Movie Lists: The Joker

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The joke’s on you, Joker!

So says Adam West’s Batman to Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s campy TV series BATMAN.

The release of JOKER (2019), a superior standalone film about the origin of the infamous Batman villain the Joker that features an Oscar-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck aka the Joker, no doubt will re-open the conversation as to who made the best onscreen Joker.

So, with that in mind, welcome back to Movie Lists, that column that looks at lists of odds and ends in the movies. Up today, you got it: the Joker.

 

BATMAN (1966)

The Joker: Cesar Romero

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This movie was based on the ultra successful campy TV series from the 1960s starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. It featured four supervillains: the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Joker. It was originally intended to be released before the TV show aired, but the series was rushed into production and premiered ahead of time. As a result, the movie premiered in theaters the summer after the end of Season 1 of the series.

Like he did in the TV series, Cesar Romero, like his fellow actors in their fellow supervillain roles, played the Joker strictly for laughs. There was no rhyme or reason or any attempt to make the character real or threatening. And since it was in the 1960s, and since Adam West was hysterically funny as Batman, who unlike his counterparts the villains, played it straight, which made it all the more comical, the fact that Batman didn’t realize he was funny, it all worked. Remarkably well. And the humor still holds up today.

For more than twenty years, Cesar Romero, in all his campy hilarity, defined the role.

Until 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s BATMAN.

 

BATMAN (1989)

The Joker: Jack Nicholson

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The most controversial thing about Tim Burton’s BATMAN was his casting of Michael Keaton, who up until that point was only known for his comedic roles, as Batman. Yet Keaton silenced critics with a very effective performance.

Jack Nicholson did not share this problem. After all, he was Jack Nicholson, one of the most respected actors at the time. For many, the fact that he was playing the Joker was the main reason to see this one.

I’ve always liked Tim Burton’s BATMAN, although truth be told, it hasn’t held up that well to the test of time. When it came out, since the movie world had only known Adam West’s campy Batman, it was considered an extremely dark and serious take on the character. Yet, watched today, it comes off as much campier than it did back in 1989.

The same can be said for Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. Nicholson blew away any notion that Cesar Romero would remain the definitive Joker. Nicholson’s Joker was a much darker take on the character, although once more, watched today, he seems much more cartoonish and campy.

That being said, I really enjoyed Nicholson as the Joker, and I enjoyed the way director Tim Burton framed the character, adding a lot of references to the Phantom of the Opera, especially the 1925 Lon Chaney silent version. The scenes near the end with the Joker leading Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) up the tower are clearly reminiscent of similar scenes where Lon Chaney’s Phantom led Christine into the depths of his underground lair.

Again, for nearly twenty years, Jack Nicholson was the gold standard for the Joker.

Until Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

 

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

The Joker: Heath Ledger

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The big news with THE DARK KNIGHT was that Heath Ledger died just before the release of the movie, and as a result, because of his amazing performance, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor posthumously. Ledger’s performance as the Joker truly is phenomenal. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my favorite superhero movie of all time, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is a major reason why

The film really is about chaos and anarchy, and we see it personified by the Joker who will stop at nothing just to create chaos, and he’s so good at it. The only reason he ultimately fails isn’t because of Batman, but because he misjudges the dark side of human nature. People aren’t as bad as he thought they were.

Hands down, Heath Ledger was and remains the best onscreen Joker. However, here in 2019, he just received his biggest competition.

 

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)

The Joker: Jared Leto

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Jared Leto’s performance in the flawed DC movie SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) didn’t really work for me. It’s not entirely Leto’s fault, as SUICIDE SQUAD, a DC tale about villains rather than heroes, isn’t all that good. The reason to see it is Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn. She steals the show. Leto as the Joker does not.

 

JOKER (2019)

The Joker: Joaquin Phoenix

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The best part about JOKER is it’s not really a comic book movie. It plays more like a Martin Scorsese film as it tells its story about Arthur Fleck, a man suffering from mental illness, who regardless of the fact that he only wants to make people laugh, is continually beat upon until he can’t take it anymore. And when he rises up he’s less a supervillain than the face of a movement, and since he’s spent his whole life wanting to be noticed, he finds that he likes this new self.

Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Arthur Fleck here, and he gives the most sympathetic onscreen portrayal of the Joker yet. He will make you understand and believe how someone could become the Joker, and how the Joker could in fact be a real person. We’ve come a long way since the days of Cesar Romero.

