The Joker, Then And Now: The Last-Laugh History Of A Hollywood Wild Card

Warner Bros

Today a special all-Joker edition of the Hero Nation Index.

The Joker is wild again in Hollywood. Todd Phillips’ Joker was nothing short of a sensation at the 76th Venice Film Festival where its premiere earned the Golden Lion award, a slew of rave reviews, and an 8-minute standing ovation on the Lido. Joaquin Phoenix, a three-time Academy Award nominee, now looks like a lock to get his fourth nod for Joker and perhaps his first Oscar win come next February.

It was just a decade ago that Heath Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for The Dark Knight (2008) with a more feral and scabby interpretation of the most popular villain in the American comic book history.  How rare is for two actors to win an Academy Award for portraying the same fictional character? It’s happened with just one other role: Marlon Brando and Joker costar Robert DeNiro each won an Oscar in the early 1970s for portraying Vito Corleone in The Godfather films.

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That prestigious company shows how far Hollywood has come in its view of comic book properties.  The first actor who portrayed the Joker on the big screen was Cesar Romero in Batman (1966), a tie-in project to the namesake television series starring Adam West. Romero’s zeal for the role was so limited he refused to shave his mustache for the job so the make-up department merely slathered grease paint over it.

It was a different story when the Joker returned in 1989 in the first summer superhero blockbuster in Hollywood history.  Tim Burton’s Batman starred Michael Keaton in the title role but it was Jack Nicholson who got top billing and a historic payday (somewhere north of $60 million) for donning the purple suit for the Warner Bros. hit that finished 1989 as that year’s highest-grossing film ($412 million worldwide).

Jack Nicholson Shining Stanley Kubrick Stephen King
Warner Bros

STACKED DECK: No one knows the Joker’s Hollywood history better than Joker executive producer Michael Uslan, a fixture in Hollywood’s Batman business since the Carter Administration. Next month, in fact, is the 40th anniversary of the deal that gave Uslan and his partner, Ben Melniker, the feature film rights to Batman and associated characters. Thanks to that 1979 pact, Uslan has been involved in every Bat-related feature film that has followed (and yes that list does include Catwoman and yes he’s sorry).

It was Uslan who first visualized the screen possibilities of Nicholson as the Joker. It happened almost a decade before the Burton film’s release. Here’s how the East Coast native recounts the story:” It was the beginning of Memorial Day weekend 1980. I brought the afternoon newspaper and hopped on a bus from New York City back to my home in New Jersey. On the bus, I opened up to the movie section which previewed two big movies opening up that holiday weekend: The Empire Strikes Back and The Shining For the first time, I saw what has become an iconic movie still, the one referred to as the “Here’s Johnny” shot of Jack Nicholson peering maniacally through a doorway. Instantaneously, I said, “This is the only actor who can play the Joker!” I tore that picture out of the paper and as soon as I got home I raced to my desk, took White-Out and painted it on Jack’s face, took a red pen and colored in his lips, and took a green magic marker and did his hair, and “Voilà!” There was the definitive Joker looking back at me.  I then showed everybody associated with the movie for years that picture and why Nicholson had to be the Joker. One of the best moments of my career was the day he was hired.”

first joker comic book story
DC Comics

WILD CARDS: After Cesar Romero (1966), Jack Nicholson (1989), and Heath Ledger (2008), a fourth actor took on the cackling criminal for a live-action feature film: Jared Leto who, like Nicholson, was already an Oscar-winner when he took on the role for Suicide Squad (2016). Leto’s sinewy, languid, and leering, interpretation of the villain was a major departure from any other big-screen version to date. That film also introduced Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, the Joker’s wild-child lover and former psychiatrist, and formidable property in her own right. Harley returns in Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which reaches theaters on February 7,  three weeks before the Oscars on Feb. 24. The character is also getting her own animated series on DC Universe subscription streaming service.

When Joker opens Oct. 4, Phoenix will be the fifth actor to take on the role in a live-action film but that doesn’t technically complete the list of Hollywood’s big-screen Jokers. That’s because the character has popped up in a few theatrically released animated feature films, such as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), a traditionally animated $6 million project that features the Joker as a surprise antagonist. Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame voiced the Joker in that film. Even stranger, Zach Galifianakis portrayed the Joker for the Lego Batman Movie in February 2017, which is nothing laugh at — that film raked in $305 million worldwide.

THE FIRST JOKER FILM? The Joker was introduced in a Batman story in 1940 as the creation of Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson, but did the character make his film debut 12 years earlier? Not really, but it I interesting to see the visual parallels between the Joker and the central character of The Man Who Laughs, a silent film starring Conrad Veidt, the actor later known for playing the strident Major Strasser in Casablanca. In the 1928 silent melodrama, Veidt portrayed Gwynplaine, a disfigured man whose face is paralyzed in a maniacal-looking grin. Finger recounted on numerous occasions that the movie, which adapted a Victor Hugo tale, was a direct visual influence on the Joker and it’s not hard to see that resemblance.

NOT JOKING: More than a decade ago I approached Nicholson during a commercial break at the Golden Globes when I saw that he had been momentarily abandoned by his fellow cast members from The Departed. I saw down at his table and introduced myself as a reporter and asked him what he thought about the casting of Ledger as the Joker. I was surprised that his reaction was a competitive one — he wanted to return to the role himself and portray an aging Joker who lures Batman back out of retirement for one more confrontation, similar to the landmark graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. I mentioned the brief exchange to Uslan and he grinned. “I always thought… more as the fanboy than the producer… that it would be great if someday Tim Burton was to come back and complete a trilogy of Batman films by doing The Dark Knight Returns story with Michael Keaton in his 50s and Jack Nicholson in his 60s. It didn’t happen but we all get to dream, don’t we?”

the Killing Joke
DC Comics

SHADOW OF THE BAT: Uslan bristled when I asked if movies based on DC Comics needed to follow the example of Marvel Studios film which have largely jettisoned the tired trope of superhero secret identities. I mentioned that the biggest credibility issue facing, say, a Superman film with contemporary audiences isn’t the moment when the hero takes flight it’s the scenes where he puts on eyeglasses and no one recognizes him. Uslan answered by explaining that in his view the great innovation of Burton’s Batman was focusing on the unmasked man behind the hero:

“People seem to be forgetting one crucial fact: It was Tim Burton back in 1989 who had come up with ‘The Big Idea’ as to how to be revolutionary in making effective comic book movies based on super-heroes,” Uslan said. “When he cast Michael Keaton to play Batman, I didn’t understand his choice at first. That’s when he explained to me that if we were going to be making the first ever dark and serious comic book super-hero movie for mainstream audiences around the world as well as for fans, we had to get them to suspend their disbelief. If we didn’t we would open the movie up to getting unintentional laughs from the audiences. The way to do this, he said, was to make sure that this movie would not be about Batman. Rather, this movie had to be about Bruce Wayne! And that, in addition to what Tim said would be the essential world-building and making of Gotham City into the third most important character in the movie, was what changed everything not only for our film, but for all the genre films to follow and, ultimately, Hollywood, itself. And today? Look at the Iron Man movies. In truth, they need to be entitled Tony Stark. The same concept has filtered down to other successful Marvel movies as well. But we all need to give credit where credit is due and that credit goes to Tim Burton.”

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