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Playing the Joker Is Now the Greatest Acting Challenge of Our Time

Hollywood has set a weird precedent by treating the clown who does crimes like a Shakespearean role

Joaquin Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar three times, for three powerhouse performances, before striking gold with his turn as the titular antihero of Joker. First he was Commodus, the vindictive emperor of Gladiator; then he was Johnny Cash in the biopic Walk the Line (Cash himself approved the casting); lastly, and most memorably, he was Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a near-feral Navy vet and drunk who winds up in thrall to the debonair leader of a pseudoscience cult.

They say Academy Awards are won on the strength of a career more than a single role, and that’s probably the case here. But still: Joaquin Phoenix, Best Actor, Joker.

I’m not the first to point out how weird it is that we regard the greatest challenge for an actor to be a portrayal of the clown from the comic books who does crimes and fights a billionaire bat-person (well, minus the bat-person this time, I guess).

A part of me wondered if Phoenix, an arresting and hypnotic actor wherever you find him, wasn’t just a little embarrassed to be accepting his statue from Olivia Colman, the surprise Best Actress choice of last year’s ceremony, who triumphed with a brash take on Queen Anne in The Favourite that stands well apart from the lineage of stuffy period dramas. Because by contrast, every iteration of the Joker in some way relies on or must be read through all the others, as if we’re comparing different takes on goddamn Hamlet.

Are we sending the wrong signal here? I don’t want every great actor of their time to feel they have to paint up and spend 10 hours a day developing their psycho giggle if they want to get recognized. Phoenix is the second Academy Award–certified Joker, after Heath Ledger’s in The Dark Knight, released barely a decade ago. Even the guys who didn’t nab an Oscar when they played the Joker — Jack Nicholson and Jared Leto — have won in different years. And of the many films based on DC comics, the four to win Oscars of any category (including the original Batman and Suicide Squad) featured the Joker. Somehow, the green-haired jester who laughs about murder and mayhem is always regarded as a sign of Serious Craft™. In practice, though, the character is an excuse for guys like Leto to be very annoying on set, or fanboys to totally lose their shit.

The problems with the Academy, and the industry it represents, are multifarious and, in some cases, insurmountable. Maybe it’s petty to mock the faux intellectualism in pretending that the Joker tells us anything deep or profound about the fragile human psyche when a Korean, Hitchcockian, class-war thriller like Parasite can clean up at the biggest trophy show of the season. But the superficiality of Joker analysis/worship may extend to other acting by men. Brad Pitt was an enjoyable part of the underwhelming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but I can’t help feeling like he got an Oscar for taking his shirt off — and in the same year as his cerebral space odyssey dad movie!

I think, all in all, we’d rather guys be a “type” on-screen than something we haven’t seen before: either the smooth, cool hunk or the tortured, unraveling outsider. One is the movie star as we imagine him, the other his effort to inhabit the same shitty world we losers do. Inevitably, an actor will seek to prove himself with a cartoonish version of the latter.

Ah, well. This is what the people want, I suppose. Can’t have a conversation about mental health in this country till we have a gritty origin story for the bad clown. Make sure he dances on a staircase in it. At the risk of this actually happening, here’s my pitch for the next Joker project: a film with two Jokers, where they battle for the prestige of being crowned the one true Joker. That way we can argue about the superior Joker performance within a single narrative, the Academy can continue the rivalry by nominating both actors and assorted geeks can trigger each other with their controversial rankings of “The Top 5 Jokers of All Time” for many years to come.

You know, I’m starting to think this is all an elaborate joke on me.