By a hair, I still prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, since that film was insanely riveting, thanks mostly to Ledger. Joaquin Phoenix’s work in JOKER is entirely different from Ledger’s. JOKER is not a superhero movie. It’s a tragic violent drama, and as such works on an entirely different level. One day I may find myself preferring Phoenix over Ledger. That day is not today, but that doesn’t take away from Phoenix’s masterful performance.

It’s interesting to note that Cesar Romero almost wasn’t the first Joker. J. Carrol Naish almost played him in the serial BATMAN from 1943, which  was the first time Batman appeared on the big screen. The villain was originally going to be the Joker, but since it was 1943, he was changed to a Japanese villain, Dr. Daka, and was played by J. Carroll Naish. Some traces of the Joker still remain, as Daka’s hideout is located inside a carnival.

That’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed this list of actors who have played the Joker in the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

BATMAN (1966) – Adam West’s Portrayal of the Caped Crusader Defined a Generation

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To honor Adam West, who passed away on June 9, 2017, here’s a review of the movie BATMAN (1966).

I started watching the BATMAN TV show (1966-68)  in earnest during its syndication run in the early 1970s and would watch the show nearly every day.  I spent many a summer day as a kid coming home from the beach and then watching BATMAN followed by LOST IN SPACE.

I would also look forward to the movie BATMAN, and back in the day, it was on TV quite a bit, nearly once a month, it seemed, usually on Saturday afternoons.

BATMAN pits Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) not only against one of their supervillains, but four!  That’s right, in this film, Batman fans got to see the Joker (Caesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and the Catwoman (Lee Meriwether).  Their evil plot?  Why, to control the world, of course!

Holy Fantastic Foursome, Batman!

Indeed, Robin.

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The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), and the Joker (Caesar Romero) work at taking over the world in BATMAN (1966).

BATMAN, now called BATMAN:  THE MOVIE, was originally planned to be released before the TV show aired, but when the show went into production ahead of schedule, plans for the movie changed.  The show aired first, and then to capitalize upon the enormous success of the first season, the movie was released in theaters that summer.

BATMAN: THE MOVIE is every bit as fun and as campy as the TV show. It shares the same strengths as the TV series:  the hilariously campy script, and the superior acting  by the players involved, especially Adam West as Batman.

The script here was written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who co-created the TV show with William Dozier.  Semple would go on to write some other campy screenplays as well, including KING KONG (1976), FLASH GORDON (1980), and the final Sean Connery Bond flick NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983).  Semple, Jr. also wrote more serious stuff, screenplays for movies like PAPILLON (1973) and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975).

Here in BATMAN Semple, Jr. captures the camp perfectly, and the film contains many memorable lines.  Some of the best are when Batman and Robin are trying to decipher the Riddler’s riddles.   Like this exchange, for example:

BATMAN (reading a message written in the sky by one of Riddler’s missiles):  What goes up white and comes down yellow and white?

ROBIN:  An egg!

BATMAN (reading another skywritten message):  How do you divide seventeen apples among sixteen people?

ROBIN:  Make applesauce!

BATMAN:  Apples into applesauce.  A unification into one smooth mixture. An egg—nature’s perfect container. The container of all our hopes for the future.

ROBIN:  A unification and a container of hope? United World Organization!

BATMAN (Excitedly):  Precisely, Robin!

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Solving the Riddler’s riddles.

And one of my favorite lines, when Batman tries in vain to dispose of an ignited bomb, but can’t, says exasperatedly into the camera:  “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”

Of course, the humor works here because the actors play it straight.  The running joke of the series is that Batman doesn’t realize he’s funny.  He says all these lines with a straight face.  And while the villains ham things up and then some, they’re not joking around or acting silly.  They really are trying to take over the world.

For a generation, Adam West defined Batman, and when you watch him in this movie, you’ll understand why.  His comedic timing is impeccable.  Granted, this interpretation of Batman isn’t the traditional one, but in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, it worked.

I also think it helped propel Michael Keaton’s darker interpretation of the Caped Crusader in BATMAN (1989) to higher levels of success because for so many, it was the first time they were seeing a darker interpretation on-screen.  Not to take away anything from Keaton’s performance, because he is excellent in the role, but the fact that before Keaton we had West made audiences all the more eager to accept a more serious version. And likewise, becoming a fan of Keaton didn’t take away from being a fan of West.  It wasn’t like “Oh, now the 1960s Batman is outdated.”  Not at all.  It was simply a matter of going forward.

