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by Joseph Lyne

The curse of the joker

It’s no surprise that Hollywood actors love to play villains, and audiences love to see villains on the big screen. Actors want to get their teeth into characters that can steal the scenes and that audiences revel in, seeing the unpredictability of the Hannibal Lecters, Freddy Kruegers and Darth Vaders of the silver screen. One villain more than any other embodies the lovable villain: DC Comics’ the Joker. We love the guy, and Warner Bros’ new movie Suicide Squad sees the return of Joker, this time played by Jared Leto. But something is very wrong; multiple news outlets and Suicide Squad cast members have been commenting on Leto’s bizarre behaviour on and off set during filming – not breaking character, sending weird gifts to co-stars – and it really does beg the question: why so serious?

The Joker has gone through much change in his 50 year history on film: first being played by Cesar Romero in the campy but much loved 1966 Batman series. Needless to say, the tone reflected on Joker – he’s just as camp as everyone else, and Romero wasn’t too passionate about the role, considering he wouldn’t even shave off his moustache!

Next we have Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film: a self-confessed “homicidal artist”, this Joker was very vain and all of his crimes were linked to beauty, something he was robbed of – he destroyed paintings, tainted make-up, and even uttered a line from The Raven, “Take thy beak from out my heart”. This was definitely an intriguing take on the Joker that fit Burton’s vision of Batman, but the film’s more childish tone stopped him from being especially intimidating.

After the tease of the Joker at the end of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, actor Heath Ledger had to exceed all expectations and come up with something that had never been seen before; fans were already sceptical after his casting – given his background in A Knight’s Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You – they didn’t believe he could pull it off.

With this initial poor reaction, Ledger had to blow it out of the water with his incarnation of the Joker, so he dived into the psychological mind of the character, almost to obsession. Ledger locked himself in a hotel room for six weeks, creating a diary as the Joker, blurring the line between actor and role. It was obvious Ledger wanted to take to the role with complete seriousness, creating a truly deranged criminal to fit into Nolan’s realistic Batman mythos. This Joker was an anarchic psychopath, representing chaos in mirror of Batman’s order, and was obsessed with upsetting order in Gotham City; this “agent of chaos” did not behave rationally by any means.

Members of the cast and crew said Ledger lived the part, and it is unknown how damaging the psychological preparation of the Joker was to Ledger, who met with his untimely death on January 22nd 2008 after accidental drug intoxication. When the film was released in July 2008, Ledger’s performance was met with critical acclaim, exceeding expectations and creating a vision of the Clown Prince of Crime that had not been captured on film before.

This brings us to 2016 and Suicide Squad. Jared Leto has big shoes to fill, considering Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for his performance as Joker. Many fans consider Ledger as the iconic Joker, never to be replaced; Leto knows this and is going out of his way to, once again, create a new take on the character. Leto’s tattooed Joker is one less grounded than Ledger’s existing in the same world as Superman and other magical characters, but still encapsulates a maniacally violent gangster. It is currently unknown what role Joker has in Suicide Squad – whether he is the antagonist of the film, or just a chaotic opposing force for the Squad – but Leto is going all-out to deliver on par (or better) than Ledger, knowing how seriously he, and fans, take the Joker.

While Ledger locked himself in his hotel room for six weeks, Leto is doing so much more to enter the depraved mind of the Joker; he met with convicted psychopaths, and sent bizarre gifts to his co-workers: a live rat to co-star Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), as well as anal beads, used condoms, and ‘sticky’ porn magazines to others, and had a friend put a dead pig in the rehearsal room with the message, “that’s from Mr. J.”
Director David Ayer described Leto’s performance as “so powerful, so menacing, so palpable”, but it begs the question as whether Leto’s method acting and antics are needed at all. On the whole, Jack Nicholson’s performance in Burton’s Batman was enjoyed by fans, and he did not need to method act at all. Even seasoned actors like Anthony Hopkins (in Silence of the Lambs) did not need to meet with psychopaths in preparation for the Oscar-winning role of a serial killer, and yet Leto, in preparation for a comic book movie no less, did.

It is important to remember that Leto is following in the footsteps of an Oscar-winning performance, from an actor who unexpectedly died not long after the role was complete. He also has a lot to live up to in terms of following up to DC Comics’ last, poorly reviewed, movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; and while his pranks on set may be just pranks, the average movie-goer will have no knowledge of what has occurred. It is Leto’s passion for the character and cinema that has let him want to give his all to make audiences happy with his incarnation of Joker.

All of the performances of the Joker on screen still encapsulate what the original comics have shown of the character; he has been camp, artistic, psychopathic and maniacial; people may have their favourites but no actor has failed to bring some aspect of the Clown Prince of Crime to life before us.