By: Vanessa Bronson
The opinions expressed in this piece are those of its author and do not necessarily reflect those of KHTS AM 1220.
“I’m only laughing on the outside, my smile is just skin deep, if you could see inside I’m really crying, you might join me for a weep.”
– The Joker
In the gloom of a rainy afternoon in January 2008, a cluster of photographers, reporters and fans congregated outside the apartment of film star Heath Ledger. It was on this day that the Dark Knight star was discovered lifeless in his bedroom amongst a fusion of psychiatric drugs. The same drugs credited as the culprit in Ledger’s death might have been an accidental overdose due to a (commonly) excessive intake of medications.
While filming The Dark Knight, Ledger became consumed and almost possessed with his role as the Joker, a character that he described as a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.” Ledger found it almost impossible to escape the grasp that his character had on him and he soon began to suffer from depression and sleep depravation, getting a mere two hours of sleep each night.
To pacify the chaos that was brewing within his mind, Ledger began taking a variety of prescription medications to help him sleep. On January 22, the prescription cocktail rendered him unconscious and eventually stopped his heart. He was pronounced dead at 3:36 p.m. It was argued for months whether the overdose was accidental or suicide.
Or could it be that the Joker pushed Heath Ledger into insanity and ultimately, a premature death? This isn’t a joke. It hasn’t been just the tragedy of Ledger or the fictitious characters in the Batman comics and movies that the villain toyed with, but every actor who has ever portrayed the Joker has fallen victim to the clown’s sinister grin.
Conrad Veidt, Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill and Ledger have all portrayed the Joker, and suffered the wrath that tags along while playing the role. Some were left confused, enraged, insane, and even dead after becoming the sociopathic clown. The deaths of those who have been the Joker have all been eerily similar.
The Joker first appeared in DC Comics in spring 1940. The maniacal mass murderer with the face of a clown was modeled after Conrad Veidt’s character in the 1920s silent film The Man Who Laughs. As the co-creator of Batman, Bill Finger brought partner Bob Kane a photograph of Veidt as Gwynplaine, the carnival freak from The Man Who Laughs, and thus the incarnation of the Joker began. In the film, we see Gwynplaine clutching a dead baby and laughing hysterically (just as the Joker would do).
The film is considered by many as a melodrama, but Veidt’s performance as a lunatic with a clown’s face is so frightening, that it actually puts the film in the horror genre. Veidt appeared in over 100 silent films in Germany, but had dreams of escaping the Nazi regime and moving to Hollywood to further pursue his career. Finally, in 1942 he made it to Hollywood where he would star in his most famous film, Casablanca. Not too long after finishing that film, Veidt suffered a heart attack and died. Although Conrad Veidt was not the actual Joker, he was the muse to creating the now infamous villain, and possibly the first to begin the deadly timeline for future actors portraying the same character.
The Joker is the first villain to appear in the Batman comic books, and is also Batman’s ultimate arch nemesis that he can’t seem to defeat. A criminal genius with a penchant for madness, the Joker killed over three dozen people in his initial adventures. He was originally written as a spine-chilling psychopath, but in the late 1950s, the Comics Code Authority censorship board reformed the villain to make him less frightening. The character was too dark and twisted for some audiences and still too disturbing for the rest.
He was almost taken out entirely by the early 1960s, and the remnants left were that of a mischievous jokester. This is much like the version of the Joker that is seen in the 1960s television show Batman, starring Cesar Romero as the Joker. The Cuban actor had always played heartthrobs and Latin lovers in films, a far cry from the cackling homicidal maniac. When he was cast as the Joker in 1966, he was utterly and intently confused.
“Why [Dozier] wanted me, I’ll never know,” Romero said “I haven’t the slightest idea what it was that he saw in me, because I had never done anything like it before.” Romero was disgruntled and confused by the Joker. He could never fully understand or relate to the character, nor did he want to. From playing cheery characters on Broadway, then transforming into a deformed mental case was a great leap for the actor. He left the set most days baffled and dumbfounded, for he was in a constant battle between himself and the Joker.
He tried to transform into this monster that he hated and was so different than himself. He did not want the Joker to become his identity, so he demanded to keep his famous mustache, and that it just be covered with white makeup. Even after the show ended, and up until his death, Romero remained confused and jaded with his bittersweet experiences as the Joker. In 1994, the actor began to suffer from severe bronchitis and pneumonia, then died from heart complications.
In 1973, the original dark and sadistic version of the Joker was revived and returned to the Batman comic books. It would be more than a decade before someone new would reprise the role of the Joker in a feature film. That actor would be Jack Nicholson, an actor already synonymous with playing neurotic characters. Under the direction of director Tim Burton, the film Batman was taken to it’s darkest extremes.
Nicholson, who was already a fan of Burton and Batman, felt more pressure than ever to perfect his dream role as the Joker. Nicholson unabashedly dove into the skin of Jack Napier, better known as the Joker. The psychosis of the persona practically ate him alive. Living in a world of make-believe, playing the role of the Joker was more physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing than he could ever have predicted. Soon, the actor began losing sleep, feeling anxious and restless.
It was as if the Joker had a firm grip right around his throat and his sanity. Even though Nicholson was so pleased with his portrayal of the villain, and felt so “privileged” to have played the part, it left some dark and traumatic bruises on his conscience.
This same kind of spell was cast upon actor Mark Hamill, who was the voice of the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. Hamill perfected the infamous chilling cackle for which the Joker is widely known. Hamill’s performance as the Joker was critically acclaimed and applauded by Batman fans. But just like his predecessors, Hamill had a turbulent relationship with the character, even referring to him as an “animal.”
He had terrible anxieties and insecurities with playing the Clown of Crime. Just like Romero, he felt that he would never be able to understand the character and turned down multiple offers to play the Joker in a live-action version of Batman, stating “the audience would have to turn around so as not to ruin the illusion.” And just like Nicholson, he began having trouble sleeping.
Although Nicholson and Hamill had their differences when it came to the Joker, when Hamill heard that Heath Ledger was slated to play Gotham’s most frightening trickster, he said “[Heath] got us all really excited about his portrayal of the Joker”
Everyone, that is, except Jack Nicholson. When asked for his thoughts on Ledger playing the role that put him through a personal hell, Nicholson said “To be candid, I’m furious.”
Several months later, Heath Ledger was dead.
Ledger’s heart stopped due to a lethal psychotropic concoction of medications prescribed to him while he was enduring the tortures of his role as the Joker. When Nicholson was told that Ledger was dead, he responded dryly with “Well, I warned him.”
The creepy response was later followed up with Nicholson rhapsodizing about how he would have liked to have had a “fun talk” with Ledger about the dangers lurking within the psyche of the brutal Joker.
The Joker has committed a countless amount of crimes throughout his existence within the pages of a comic book and flickerings on screens both large and small. He is an entity, a force, and yet he isn’t even real. But he is real in our minds, especially to those who have had to live within his tight sardonic grin.
Conrad Veidt, Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger have all been captured in the psychotic web spun by the Joker. Three have passed away due to heart complications and they are survived by the remaining two who brandish an emotional scar left by the Clown Prince of Crime.
In Batman: The Killing Joke, the Joker offers some cryptic knowledge. stating “Any man can have one really bad day and end up just like me.” And maybe that’s the punch line to his greatest joke of all.
All of those who enter the warped mind of the Joker are cursed.
Batman: The Dark Knight opens in theatres on July 24th.