Celebrating Heath’s accomplishment

Posted by · 9:42 am · January 7th, 2009

Heath Ledger in The Dark KnightWhen Johnny Depp first read the role of Captain Jack Sparrow, there was nothing in the script to suggest the performance he would eventually give. That bizarre manner of speaking, sounding slightly stoned, the crazy off-kilter walk, and the way he moved his arms, all but flailing them about. That was an actor’s artistry, plain and simple, and it was something to behold. That is the genius of Johnny Depp.

When Heath Ledger was given the role of the Joker I was mildly surprised, not because I did not think he could do it.  On the contrary.  It just never occurred to me to consider him for the role. Obviously Christopher Nolan knew something I did not. Then consider the obstacles facing Ledger, the largest being a performance from one of the greatest and most beloved actors in the history of the cinema in the same role back in 1989. “Batman” was still a hot DVD, plenty fresh in the minds of viewers.  Jack Nicholson’s Joker was, at the time, critically acclaimed.  He stole the movie right from under Michael Keaton’s nose — even had top billing.  Yet Tim Burton’s “Batman” was a fantasy, and Christopher Nolan has gone in an entirely different direction with his “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.”

Ledger understood this and made the decision to portray the Joker as realistically as possible, as a terrorist, as a murderous maniac with a mind that was pure evil and twisted genius.  He walked differently, he moved differently, he spoke differently. The licking of the lips to soothe the scars of his mouth, the manner of speaking slowly as to challenge the other person, all of this was Ledger. He created something rather extraordinary in the film and that should be celebrated.

I believe he gave the best performance of the year in 2005 for his breathtaking work in “Brokeback Mountain,” but the Academy thought otherwise.  But I don’t think that will happen this year. This is one of those performances like Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront,” Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull” and recently, Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland” that is so brilliant, so stunning to watch (and watch again), the Academy has to honor it. This is one for the ages, to be discussed and reviewed for years to come.

Tom O’Neil is tossing the supporting actor race around with a couple of colleagues over at Gold Derby.  Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger brings up the issue of winds of changing, the “dynamic changes in momentum,” as O’Neil puts it.  But let’s face it.  The Academy will look like fools if they don’t hand Ledger this trophy, because this is the most discussed performance of the year.

The best directors, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, they hire their actors and trust them to do the job, to come to the set prepared and having created something for the film that will work for the director’s vision.  Nolan did this with Ledger  He smartly stood out of the way and let him go, allowing the actor to enhance the film, give it an edge, bring to it a dark brilliance.  And what could “The Dark Knight” be without the darkest of villains?

→ 23 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Daily

23 responses so far

  • 1 1-07-2009 at 9:44 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    If I were to give my own testament, it would be that every time I watch this film — and I’ve seen it nearly 10 times now — I cannot, for the life of me, see Heath Ledger anywhere — ANYWHERE — in that performance. The only spec of recognition comes in the scene where his face is paintless, and even then, the look on his mug removes a lot of the familiarities.

    Now THAT’s acting.

  • 2 1-07-2009 at 10:03 am

    Adam Smith said...

    I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments, John and Kris. The one stunning thing that I’d like to add is that Ledger’s is one of the only performances I saw this year where I saw an actor who was so completely present and in the moment, and the dialogue was so natural and lived in, that I constantly felt that there’s no way this is scripted. One of those performances that feels completely improvised. An actor so in tune with what this character is that the script becomes unnecessary and he just says what the character would say. Then again, this could also be a testament to the writing, but even a well-written script can be derailed by an actor that doesn’t have that sort of presence.

  • 3 1-07-2009 at 10:08 am

    Dean Treadway said...

    On this TDK-related point, I am in total agreement with you and all other fans of this film: Ledger is what makes the movie memorable. His performance is the gas, the engine, and the body that drives the film. Even as a non-fan of the movie (but a big fan of the performance), I say this: 2009’s Supporting Actor Oscar is a lock. No way, no how will it be going to another.

  • 4 1-07-2009 at 10:24 am

    michael mckay said...

    I hope Ledger gets the Oscar, but don’t completely count out Dev Patel…especially if the Academy falls in love with Slumdog.

  • 5 1-07-2009 at 11:22 am

    Chris said...

    Dev Patel winning an Oscar over Heath’s Joker would be one of the biggest upsets in recent years. Seriously. I can’t see anyone winning over Ledger, even though there are people in denial about it. I think he’d even be getting all this buzz if he were alive today.

  • 6 1-07-2009 at 12:03 pm

    Chad said...

    I know it’s an unpopular opinion but I stand by the fact that Ledger had the easiest role to play in this film. Granted, he did it well, and you’ll get no argument from me that the performance is iconic. But it’s not the best of the year.

  • 7 1-07-2009 at 12:18 pm

    Patrick said...

    I completely agree with you fellas John, Kris, and Adam. Ledger’s Joker is absolutely stunning. Each time I watch the film I’m blown away by all the mannerisms he created for the character. The hunch… the ventriloquist-inspired voice… the licking of the lips… just brilliant. I believe I once read that Ledger gave all the credit for the character to the writers, but he added so much with the way he chose to play it. If he doesn’t receive an Oscar for this amazing piece of acting it will be a terrible, terrible shame.

  • 8 1-07-2009 at 12:19 pm

    Big Braveheart said...

    There is no doubt Heath’s performance of The Joker was THE acting performance of 2008.
    It was a supporting role as such but is up there
    as good if not better than anybody in the Best
    Actor mix. Not only was Heath great but the film
    itself deserves Best Picture and Chris Nolan to win Best Director for what was a truly great film.
    It HAS to be Heath!!

  • 9 1-07-2009 at 12:28 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Chad: I always thought you were smarter than that.

