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

JOKER (2019) – The Most Believable Joker Story Yet

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The best part about JOKER (2019) is it’s more than just a movie about a comic book character.

Much more.

With its origin story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the man who would go on to become Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker, JOKER is less interested in telling the official Joker origin tale than it is in making his story believable. And that really is the strength of this movie. It painstakingly paints a portrait of a man who by the time everything is said and done, is completely believable.  The audience understands and knows exactly where the character is coming from. It’s by far the most sympathetic portrayal of the Joker on the big screen yet.

The film also has some things to say about society as a whole.

Arthur Fleck lives in Gotham City in a crummy apartment with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). But don’t expect a cartoonish comic book setting. No, Gotham here in the 1980s resembles the gritty cityscape of a Martin Scorsese movie. Fleck works as a clown, and he wants to be a comedian, and his only goal in life seems to be the desire to make people laugh. Trouble is, he’s not terribly good at it.

He also has mental health issues, sees a case worker regularly, and is on seven different medications. Eventually he learns that due to budget cuts these services will be eliminated. When he asks how he will get his meds, the only answer he receives is silence. Now, there have been grumblings, criticisms, about the sympathetic portrayal of the Joker in this movie, but it’s important to remember that the character as depicted here suffers from mental illness. He’s an unhinged individual who needs help, and without that help, he’s not really responsible for his actions. And the film makes clear that even with that help, the system was failing him. Arthur complains to his social worker that she never listens to him and that she doesn’t really know him or his problems, and this seems to be true.

He gets jumped and beat up on the job, and as he says, people and society seem to be getting uglier and uglier. Eventually, as you would imagine, he snaps, and no, he doesn’t suddenly become a criminal mastermind, but he does become violent, doesn’t feel regret or remorse, and because society around him is also feeling left out from the “haves,” the people with wealth, people like Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who of course is Bruce Wayne’s father, Arthur becomes the face of their movement to rebel against society. It’s not something he wants, but it happens.

When you finish watching JOKER, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll say, “Yup, that’s how a guy would become the Joker.” It’s the most realistic and sympathetic portrayal of a character who in the past has mostly been portrayed as an over-the-top comic book villain. JOKER is saying not so fast. This guy exists in the real world, in the here and now. And it completely makes its case.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a masterful Oscar-worthy performance as the title character. There no doubt will be comparisons to the other famous Joker portrayals, Jack Nicholson in BATMAN (1989) and Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Before this movie my personal favorite was easily Ledger. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my pick for the best superhero movie ever made, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is the main reason why.

I still prefer Ledger as the Joker, but Joaquin Phoenix here in JOKER does something that no one before him has ever done. He makes you believe that such a person is real and not someone who only belongs in a comic book. That’s something pretty special to accomplish.

Phoenix has always been a special actor, playing a wide array of characters and generally being convincing in all of them. Here, he lost nearly fifty pounds for the role, and he looks eerily thin and frightening. And that’s the thing. As sympathetic as he is as Arthur Fleck, he’s no less scary and unnerving. I absolutely loved his performance.

And it’s a good thing, because he’s in nearly every scene in the movie. It sinks or swims with Phoenix. He easily carries this movie and dominates throughout.

The supporting cast is serviceable but barely noticeable because of Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance.  But they’re all very good. Only Robert De Niro seems a bit miscast as late night talk show host Murray Franklin, a character that Arthur is obsessed with. He dreams about appearing on Murray’s show, and later, when this becomes a reality, it’s not quite the way he imagined it.

De Niro’s casting is interesting here, since this subplot hearkens back to the Scorsese movie THE KING OF COMEDY (1982) in which De Niro played a deranged man named Rupert Pupkin obsessed with late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). But here in JOKER, as much as I like De Niro, he just didn’t seem like the late night talk show host type.

JOKER was directed by Todd Phillips, a director mostly known for his comedies, especially the three HANGOVER movies. There’s nothing funny about JOKER. Phillips does a phenomenal job.

He also co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver, a screenwriter with some solid credits under his belt. Silver co-wrote THE FIGHTER (2010), a superior drama starring Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Christian Bale, and he co-wrote THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated period piece rescue mission drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck.

Another fascinating aspect of JOKER is it puts its own stamp on the Batman origin story. Thomas Wayne is not a likable character here, and his death as shown in this movie looks very different from the way its been shown in previous movies, through the emotional eyes of a young Bruce Wayne. Furthermore, the connection between Arthur and the Wayne family adds further layers to what would later become the feud between the Joker and Batman.

Pretty much everything about JOKER works, from the acting, to the writing, to the music score, everything about this one screams authentic.

The world is an ugly place. There are the haves and the have nots, and the haves really don’t give a care about the have nots. And when the have nots have had enough, they rebel.

