Why the Joker is now a prestige film role: Opinion
Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were released on Monday, and while they were full of the typical snubs and surprises, the top winner was clearly the Clown Prince of Crime. Joker, the recent film about the iconic Batman villain, came away with the most nominations of any 2019 film (11), including Best Director for Todd Phillips and Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix. Coming off his Golden Globe win, Phoenix is a strong favorite to take home the Oscar as well (especially since fellow Golden Globe recipient Taron Egerton was not nominated). Does that mean that the role of the Joker is now a shoo-in for Oscar recognition, on the level of playing a famous musician or a physically disabled historical figure?
If he wins, Phoenix — who has already played both a famous musician and a real-life disabled person, to no avail at the Academy — will obviously not be the first actor to earn an Oscar for playing the Joker this century. The late Heath Ledger won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor trophy for his zeitgeist-defining performance in 2008’s The Dark Knight. While his unexpected death increased interest in his performance — and likely contributed to his win — Ledger’s unforgettable work was widely resonant in and of itself. To this day, a YouTube search for “Joker impression” results in countless videos of people trying their best to nail iconic Ledger line deliveries like “do you want to know how I got these scars?” The Phoenix Joker is well on its way to catching up; already there are videos of people imitating the climactic appearance on Murray Franklin’s talk show.
Even if Phoenix doesn’t win, the Joker has still become one of the few roles to earn Oscar nominations for multiple different actors, joining the likes of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in 1973 and Robert De Niro in 1975, both of whom won) and Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, both in 1999 for separate movies; only Dench won).
Not every Joker performer has earned Oscar recognition, of course. Jared Leto, who played the character in between Ledger and Phoenix, did not get any awards buzz for his role as the Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad — but then, he was just a few years removed from his own Oscar win for a physically transformative performance in Dallas Buyers Club. On top of that, despite months of publicity about his performance, much of Leto’s screen time was cut from the final version of Suicide Squad. Jack Nicholson, who originated the role of Joker on film in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, earned a Golden Globe nomination but no love from the Oscars — at the time, he had already won two Academy Awards for his performances in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms of Endearment. Ledger, meanwhile, had been nominated and acclaimed for his role in Brokeback Mountain but finally won for The Dark Knight. Similarly, Phoenix has earned previous nominations for Gladiator, Walk the Line, and The Master, but it looks like his Joker performance represents his best chance to finally win. If he does, perhaps that will signal to other Oscar-hungry actors that playing the Clown Prince of Crime — or at least similar roles in this realm — represents a good shot at taking home the gold.
We shouldn’t be surprised if Joker us part of more movies in the next decade or so. Even if Phoenix doesn’t want to return to the role after collecting his awards, Joker‘s record-breaking box office will likely keep Warner Bros. interested in exploring the character further. While he has already been portrayed by four different actors in film (to say nothing of TV depictions), he’s endured in the culture since his original 1940 comic appearance because he’s very adaptable to changing social currents. The cackling Mark Hamill-voiced Joker of the ’90s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series is not the same as the rail-thin, Bowie-inspired Joker from the 2008 Batman: R.I.P. comic by Grant Morrison and Tony S. Daniel — which is in turn different from the cold murderer of 1998’s Batman: The Killing Joke graphic novel or the jilted lover at the recent Batman-Catwoman wedding. Phoenix’s performance doesn’t even seem to be inspired by any particular comic (the character has never been attached to the name “Arthur” before), proving not only that the door is open for actors and directors to riff on it themselves on top of the plethora of comic depictions, but the character is also meaty enough to be more than a one-dimensional madman.
This mutability is an essential element of the character, and inspired some skepticism on the part of this EW writer when a Joker origin movie first got the green light in 2017. But Phillips’ film managed to retain the character’s chaos and imbue it into the film itself. For instance, how much of the final 30 minutes are a dream sequence, and how much of it “really” happened? The final shot situates Phoenix’s character in the surreally violent tradition of Looney Tunes cartoons. Even the basic conceit of the film is absurd: It’s an origin story for Batman’s greatest villain that situates him as at least 15-20 years older than his foe! Even while providing an “origin” for its titular icon, Joker still leaves him mysterious.
Joker is a good movie to take seriously, but not necessarily literally. The film’s most famous scene is definitely the Joker’s triumphant dance down the stairs, after he’s left meek Arthur behind and fully embraced his villainous persona. The clip made the rounds on social media several times over the past few months, just as often to be praised as ridiculed — but most versions of it cut out the single most essential aspect of the scene, which is the sudden cut to two cops (Bill Camp and Shea Whigham) standing at the top of the stairs, watching the dance unfold in dumbstruck confusion. It’s not an unironic endorsement! Though some may be annoyed at Phillips’ nomination for Best Director, especially when not a single woman was nominated in the category, cuts like this demonstrate his skill at incorporating comedic beats (honed on previous films like The Hangover) into this more serious material — making it very funny, but in a much darker way.
But Phillips’ movie didn’t just earn 11 nominations because it features a meaty, recognizable character. Thanks to Phillips’ and Phoenix’s unique interpretation, Joker also resonated with the particular zeitgeist of 2019. Similar to Parasite and other acclaimed films from last year, Joker set its eye squarely on class divides — an interesting take on material that usually valorizes the billionaire vigilante Bruce Wayne. Set in a crumbling 1980s version of Gotham City heavily based on that era’s New York City, Joker featured its title character suffering from a lack of adequate funding for social services. Over the course of the movie, a sanitation workers’ strike causes the city to slowly fill up with trash at a pace commensurate to Phoenix’s deteriorating mental state. When he’s finally pushed over the brink by arrogant financiers on a subway, he kills them. This is a reversal of the real-life 1984 Bernhard Goetz subway shooting; instead of attacking poor young African-American men on the subway, Phoenix’s Arthur shoots rich white men instead.
Even though he doesn’t intend to start a movement, the clown-faced vigilante is hailed as a hero by working-class Gotham residents desperate for an icon to stand up to the likes of billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). In an inversion of the typical Batman dynamic, Wayne is the villain of Joker. Disturbed by social unrest, Wayne decides to run for office to get things under control. A few months after Joker‘s release, billionaire former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he would be trying the same thing in real life. His self-financed run for the presidency serves as an indication of the film’s prescience about our current zeitgeist. Plus, in the same year that Robert De Niro reflected on his past work with Martin Scorsese in The Irishman, he also appeared in Joker to riff on his roles in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy — to say nothing of the amazing, coincidental resonance that a Scorsese-inspired superhero movie hit theaters at the exact moment that Scorsese himself was publicly criticizing the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the current dominance of superhero cinema. Some worried that the film might be too close to real life for comfort, but although Joker was criticized after early screenings for its potential to inspire public violence, not a single such incident was ever reported.
An Oscar win for Phoenix would likely cement the Joker’s reputation as a role that can deliver Oscars. If the movie wins in other categories (it is nominated for both Best Director and Best Picture, among others), it will prove that Joker hit on something particularly twisted about our 2019 moment.