Looking back on comic book movies from the last 25 years or so, few performances stand out like Heath Ledger as The Joker in the 2008’s The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger was one of my favorite actors of all-time.
His twisted, manic take on the quintessential Batman villain redefined the character for Nolan’s dark film and the approach resonated with audiences. When Ledger died months before the film was released, his death was the most-reported entertainment story of the year, and became inseparable from both his portrayal of The Joker as well as the film as a whole.
Ledger took his commitment to the role seriously. Months before shooting began, he isolated himself in a hotel room, writing and collaging images to help him get inside the character’s head.
When in character, he certainly made an impression on his co-stars. He startled Michael Caine so badly that he forgot his lines. After production wrapped up in October of 2007, Ledger said his time playing The Joker was “the most fun I’ve ever had, or probably ever will have, playing a character.”
When The Dark Knight was released in the summer of 2008, The New Yorker called his performance “terrifying,” praising it as a “heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss.”
Ledger would go on to posthumously win the Academy Award for his performance, a rare achievement for comic book adaptations.
I came upon this excerpt on Wikipedia that describes how Ledger prepared for the role and had to share it:
During a span of six weeks, Ledger “locked” himself away in a hotel room, forming a character diary and experimenting with voices. “It’s a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script and then just closing my eyes and meditating on it,” he told about his process. The diary contains scrawling and cuttings inside. Christopher Hooton, writing for The Independent, said that the ‘Joker journal’ had several stills from Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange, joker cards, photos of hyenas, unhinged clown makeup and the word “chaos” highlighted in green. Furthermore, it contains a list of things the Joker would find funny, such as AIDS, landmines, and geniuses suffering brain damage. It was revealed that Ledger had read Grant Morrison’s writing of The Clown at Midnight (Batman #663) and based the list upon the Batman writer’s prose.
Ledger highlighted the importance of finding a somewhat iconic voice and laugh for the character, relating the voice as “the key to the demented killer.” Nolan explained Ledger’s early and “peculiar” ambition for the voice of the character, saying that the actor had studied the way ventriloquist dummies talk. The filmmaker also acknowledged that the voice performance was based on the Alexander technique.
Ledger developed the Joker’s voice and mannerism slowly over time and during camera tests. “Don’t act, just read it”, Nolan had told Ledger for test screening. In hair and makeup tests, Ledger would start exploring the movements of the character. While test recording without sound, he shared his take on the Joker’s voice and moves, and “in that way he sort of sneaked up on it.”
The actor developed the physical appearance of the character, being “very involved” with the painting of his face, says prosthetic supervisor Conor O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan acknowledged how Ledger, Nolan and makeup artist John Caglione all gravitated towards a Francis Bacon painting Nolan was referring to. Ledger also got to choose the Joker’s weapon among different rubber knives, and he worked closely with costume designer Lindy Hemming on deciding the look for the character.
Nolan noted, “We gave a Francis Bacon spin to [his face]. This corruption, this decay in the texture of the look itself. It’s grubby. You can almost imagine what he smells like.” With costume designer Lindy Hemming picking inspiration for the “chaotic” look from such countercultural pop culture artists as Pete Doherty, Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten, and Sid Vicious. She gave the image for the Joker of someone who is “very sweaty” and who “probably doesn’t have a proper home.” She tried to present a backstory for the character “that he really doesn’t look after himself.”