Oscar: Posthumous Wins–Ledger, Heath, the Joker in Dark Knight

Oscar 2008: Heath Ledger for the Joker

I don’t think the movie would have worked as well if we hadn’t had an actor of the caliber of Heath Ledger, who was able to really up the ante, much as the Joker does in Gotham–Chris Nolan

As an actor, it was exciting to work with Heath. His performance made the Joker an indelible screen character. He was everything you could want in an arch-villain as infamous as the Joker, and yet he was completely originalAaron Eckhart

The application of make-up was a dance: Heath would scrunch up his face in specific expressions, raising his forehead and squinting his eyes, and I would paint on the white over his facial contortions– Ledger’s make-up artist, John Caglione, Jr.

“The Dark Knight,” the brilliant follow-up to “Batman Begins,” reunites director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale, who reprises the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. With the help of Lieutenant Jim Gordon and the committed new District Attorney, Harvey Dent, Batman sets out to destroy organized crime in Gotham City for good. The triumvirate soon find themselves prey to a rising criminal mastermind known as the Joker, who thrusts Gotham into anarchy and forces the Dark Knight ever closer to crossing the fine line between hero and vigilante. You will not find a Hollywood picture that’ better cast this year. Oscar nominee Heath Ledger (“Brokeback Mountain”) portrays arch-villain the Joker, and Aaron Eckhart plays District Attorney Harvey Dent.

Posthumous Oscar Nomination/Award

As the malevolent clown, the Joker is the most recognizable of Batman’s arch-nemeses. The buzz about Heath Ledger’s performance turns out to be accurate: He gives the performance of his lifeliterally and sadly, due to his death in March. Going way beyond previous incarnations of the Joker, including Jack Nicholson’s comedic, entertaining turn in Tim Burton’s “Batman,” Ledger should receive a posthumous Oscar nomination, if not the award itself. The Joker is one of the great villains in comic book lore–psychopathic, enigmatic, clever, diabolical, charming, funny and enjoyable to watch–it takes an extraordinary actor to play him and Heath Ledger delivered on every front, from every physical nuance to each vocal turn of phrase, it’s an unforgettable performance.

In this article, I’d like to explore the character of the Joker, as co-written by the gifted siblings Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, who also directed. The most dangerous enemy of Bruce Watne/Batman is his infamous nemesis–the maniacal, remorseless fiend known as The Joker. In this picture, he’s the ultimate screen arch-villain, as much of an icon as the Dark Knight.

Colorful but Real

Nolan has said: “We wanted to create a villain who, as colorful and outrageous as he is, is still coming from a place of reality. In keeping with the tone we established in ‘Batman Begins,’ we determined he is a pretty serious guy, despite being called The Joker. So we began with the notion of the Joker as the most extreme form of anarchist–a force of chaos, a purposeless criminal who is not out for anything, and so can’t be understood. He is not only a massively destructive force, but he also takes great delight in his murderous nature, which is a pretty terrifying spectacle.” For Nolan, “anarchy and chaos, even the threat of anarchy and chaos, are among the most frightening things society faces, especially in this day and age.”

In the movie, the Joker comes across as a man without any rules whatsoever, and the challenge for Batman is to fight somebody who is bent on destruction. The Joker’s total lack of morality is one of his most potent weapons, because Batman has a very strict moral code for what he will and won’t do, and the Joker can use that to his advantage. Batman struggles to be sure that in chasing a monster, he doesn’t become a monster himself.

While the Joker wreaks chaos and fear, the crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent is the new face of law and order in Gotham. However, the dynamic between the three crime fighters changes abruptly when an unforeseeable turn of events destroys the steadfast DA Harvey Dent and gives rise to the vengeful villain Two-Face. Nolan explains, “The Joker is the more flamboyant villain, so he commands attention. He has no arche’s just hell-bent throughout.

Casting Heath Ledger

In casting the Joker, Nolan says that the defining quality he was looking for was fearlessness: “I needed a phenomenal actor, but he also had to be someone unafraid of taking on such an iconic role. Heath created something entirely original. It’s stunning and captivating, and it’s going to blow people away.” Nolan met with Ledger about the role even before there was a script. “We both had exactly the same concept–that the Joker was about the threat of anarchy and revels in creating chaos and fear on a grand scale. Heath seemed to instinctively understand how to make this character different from anything that had ever been done before.”

The Joker arrives on the scene without warning and climbs ruthlessly to the top of Gotham City’s criminal food chain. “We never wanted to do an origin story for the Joker, but we wanted to show the rise of the Joker,” Nolan maintains. “The Joker is the logical response to Batman, who has instigated this kind of extremity of behavior in Gotham.” The Joker wants to break Batman, to prove that everybody has a price, and even Batman can compromise his principles. He’s therefore delighted to find that Batman won’t do that, which creates for him an even better opponent in the game he’s playing.