  • 10 1-07-2009 at 12:33 pm

    randall said...

    Heath’s excellence in this role is beyond words. This IS the performance of the year hands down. I honestly was blown away

  • 11 1-07-2009 at 1:47 pm

    John Foote said...

    Chad…were you not the guy who claimed to know something about acting??? Geez Louise man what are you thinking making a statement like that???? He could have blown it so easily…rethink man, I usually look forward to your comments and like reading them but this one…you blew it dude. Agree with Kris…thought you were smarter.

  • 12 1-07-2009 at 2:00 pm

    A.J said...

    “Dev Patel winning an Oscar over Heath’s Joker would be one of the biggest upsets in recent years. Seriously.”

    In years? It would be the biggest mistake they ever made.

  • 13 1-07-2009 at 2:11 pm

    Chad said...

    I’m the smartest man alive

  • 14 1-07-2009 at 2:13 pm

    J said...

    I’m fairly new to this site, but I must say, Chad got it WRONG!!! The Joker opportunity could’ve been completely blown. Not just by Ledger, but by any actor. His performance is BY FAR the best of the year. It’s rare that you see an actor fall so deeply into character. He WAS the Joker…a rare performance, indeed.

  • 15 1-07-2009 at 2:35 pm

    GordonsGirl said...

    Okay, I’m ready to be flamed.

    I just don’t get the hype. Yes, Ledger was fine but, in “Tropic Thunder,” Robert Downey, Jr. nearly made me forget he wasn’t a black man. Further, when he slipped into his “native Australian,” he was a dead-ringer for Russell Crowe.

  • 16 1-07-2009 at 2:37 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Chad’s the smartest man alive ONLY when he calls “Meet Joe Black” one of the ten best films of the 1990s.

  • 17 1-07-2009 at 3:09 pm

    Chad said...

    Not only that, but it’s ten times the film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” could ever be.

  • 18 1-07-2009 at 3:19 pm

    Miral said...

    I agree that the film itself is magnificent.

    I DO see Heath, but I’m a pretty big fan. I’ve seen him in so many incarnations I can see him in all of them. I saw him the most when he was poised ready for the ships to go kaBOOM.

    I haven’t seen all the other actors in their film, so I won’t try to make a comparison.

    I think he will get the oscar because there was so much flak about him losing it before. No one wants to look THAT dumn.

  • 19 1-07-2009 at 3:25 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Ledger stood out, but we all went in prepared for that. And he dominated yes, but never in a negative manner distracting from the film. The rest of the cast was simply so good, and the story so engrossing Heath was just another brilliant factor in the film. Granted though, he was the best villain of the decade.

  • 20 1-07-2009 at 8:16 pm

    Aaron G said...

    if you read the script, you’ll see that the joker has more one-liners (e.g., there’s a joke about reese killing himself, about how killing himself would be the noble thing to do, but since he’s an attorney he won’t) and laughs more than what we see onscreen. interestingly enough, ledger *underplayed* it. it’s a character that is so easy to go all out on, to go over the top with, but he didn’t. at all. it’s in the eyes. in the three crucial joker scenes–the interrogation, the scene w/ dent, and the final scene w/ batman (and to a lesser extent the two scenes where he bullshits about his scars)–his eyelids are heavy, like he’s stoned or tired. a lesser actor, when given those lines, would’ve hammed it up w/ crazy coke eyes, but ledger went in the opposite direction. coupled w/ his voice, it gave him this almost otherworldly, disconnected aspect that, like someone else said, is akin to ventriloquism. not much is known about what the nolans were trying to show or explore w/ the joker, but i listened to an interview w/ jonah nolan wherein he said that, to him, it’s as if the joker just appears out of thin air. that, right before that shot of him on the street corner in the beginning of the movie, it’s as if he simply appears out of nowhere. the way he was written–his nearly preternatural ability to be three steps ahead of everyone, his almost effortless ability to manipulate people, the fact that he’s a john doe and no one knows anything about him and those small, brilliant aspects that ledger brought to the performance–all lead me, in my own weird way, to see the joker as slightly more than human. almost like batman was fighting some demon made flesh.

    anyway, i could go on. needless to say, tdk is my favorite film of the year and ledger was a tremendous actor. i remember watching lords of dogtown a few years ago, hungover like a, uh, dog, and racking my alcohol-soaked brain trying to figure out who was playing skip engblom. i had to crawl off the couch and look it up on imdb and was surprised to see it was ledger. he had that ability to vanish into a role. goddamn shame we’ll never again see him disappear into someone else.

  • 21 1-08-2009 at 5:46 am

    John Foote said...

    Aaron you are right on the money, his CHOICES were uncanny — a film actor, cynics say gets many chances to get it right because of the endless takes — not so — they have to get it right once because that one time is the take being used — Francis Ford Coppola once replied to an actor who had said to him “There are several ways I can do this you know”, to which Coppola replied, “Nope…only one…the right way.” Ledger found the right way to play this part.

  • 22 1-08-2009 at 6:42 am

    Kokushi said...

    When got casted for The Joker ”I was WTF the guy from Brokeback, fack him” lol, but i was with a smile the entire time seeing TDK ”Holy Shat this is one of the best movies and performances i seen in my life”, the way he talked, the manerism, everything was perfect, its still (and i dont see any other) my favorite performance of 2008 in general, i became a fan of Heath after this movie and that dont happen often.

  • 23 1-08-2009 at 5:08 pm

    Zac said...

    I would agree with you about Heath, Brando, DeNiro and Nicholson and would add another name and performance to that short list:

    Charlize Theron in Monster.

    It’s been about 5 years since I’ve seen the movie, but I can remember virtually every scene she’s in thanks to her absolutely perfect performance. Not once did I see Charlize, but rather I saw Aileen Wournos.