Ledger’s Legend

His Role as the Joker in ‘The Dark Night’ May Win Him The Largest Audience of All

On The Town | Valerie Crawford-Pfannhauser | September 2008

Heath Ledger in his role as the Joker in The Dark Night before his death in January (Photo: Warner Bros.)

The 250-seat theater in Vienna’s English Cinema Haydn was sold out for the first screening of The Dark Knight, which opened in Austria Aug. 20.  Fortunately we had thought to reserve tickets.  Outside, expectant movie goers were speculating on the cast’s talents, the changes to the story line and the supposed magnificence of the special effects.  Mostly, however, they talked about Heath Ledger.

With his roles as the homosexual cowboy in the widely acclaimed Brokeback Mountain (three Oscars, two Golden Globes and a Golden Lion at Venice among others) and the self-made nobleman in A Knights Tale, Ledger made himself a household name and earned himself a place among the few truly diverse and distinguished new actors in Hollywood. But these films display only a part of Ledger’s large talent.  It is with his role as ‘The Joker’ in The Dark Knight that Ledger may win his greatest acclaim, both with the industry and audiences.

The Batman story is well known to most, having been adapted, along with countless other comic book super heroes, into a multi-million dollar movie franchise. Ledger is cast as the villainous Joker (previously played by Jack Nicholson) alongside Christian Bale as Batman, with screen greats Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in supporting roles. It’s a set up we have seen many times before: famous leads meet special effects but, more often than not, an only so-so story line.  With The Dark Knight, however, the results are dramatically different.  A charged script and thought-provoking story-line by screenwriters, Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, give the actors a firm basis to work from.

The Joker represents the moral anti-thesis of Batman.  And, in the hands of Heath Ledger and Christian Bale, the audience really feels how uncomfortably similar the two characters actually are.  There is something beautiful in their madness.

Ledger, who considered himself a Method actor, aimed to immerse himself as much as possible in his characters, to, in effect, live the part. For The Dark Knight, Ledger apparently secluded himself in his hotel room for a month, creating the chalk-faced, green-haired Joker, with a ghastly, slashed-mouth grin, and fiendish charisma.

His success, along with the rest of the cast and crew, has been reflected in box office revenues. So far, The Dark Knight has grossed U.S. $471 million, second only to the Titanic as the most successful movie of all time.  Worldwide, the movie has already grossed over U.S. $800 million.

Sitting in the theater, it was clear just how much of himself Ledger gave to the part. At times it was hard even to recognize him. He had completely changed his voice from the lilting tenor of the gentle cowboy in Brokeback Mountain to a raucous cackle exemplifying the Joker’s disintegrating mind. His facial features and gestures so completely transformed that it was hard to connect this ghastly creature with the actor we knew.

This was central to the meaning of his work as an actor.

"I don’t measure success based on box office numbers and gross amounts, but  rather on the personal touch I have with the film," Ledger said in an interview with the Austria daily Österreich a half a year before his death.

"I slept an average of two hours a night," he confessed in another interview, with the New York Daily News. "I was playing a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy… I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going."

In The Dark Knight, he immersed himself in a world of moral chaos and distortion, a ghastly blurred realm where the good and evil have long since lost their meaning. He found all this. The only trouble is, he wasn’t always able to find his way back.

The actor’s premature death at 28 from an inadvertent drug overdose – coupled most likely with physical exhaustion and a fragile mental state – was shocking, a deep loss that felt personal to many who were touched by his films.

Cynics will say that the success of The Dark Knight was only enhanced by the actor’s death, that all the hype – the so-called ‘spook’ factor – surrounding the movies release was a crass ploy to profit from tragedy. This would be a shame.

Heath Ledger’s death won’t help "make" this movie. Will the circumstances heighten interest?  Of course.  But one of the remarkable things about Ledger’s achievement is that his performance is so richly alive, it sweeps away any awareness of loss into some unknown, and unknowable, future.

"It says something about the curious nature of film, that someone can be so alive onscreen, when we’re all too aware that they’ve passed away," wrote Joe Neumaier in the New York Daily News, "how we are mortal, and films are immortal."

We should try to separate sentimentality from talent. If Ledger receives a posthumous Oscar, we can only hope that it will not be because he died, unable to regain his emotional balance after the possibly self-destructive depth of the role.

Rather, give him the Oscar for Best Actor because of his commitment to his craft, for his unrivaled encentrisity in the creation of a mutinous, manic and completely deranged charater, which is all too rare in any film, action or otherwise.

When the 2½ hour movie was over, the viewers walked out of the theater in silence, a few whispering in low voices. As they reached the street the crowd seemed to have found their voices, and unraveled into endless chatter and comment. A friend captured what seemed to be a general consensus:

"Ledger dominated the film," said film-goer Alex Huszar.  "Almost every scene in which the Joker wasn’t present could have been cut."

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