Hilarious and Amusing but not Campy

The Joker represents pure, unadulterated evil, in the sense that he has no logical motivation for his actions. But he is also very funny. This combination of traits sounds bizarre: How could someone so deplorable be funny Heath’s take on the role is not campy but still hilarious, both physically and in a dry sardonic way. The Joker horrifies, terrifies, and amuses in equal measure, as Nolan explains: He’s terrifying because there appears no rhyme or reason for what he does.

Joker’s Look

The costume designer was able to get outlandish in costuming the Joker, modifying the character’s familiar look to reflect Heath’s age and generation. Hemming explains, “I wanted the costume to have a younger, trendier style than previous versions. Basically, my research ranged from Vivienne Westwood to Johnny Rotten to Iggy Pop to Pete Doherty to Alexander McQueen. I was collecting all sorts of images.”

Hemming thus designed an eclectic ensemble that has “a somewhat foppish attitude to it, with a little grunge thrown in.” Staying with The Joker’s traditional color palette, his outfit is topped by a purple coat, worn over a green waistcoat. Changing up his look, he also wears a lighter jacket that was based on the Carnaby Street Mod look. His shirt was patterned after a shirt that Hemming found at an antique market.

Shoes from Milan

The Joker’s shoes are from Milan and were selected because they had an upward swoop at the toe, which she thought was reminiscent of clown shoes. His tie was fashioned from a fabric that was specially woven to Hemming’s specifications by Turnbull & Asser, a London-based clothier better known for dressing British royalty and the like. “Heath wanted it to be thin, so it’s a 1960s tie but in a Turnbull & Asser fabric. It’s the weirdest tie that Turnbull & Asser has ever made,” Hemming notes. “When Heath came in and we showed him all the bits and pieces of the costume, he thought it was fantastically original and just went for it.

Frenetic Look for Shock Value

The Joker’s make-up was also a departure from past incarnations of the character. While he retains an allusion to his familiar white-faced, sneering visage, his make-up was intended to give him a more frenetic look that also lends to its shock value. The Joker’s face is covered in a white pancake that is cracked and runny in places. His eyes are thickly rimmed in black, and a sloppy red grin is painted on, extending from his mouth to his cheeks but not quite masking the terrible scars beneath. His hair is a subtler but still noticeable shade of green.

Make-up and hair designer Peter Robb-King remarks, “There was a perception in the audience’s mind of what the Joker would look like, but we wanted to get under the skin of what this character represents in this story. He’s someone who has been damaged in every sense of the word, so it was important to create a look that was not ‘jokey.'”

Ledger’s make-up artist, John Caglione, Jr., calls the application of make-up “a dance”: “Heath would scrunch up his face in specific expressions, raising his forehead and squinting his eyes, and I would paint on the white over his facial contortions. This technique created textures and expressions that just painting the face a flat white would not. Then I used black make-up around Heath’s eyes while he held them closed very tight, which created consistent facial textures. After the black was on, I sprayed water over his eyes, and he would squeeze his eyes and shake his head, and all that black drippy, smudgy stuff would happen.”

Revolutionary prosthetics

The Joker’s make-up also represents a revolutionary advancement in the application of prosthetics, developed and executed by prosthetic supervisor Conor O’Sullivan and prosthetic make-up artist Robert Trenton. They used a brand new silicone-based process that enables the prosthetics to be laid on the skin in a seamless way. It’s amazing because you can put a camera right up to the face–even an IMAX camera–and there are no issues.

O’Sullivan reveals, “It took us about two years to develop the technology, but after a few glitches, we hit on it. We are now able to produce silicone pieces that are applied directly to the skin. And it blends with the skin perfectly; if you didn’t know it was there, you would have a hard time seeing anything.” The new process cut the application time to a fraction of what was needed in the past: “The Joker prosthetics would previously have taken a good three to four hours. Instead they took about 25 minutes and looked far superior, which was great.”

Every Clown Face Registered and Owned

The clown masks for the Joker’s gang were individually sculpted and molded and then hand-painted. The filmmakers learned that every clown face is registered and owned by the person who first created it, so all of the clown masks in the movie had to be cleared; none of them could be copied from existing clown faces.

Joker’s Music

Composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard reunited to compose the score for “Dark Knight.” As they had on “Batman Begins,” Zimmer and Howard split duties: Zimmer composed the theme for the Joker and Howard took on the dual personality of Harvey Dent/Two-Face. They also made changes to the overall score, eschewing any heroic fanfares.