Burt Ward, who before BATMAN had no acting experience, is pretty darn good as Robin as well. His high energy alone is enough to win over legions of fans.  And he really is the Boy Wonder.  His youthful exuberance is infectious, and he always defers to his elder mentor, Batman, with lines like, “Gee, Batman, I didn’t think of it that way,” and “Golly, Batman, when you put it that way.”

And the villains here are out of this world.

Lee Meriwether is terribly sexy as Catwoman/aka Ms. Kitka.  Yes, she poses as a Russian journalist Ms. Kitka to strike up a relationship with Bruce Wayne in order to kidnap him, which sets up one of the more memorable moments in the film for Adam West when at the end of the movie Batman discovers that Catwoman and Ms. Kitka are one in the same.  See, Bruce Wayne had developed quite the crush on Ms. Kitka, and when he sees that she is really the Catwoman, we witness Wayne’s expression from underneath the Batman cowl as the lights go out of his eyes for a moment, only to be replaced by the calm, logic of Batman who sees to it that he’s above this sort of thing.  It’s a great moment for Adam West, the type of thing which made him stand out in both this movie and the series.

Now, Meriwether did not play Catwoman in the series.  She took over the role in the movie from Julie Newmar, who had played Catwoman during Season 1, but was unavailable to do the movie because of a conflict with another project.

Caesar Romero is hilarious as the Joker— a far cry from the later and superior interpretations of the character by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger— even with his painted over mustache, which he refused to shave for the role. Seriously!

Frank Gorshin remains the definitive Riddler with his high octane giggling and skipping. While Gorshin played the Riddler in Season 1 of the series, he skipped Season 2, but would return in Season 3.

Burgess Meredith as the Penguin is the glue which holds the other three villains together in this film.  The Penguin is the one who seems to be pulling the strings and more often than not takes the lead in the villainous proceedings.  Meredith is quite good in the role, and I prefer his interpretation of the Penguin over Danny De Vito’s in BATMAN RETURNS (1992).

Other cast members from the show also appear in the movie.  Alan Napier returns as Alfred, Neil Hamilton is back as Commissioner Gordon, and Stafford Repp once more plays Chief O’Hara.  Madge Blake also returns as Dick Grayson’s Aunt Harriet Cooper, although she doesn’t have any lines in the movie.  Aunt Harriet is an interesting character.  Reportedly, she was featured prominently on the TV show because TV executives feared that two men living together (Bruce and Dick) would give audiences the wrong idea about their relationship, and so Aunt Harriet was written in to live in the same house with them.  Bizarre.

BATMAN was directed Leslie H. Martinson., a director with mostly TV show credits.  He does a nice job with this move.  It’s colorful, full of the signature Batman fight sequences complete with the superimposed “POW!” and “THWACK!” signs, and is well-paced.

There are also plenty of Bat gadgets in this one.  In addition to the Batmobile, there’s the Bat Boat, the Bat Helicopter, the Bat Cycle, the Bat Bazooka, and of course the infamous Bat Shark Repellant in the very famous shark scene, where Batman is attacked by a very fake looking rubber shark.  And there’s also the Penguin Submarine which wreaks havoc under the seas.

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Batman meets Jaws?  A famously silly scene from BATMAN (1966).

Martinson himself passed away only last year, on September 2, 2016, at the age of 101.

There’s also a high-octane music score by Nelson Riddle, although noticeably absent is Neal Hefti’s signature Batman opening theme song.

But the main reason to watch BATMAN is the same reason to watch the TV show, and that is Adam West’s performance as Batman.

I was fortunate to have met Adam West a couple of times at some comics and collectibles shows back in the early 2000s, and his humor in person was very apparent. It seemed to ooze out of him with ease.

Adam West is to Batman as Sean Connery is to James Bond.  Other actors have played the role, and some have put their definitive stamps on the character, but West and Connery took their characters and made them embodiments of a decade.  Like the Beatles, Bond and Batman helped define a generation.

I’ll leave you with Batman’s final line from the movie, as Batman and Robin, after a job well done, prepare to leave the United World building, a line delivered with impeccable timing by Adam West.

Let’s go, but inconspicuously, through the window. We’ll use our Bat Ropes.  Our job is finished.

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Preparing to leave, inconspicuously, through the window.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.