Heath Ledger’s landmark portrayal of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s box office behemoth The Dark Knight has fanboys and film critics alike calling for a posthumous Oscar. But perhaps more disturbing than the late Ledger’s harlequin hoodlum is the fact that it has left devotees of previous iterations of the character questioning their convictions, with Cesar Romero’s portrayal in the 1966 film Batman: The Movie (and its complementary television series) derided as “campy.” The fervor is of course understandable, not only because we feel a desire to elevate Ledger’s last performance but also because it was really that good. But those that seek to denigrate Romero’s performance in order to praise Ledger’s may be surprised to find unique similarities between the two Jokers.
The Curse of the Joker
When news of Ledger’s accidental death broke, Internet conspiracy
theorists began whispering about the curse laid on actors who don the
Joker’s disguise. Ledger’s accidental overdose of sleeping pills was
said to be the result of having gone through a bout of insomnia after
living in the mindset of, as he described it, a “psychopathic,
mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.” Cesar Romero
too found the role disturbing, and reportedly suffered insomnia due to
his portrayal. He was so dumbfounded by the persona, in fact, the actor
who was accustomed to romantic leads — as was Ledger — once said,
“Why [Dozier] wanted me, I’ll never know. I haven’t the slightest idea
what it was that he saw in me, because I had never done anything like
it before.” Unlike Ledger, however, Romero refused to completely lose
himself in the role: His trademark mustache is still visible underneath
the white clown paint in the film.
The Joker‘s Motivations
“Some people just want to watch the world burn,” Michael Caine’s Alfred says of The Joker in The Dark Knight. One of the things that made Ledger’s character so enrapturing was simply the fact that he had no discernable motivations other than chaos and destruction — a departure, many people incorrectly think, from past performances. But watch Romero carefully: While Batman: The Movie has a loose plot centered around turning the members of the United Nations into powder, the Joker himself is principally entertained by his own misdeeds. He takes as much pleasure in electrocuting The Riddler and The Penguin, for instance, as he does in ordering a submarine to launch missiles at Batman and Robin. Like Ledger’s Joker, Romero’s is a “dog chasing cars,” reveling only in chaos, whether it be exacted upon his enemies or his allies.
The Joker’s Laugh
Is anything more infamous, more signature, more chilling about the Joker than his cackle? It’s one of the reasons that Mark Hamill, who never donned a dab of clown makeup, is included in the pantheon of the best Jokers of all time (he voiced the character in the Batman cartoon). But Hamill’s cackle, which almost landed him the role in Nolan’s sequel and on which Ledger based his own, was inspired by none other than Cesar Romero. Listen carefully, and you can trace the lineage of laughter all the way back to the source.
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