Widely recognised as one of the greatest performances of the 21st century, the story of Heath Ledger’s Joker is both creatively triumphant and tragically sad, being the actor’s final major acting role before his death in 2008. Putting all his physical and mental acting attributes towards the role of Batman’s arch-nemesis, it is wrongfully recognised that Ledger’s insane character led the actor towards mental instability himself. In reality, Ledger committed himself to his art form in order to create a new and different interpretation of the character, separate from previous incarnations.
Described his character as a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy”, both Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan saw eye-to-eye as to how they wanted the Joker to look and act, sharing visual touchpoints that targeted anarchy and chaos. Looking at art by Francis Bacon for visual reference, as well as the performance of Malcolm McDowell in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Ledger was also given Alan Moore’s graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke for preparation for the role.
Initially against working on a superhero film, Heath Ledger met Christopher Nolan for a potential part in Batman Begins in 2005, though he rejected the film, commenting: “I would just feel stupid and silly. I couldn’t pull it off and there are other people who can perfectly, but I just couldn’t take myself seriously”. After seeing Nolan’s revolutionary take on the world of Batman’s Gotham City, however, Ledger was impressed with Nolan’s vision and, as a result, sought the part of the Joker from the director.
“Heath was just ready to do it, he was ready to do something that big,” Christopher Nolan commented, with Heath Ledger reflecting that, “I feel like this is an opportunity for me to not take myself too seriously, and for some reason, I just gravitated towards [The Joker] and I knew I had something to give to him. And I just instantly had an idea of how to do it”.
During the span of six weeks, Ledger “locked” himself away in a hotel room to prepare for the role, creating a character diary whilst experimenting with voices, as the actor noted on his process: “It’s a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script and then just closing my eyes and meditating on it”. Containing scrawlings, several stills from Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, photos of hyenas, and images of unhinged clown makeup, Ledger spent much time nailing the voice of the Joker which he noted as “the key to the demented killer”, basing his facial movements on ventriloquist dummies.
It all plays into the continuing mythos regarding Heath Ledger’s iconic performance, with details regarding his method still being released to this day. The bus ride scene that was unfortunately stripped from the final version of the film, perfectly illustrates why Heath Ledger’s Joker is so influential, displaying a nonchalant demeanour as the hospital blows up in the background. Acting as if none the wiser, he stares forward as if a normal commuter.
Ledger’s legacy remains one of undisputed triumph.