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Oscar Worthy Characters [Part 2]: The Joker

January 29, 2021
Joaquin Phoenix & Health Ledger

The second article looking at the only two characters where different actors have won an Oscar portraying them – Vito Corleone and the Joker. My last article focused on the character of Vito Corleone from The Godfather films, this time we’ll focus on The Joker. This character has been played by a lot of great actors – the last four film performances (not including animation) of the character were played by Oscar-winning actors. For two of those actors, the role that won them the Oscar was the Joker.

MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING FOR THE DARK KNIGHT & JOKER

Why So Serious?

Heath Ledger as The Joker // Credit: Warner Bros
Heath Ledger as The Joker // Credit: Warner Bros.

For me, The Dark Knight trilogy is the high-watermark for superhero films, with The Dark Knight being the best. Superhero films are made great not by the hero but by the villain and Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker is the prime example of this. It was a stunning and memorable performance. Every scene with the Joker is fantastic and adds depth and understanding to the character. Whether it’s the Joker’s ever-changing scar-origin story, to his attack on his police convoy in which for most of it he has no lines but still conveys what is going on with the character, to the perhaps ad-libbed confused look when the hospital fails to explode, Ledger is amazing. Moving the character away from a criminal who just wants money to the agent of chaos was genius and it allowed the character to work against both Batman and the mobs he originally worked for. Ledger’s Joker became a cultural icon with some much of the design of that character becoming part of fashion and wider culture.

Can You Introduce Me As Joker?

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker // Credit: Warner Bros
Joaquin Phoenix as Joker // Credit: Warner Bros

Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a very different character. There is much debate about this character and whether it is even meant to be the Joker, but coming from the world of comic books having radically different origin stories is perfectly normal. Joker is an origins story but not just for the Joker but for many, many villains – indeed, it tries to show that this is how many real-world problems are created. South Park did an episode in which they argued Trump’s treatment of immigrants was simply creating “jokers”, people who were treated badly and would grow up angry and have a problem with America. Phoenix’s Joker is not a supervillain, he has no powers, no henchman, he’s not even very capable of committing a crime. He is simply a damaged man with nothing to lose. This Joker deals with lies, betrayal and abuse from those closest to him and complete strangers. The wildness of this character at the end of the film is hard to watch and riveting at the same time especially when compared to his passivity in other sections of the film. Some people warned of fans copying the violence in the film but most people just seemed to copy him dancing downstairs.

Phoenix’s performance is exceptional and the character does seem to go through a transformation and become a different person by the end of the film. I would argue Phoenix is the only actor who is genuinely the lead, in the Godfather films the focus is always on Michael and in The Dark Knight obviously it’s on Batman. Whilst there are a number of great actors in Joker it is Phoenix’s film and its success or failure is on him.

Two Characters Four Oscars

Ledger as The Joker // Credit: Warner Bros.
Ledger as The Joker // Credit: Warner Bros.

So why did these characters get more than one Oscar – what do they have in common? The first thing is that they are all great performances, truly Oscar-worthy acting. Brando was already an acting legend when he played Vito and De Niro is one of the most respected actors in Hollywood. Ledger was a great talent whose life was cut tragically short and Phoenix still seems to be very much at his peak. De Niro and Brando both won Oscars for other performances and both Ledger and Phoenix have given other Oscar-worthy performances.

De Niro and Phoenix both won for origins stories. How did Vito Corleone become such a powerful figure and where did his complicated moral system come from? Things are more complicated with Joker as I don’t think Phoenix’s character is meant to be seen as the same person as any of the Jokers we’ve seen on screen, more just the origins of how you would get to be someone like the Joker.

Both characters are criminals, albeit very different types, Vito has become the archetype old fashioned Mafia boss, whereas the Joker in these two films is more like an agent of chaos, not interested in financial gain or power.

Ultimately though the reason these characters resulted in Oscar wins is a collection of a number of great artists coming together – actors, writers, directors, cinematographers and more, that is what makes these characters great. And with the Oscars, there is a great deal of luck and many of the best performances ever were not rewarded with Oscars. For prime evidence of this Al Pacino did not an Oscar for his role as Michael Corleone, who I think gives the best performance of anyone in those films.

Also Read: Oscar Worthy Characters [Part 1]: Vito Corleone

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Richard Norton
Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.

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