When Christopher Nolan released his 2008 superhero film The Dark Knight the world wasn’t ready; Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker caused a sensation and changed not only the genre, but his legacy as an actor.
In what is described as the greatest performance of his career, Ledger’s portrayal of the DC Comics villain was shrouded in undeniable emotion as the film would eventually be released six months after the actor’s accidental prescription drug overdose.
Despite his initial casting for the role proving controversial, the doubts only seemed to further motivate the Australian actor who deemed the role as his opportunity to silence any doubters and propel his acting abilities to the very top of Hollywood—and he was right. Following the widespread critical acclaim, Ledger’s performance would be celebrated with countless posthumous awards with its crowning glory coming at the very top; an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Despite some murmurs of discontent around Nolan’s decision to cast Ledger as the villain, the director knew all along that it was a perfect match: “Heath was just ready to do it, he was ready to do something that big,” Nolan insisted afterwards. Together, both director and actor had the same vision for the path of the joker, agreeing to cause as much psychotic, anarchic chaos as possible.
Studying the likes of Francis Bacon and Alan Moore’s graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke for a visual reference, Ledger looked to draw on different popular culture references and both he, Nolan and Christian Bale discussed Malcolm McDowell’s psychotic performance as Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece A Clockwork Orange as a starting point: “A Clockwork Orange was a very early starting point for Christian and I,” Ledger once said in an interview with MTV. “But we kind of flew far away from that pretty quickly and into another world altogether.
Nolan also noted later: “We gave a Francis Bacon spin to [his face]. This corruption, this decay in the texture of the look itself. It’s grubby. You can almost imagine what he smells like.”
The role of costume designer Lindy Hemming became pivotal in realising the vision as she drew slight inspiration for from such countercultural pop culture artists as Johnny Rotten Iggy Pop, and Sid Vicious: “Sid Vicious, yeah, I guess so,” Ledger later confirmed. “There’s a bit of everything in him. There’s nothing that consistent. It was an exhausting process. I actually had quite a bit of time off between scenes — weeks sometimes. But it was required because whenever I was working, it exhausted me to the bone. At the end of the day, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t talk. I was absolutely wrecked. If I had to do that every day, I couldn’t have done what I did. The schedule really permitted me to exhaust myself.”
Ledger’s commitment to the role knew no bounds. While he spent exhaustingly long days delivering his highly charged performances, he also spent hours on end locked away in his room trying to forge the direction of the Joker in pre-production: “He pretty well locked himself up in a hotel room for weeks,” Heath’s father, Kim, said on the documentary Too Young To Die. “He galvanised the upcoming character. That was typical of Heath. He would do that. He liked to dive into his characters, but this time he really took it up a notch.”
Given the relentless notes of inspiration taken from contemporary culture, Batman fans were quick to pull out an interview conducted by Tom Waits as part of a 1979 tour of Ledger’s native Australia as the most obvious reference to the Jokers agitated, anxious state and, of course, that distinctive voice.
A year later, coincidentally, Waits and Ledger would work together on the 2009 film The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus.
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