Just like the role of James Bond, or Doctor Who, the maniacal supervillain The Joker is a role held in the highest of regard, often depicted by cinema’s very best contemporaries. Famously captured by Jack Nicholson in 1989 and Heath Ledger before his tragic death in 2008, the character requires fierce dedication and an ability to delicately capture the fine balance of insanity. Depicted by Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’ reboot of the character in 2019, this weathered, skeletal image of the classic character proved wildly successful, leading to high commercial success and even several Oscar nominations.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is an impoverished clown plagued by mental illness and a history of abuse, trying to access some kind of positive reality through his stand up comedy routine. With interest in the character study of the comic book character, Phoenix commented that “the film “feels unique, it is its own world in some ways, and maybe […] It might as well be the thing that scares you the most”.
Shedding 24kg in preparation for the role, Phoenix’s Joker was much unlike his predecessors, presenting an individual seemingly incapable of being a crime lord; in fact, to prepare for the role, the actor read a book about political assassinations so he could understand the murderous motivations of such killers.
With Phoenix, the only actor, Todd Phillips, considered for the role, the director and screenwriter Scott Silver managed to convince the initially reluctant individual by encasing the Joker character at the heart of the story. “The goal was never to introduce Joaquin Phoenix into the comic book movie universe. The goal was to introduce comic book movies into the Joaquin Phoenix universe,” Phillips commented when writing the film’s script. This led the actor to see that the film was not a typical “studio movie”, with the director’s vision being far more grounded and genuine than other contemporary superhero films.
The test footage and look test carried out by Todd Phillips help to illustrate the director’s early plans for the character, with many of Phoenix’s characteristics being directly used in the film itself. His ghostly, unstable outlook provides an unpredictable image that Phoenix fully embraced for the role, with stories from the set detailing the actor’s frequent abandonment from the set because of a ‘loss of self-control’. Interestingly Robert De Niro was one of the only actors Phoenix didn’t walk out on, with the veteran De Niro commenting that the actor was “very intense in what he was doing, as it should be, as he should be”.
Though much of this screen test can be seen in Todd Phillip’s final film, it’s a shame that the second of three personas, Phoenix topless in white face paint, was not explored further as it speaks to the broken, mentally fragile image of 2019’s Joker, making more impact than the other two over-engineered designs.