The Joker is wild again in Hollywood. Todd Phillips Joker was nothing short of a sensation at the 76th Venice Film Festival where its premiere earned the Golden Lion award, a slew of rave reviews, and an 8-minute standing ovation on the Lido. Joaquin Phoenix, a three-time Academy Award nominee, now looks like a lock to get his fourth nod for Joker and perhaps his first Oscar win come next February.
It was just a decade ago that Heath Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for The Dark Knight (2008) with a more feral and scabby interpretation of the most popular villain in the American comic book history. How rare is for two actors to win an Academy Award for portraying the same fictional character? Its happened with just one other role: Marlon Brando and Joker costar Robert DeNiro each won an Oscar in the early 1970s for portraying Vito Corleone in The Godfather films.
That prestigious company shows how far Hollywood has come in its view of comic book properties. The first actor who portrayed the Joker on the big screen was Cesar Romero in Batman (1966), a tie-in project to the namesake television series starring Adam West. Romeros zeal for the role was so limited he refused to shave his mustache for the job so the make-up department merely slathered grease paint over it.
It was a different story when the Joker returned in 1989 in the first summer superhero blockbuster in Hollywood history. Tim Burtons Batman starred Michael Keaton in the title role but it was Jack Nicholson who got top billing and a historic payday (somewhere north of $60 million) for donning the purple suit for the Warner Bros. hit that finished 1989 as that years highest-grossing film ($412 million worldwide).
STACKED DECK: No one knows the Jokers Hollywood history better than Joker executive producer Michael Uslan, a fixture in Hollywoods Batman business since the Carter Administration. Next month, in fact, is the 40th anniversary of the deal that gave Uslan and his partner, Ben Melniker, the feature film rights to Batman and associated characters. Thanks to that 1979 pact, Uslan has been involved in every Bat-related feature film that has followed (and yes that list does include Catwoman and yes hes sorry).
It was Uslan who first visualized the screen possibilities of Nicholson as the Joker. It happened almost a decade before the Burton films release. Heres how the East Coast native recounts the story:” It was the beginning of Memorial Day weekend 1980. I brought the afternoon newspaper and hopped on a bus from New York City back to my home in New Jersey. On the bus, I opened up to the movie section which previewed two big movies opening up that holiday weekend: The Empire Strikes Back and The Shining For the first time, I saw what has become an iconic movie still, the one referred to as the “Heres Johnny” shot of Jack Nicholson peering maniacally through a doorway. Instantaneously, I said, “This is the only actor who can play the Joker!” I tore that picture out of the paper and as soon as I got home I raced to my desk, took White-Out and painted it on Jacks face, took a red pen and colored in his lips, and took a green magic marker and did his hair, and “Voilà!” There was the definitive Joker looking back at me. I then showed everybody associated with the movie for years that picture and why Nicholson had to be the Joker. One of the best moments of my career was the day he was hired.”
WILD CARDS: After Cesar Romero (1966), Jack Nicholson (1989), and Heath Ledger (2008), a fourth actor took on the cackling criminal for a live-action feature film: Jared Leto who, like Nicholson, was already an Oscar-winner when he took on the role for Suicide Squad (2016). Letos sinewy, languid, and leering, interpretation of the villain was a major departure from any other big-screen version to date. That film also introduced Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, the Jokers wild-child lover and former psychiatrist, and formidable property in her own right. Harley returns in Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which reaches theaters on February 7, three weeks before the Oscars on Feb. 24. The character is also getting her own animated series on DC Universe subscription streaming service.
When Joker opens Oct. 4, Phoenix will be the fifth actor to take on the role in a live-action film but that doesnt technically complete the list of Hollywoods big-screen Jokers. Thats because the character has popped up in a few theatrically released animated feature films, such as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), a traditionally animated $6 million project that introduced a mystery villain called Phantasm who is eventually revealed to be the Joker in disguise. Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame voiced the Joker in that film. Even stranger, Zach Galifianakis portrayed the Joker for the Lego Batman Movie in February 2017, which is nothing laugh at — that film raked in $305 million worldwide.
THE FIRST JOKER FILM?: The Joker was introduced in a Batman story in 1940 as the creation of Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson, but did the character make his film debut 12 years earlier? Not really, but it I interesting to see the visual parallels between the Joker and the central character of The Man Who Laughs, a silent film starring Conrad Veidt, the actor later known for playing the strident Major Strasser in Casablanca. In the 1928 silent melodrama, Veidt portrayed Gwynplaine, a disfigured man whose face is paralyzed in a maniacal-looking grin. Finger recounted on numerous occasions that the movie, which adapted a Victor Hugo tale, was a direct visual influence on the Joker and its not hard to see that resemblance.
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