Arthur Fleck reaches the point where he’s had enough. And when he strikes back, he finds that he enjoys it, and better yet for him, he not only gets away with it, but becomes the face of a movement from fellow have-nots who are feeling the same way.

That’s not to say that the film is preaching rebellion. It’s not. It’s simply telling a story, a story that is perfectly framed by a quote which Arthur writes in his journal: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

Arthur Fleck has a mental illness. No one he interacts with acknowledges this. Society’s answer is a disinterested social worker and lots of pills, and eventually, even these are taken away because the haves no longer want to fund them. He’s been pushed around, beaten, fired from his job, suffered abuse as a child, and now he finds himself the face of an underground movement. For the first time in his life he’s being noticed. And it feels good.

It’s a story that could be told in the here and now, in 2019, as society faces the same dilemmas and offers the same useless solutions.

And we wonder why the Arthur Flecks of the world become Jokers.

That’s the true strength of this movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!

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Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!

Karloff, the king of horror, was born on November 23, 1887.

Karloff made over 70 movies before playing the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), the film which changed his career and made him a household name.  He would reprise the role twice, in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), and of course would go on to make a ton of horror movies over the next four decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s.

To celebrate his birthday, here’s a look at a handful of Karloff’s most memorable horror movie performances:

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) – The Monster- there’s a reason this role turned Boris Karloff into a star.  His Monster is both brutal and sympathetic.  Insanely powerful, he can kill in a heartbeat, and yet this newly born creature is simply terribly misunderstood and maltreated.  With a remarkable make-up job by Jack Pierce, no movie Frankenstein monster has ever looked as much like a walking corpse as this one.  If you only see one Boris Karloff movie in your life (which would be shame- see more!) see FRANKENSTEIN.

THE MUMMY (1932) – Imhotep – For my money, Karloff’s interpretation of Imhotep remains the most effective movie mummy performance of all time.  There still has not been another one like it.  In spite of a plot that is very similar to DRACULA (1931), THE MUMMY is a superior horror movie, and Boris Karloff’s performance as Imhotep is a major reason why.

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Karloff as Imhotep in THE MUMMY (1932)

THE BLACK CAT (1934) – Hjalmar Poelzig – In this classic first-time pairing of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Karloff plays the devil worshipping Hjalmar Poelzig, pitted against Bela Lugosi’s heroic Dr. Vitus Werdegast.  Superior horror film has little in common with the Poe tale on which it is so loosely based, but it has a top-notch script full of classic lines, and it features two performances by Karloff and Lugosi in their prime, doing what they do best.  Best watched late at night with the lights out.

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Karloff in THE BLACK CAT (1934).

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – The Monster- The Monster speaks!  So boasted this movie’s tagline, and it’s true, Karloff’s monster learns to speak in this classic sequel to the iconic original.  Critics consider BRIDE to be the best FRANKENSTEIN movie of all time, but I still slightly prefer the original, if only because it remains much scarier.  But Karloff takes his performance as the Monster here to another level.  It’s arguably the best performance of the Frankenstein monster of all time.

THE RAVEN (1935) – Edward Bateman -The second Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi pairing. Karloff plays Edward Bateman, a criminal transformed into a hideous monster by Lugosi’s insane Poe-obsessed Dr. Richard Vollin. Another classic pairing of these two iconic horror film stars.

THE BLACK ROOM (1935)- Baron Gregor de Berghman/Anton de Berghman – Karloff has a field day in a dual role as twins, one good, one bad.  Karloff delivers one of his best performances in this little known period piece horror drama.  Look fast for an uncredited Edward van Sloan as, of course, a doctor.

THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) – John Gray – Another superb Karloff performance.  He plays John Gray, the body snatcher who robs graves for Dr. “Toddy”  MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson and the real life story of Dr. Knox and grave robbers Burke and Hare.  Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise. Horror film making at its best.  Also features Bela Lugosi in a small supporting role.

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Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER (1945).

ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) – General Nikolas Pherides- Karloff plays a hawkish general who uses his ruthless methods to protect a group of islanders who believe they are being hunted by a vampire-like creature in this intriguing well-made chiller by producer Val Lewton.

THE TERROR (1963) – Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe –  An aging Karloff stars opposite a young Jack Nicholson in this haunted house tale, reportedly shot by director Roger Corman in four days.

BLACK SABBATH (1963) – Gorca – Karloff is at his scary best in this horror anthology by Mario Bava.  Karloff appears as a “Wurdalak” or vampire, and he’s downright frightening.  This is the only time Karloff ever played a vampire in the movies.

So, there you have it, just a few of Boris Karloff’s more memorable horror movie roles. To celebrate his birthday, you can’t go wrong watching these or any of Karloff’s 205 screen credits, for that matter.

Happy Birthday, Boris!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael