth actor did not technically portray the Joker, he did play the role that inspired the creation of the character. Conrad Veidt played a character named Gwynplaine, a man who had been deformed and wore a permanent grin on his face. “The Man Who Laughs” was released in 1928 by Universal Pictures. With the advent of sound, “The Man Who Laughs” was originally supposed to be the first talkie horror film.
However, due to the prosthetics that Veidt had applied to his face, he was unable to speak. The makeup was done by the legendary Jack Pierce, who would gain the most acclaim when he created the makeup for “Frankenstein.” Gwynplaine faced persecution for his appearance and became a much more tragic figure than any of the Jokers that followed. There are some very frightening images of Gwynplaine as he maliciously lashes out against those who abused him. The enormous smile that never leaves his face, regardless of the situation, unquestionably inspired the creation of the Joker. The grinning image of Gwynplaine’s smile has defined every Joker to come. Even in silence it is far more terrifying than the most maniacal laugh. It is interesting to look at the Joker in the acclaimed graphic novel “The Killing Joke” by Alan Moore. Moore’s villain bears the closest resemblance to Gwynplaine. There was also a Batman story by Ed Brubaker, “Batman: The Man Who Laughs” released in 2005, which drew obvious inspiration from the film. While this film has become obscure, it is definitely worth watching for any fan of the Batman movies or comics.
The first real Joker to reach the silver screen was played by Cesar Romero in “Batman the Movie” released in 1966. Most fans quickly dismiss Romero’s performance for being so ridiculously over the top and campy. Romero seems to be remembered more for not shaving off his mustache underneath the Joker makeup than for his acting ability.
Looking at Romero’s performance from a contemporary standpoint certainly adds to the argument that this Joker can be easily dismissed, but even so I would like to argue that Romero was the most important Joker. I am going to quickly jump to my own defense and say that I do not mean that Romero was necessarily the best Joker, but rather that his zany portrayal was oddly appropriate for his time and ultimately responsible for bringing the character into the accepting realm of his somewhat psychedelic pop culture. Batman has an extensive list of interesting villains, and most of those have never made it to the big screen; regardless of the Joker’s popularity within comics, Romero was the first one responsible for bringing the character to the masses. Without Romero ever popularizing the Joker, it may have been that audiences would never have had the opportunity to see Nicholson or Ledger’s portrayals of the Joker.
In 1989, “Batman” was released. The Tim Burton directed film was dark, gothic, and stylized. It is interesting to note that Jack Nicholson, who plays the Joker, received top billing over Michael Keaton, who played Batman. Nicholson was a bigger star than Keaton, but being credited first, over the title character, really lets the audience know which actor stole the show. Nicholson’s character is unique, starting out at first as the criminal Jack Napier before transforming into the Joker instead. This allows the audience to see the dark progression of the character as he becomes more twisted and insane.
As the Joker, Nicholson is pure entertainment. The way he jumps around the screen, his threats, laughs, and dialogue captivate the audience in a very strange way. I cannot quite define why Nicholson’s Joker is so compelling, but I think it might just be a reflection of how much fun the actor is clearly having with his character. However, not everything is a lighthearted moment with Nicholson. The maniacal nature of the Joker, as first prescribed by Gwynplaine in “The Man Who Laughs” still echoes true, and Nicholson’s face can sometimes be simply frightening. Even so, many Batman fans would complain that Nicholson’s performance was too light-hearted. I strongly argue against that. I believe that the character of the Joker is evil, and I also believe that the character, like Nicholson’s Joker, is supposed to be having fun while carrying out every crime or scheme. The gothic version of Gotham City that Tim Burton created deserved a comedically evil Joker to go along with it.
This brings us up to 2008. Heath Ledger played the Joker in the second highest grossing film of all time while additionally earning an Oscar for his performance. This is substantial evidence to prove that Ledger may well be the best Joker of all time.
Ledger is easily the most twisted Joker, playing a dark mirror image of Batman. Ledger is also easily the most psychologically stimulating Joker that has ever made it to the big screen. While I was just as thrilled as everyone else was by Ledger’s performance, I did miss the playful element of Nicholson’s portrayal. There is nothing I can add to critique this Joker that has not been said countless times before. Instead, I leave with the statement that there is no best Joker - Ledger was the best for a contemporary audience, just as Nicholson was perfect for the late eighties, Romero for the sixties, and Veidt for the silent era. I do not believe these Jokers are comparable as all of their respective Gothams and films are wildly different from one another. Every one of these roles (yes, even Romero’s) needs to be appreciated for what it was in the context of its time.