With Joker due to open in theaters soon, moviegoers are both anxious and excited to see this new Clown Prince of Crime portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix. There have been many Jokers over the years—from Heath Ledger’s gritty portrayal to Jared Leto’s twisted romantic. There was even Cesar Romero’s portrayal of the first ever live-action Joker from the 1966 Batman TV show. Today, however, we will dive into Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film.
Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker has long been iconic, so much so that Heath Ledger went to Nicholson for tips on how to get into character. If you caught the poster of Nicholson’s Joker in the Joker trailer, then you’d know that Phoenix’s portrayal is also a tribute. So, here is a list of reasons Nicholson’s portrayal was so awesome.
He Revived the Joker
Cesar Romero’s 1966 Joker was probably the silliest Joker ever portrayed in live-action, even in the 1966 movie. However, after the TV show ended in 1968, Nicholson was cast in Tim Burton’s Batman 21 years later. And, while he kept Romero’s zany humor, Nicholson added a darkness to the character that corresponded with the comic book counterpart.
A darker Joker needed an equally dark atmosphere. Andy Furst, the production designer, created an Art Deco style Gotham City that was, in his words, “the ugliest and bleakest metropolis imaginable.” It’s New York City without “a planning commission, a city run by crime with a riot of architectural styles.” It’s a dark, breeding ground for terrorism and littered with waste. It’s also the most believable place where a terror such as the Joker could thrive, making it easy for him to influence and wreak havoc over the city.
He Was True to the Comic Book Character
So in tune with the source material was Nicholson’s version of the Joker that even The Batman Adventures comic book (1992 – 2004) and Batman: The Animated Series (1992 – 1995) borrowed inspiration from him. In other words, he’s the Joker that audiences wanted at the time. Despite being a supervillain, you couldn’t help but laugh at his well-timed puns, hilarious one-liners, and lively antics.
The parallels don’t stop there, though. Joker’s brightly-colored clown suit was a spot-on adaptation of the comic books and he even used gag weapons (i.e. a fake gun, a party blowout, a flower that shoots acid, etc.) to jest with his foes. Since Nicholson himself is known for playing wacky and dark characters, he was perfect for the role of Joker. He really just had to be himself, giving a performance that was realistic, crazy, and psychotic, just as the Joker should be.
His Portrayal Had an Origin Story
Unlike Romero’s or Ledger’s Joker, Nicholson’s character had a backstory (a consistent one at that). Before the Joker was the Joker he was Jack Napier, the right-hand man of mafia boss Carl Grissom. Based on his files, Jack moved to Gotham City at an early age and, despite showing signs of emotional instability, was also highly intelligent, showing proficiency in art, science, and chemistry.
As a high-ranking criminal, Napier originally held no interest in Batman and was a narcissistic and sardonic gangster whose interests lied only in taking over Grissom’s criminal empire. Ironically enough, he also seemed to enjoy playing cards and carried them on hand at all times. However, an affair with Grissom’s girlfriend, Alicia Hunt led to Napier being double-crossed by his boss before running into Batman and falling into a vat of acid.
His Joker Complemented Michael Keaton’s Batman
In a flashback, we see a young Jack Napier murder Bruce Wayne’s parents in cold blood, leaving Bruce as the sole survivor only by a stroke of luck. In other words, he’s the reason Bruce Wayne grows up to become Batman. Later on, due to a chaotic incident at Axis Chemicals where Jack attempts to shoot Batman, the bullet ricochets and scars his face, causing Jack to fall off a catwalk. Batman attempts to save him but Napier’s glove slips off his hand, causing him to fall into a vat of chemicals that ultimately transform him into the Joker. Thus, they exist because of each other. As Batman himself said, “I made you, you made me first.”
Nicholson’s colorful, jovial, and nutty clown is a stark contrast to Keaton’s tall, dark, and somber. Even his arsenal of unconventional gadgets was distinct from Batman’s tactical weaponry. Yet, there’s no better hero or villain that pairs so well. It paints a vivid and unforgettable picture in the viewer’s mind.
His Joker Stole the Show
We all love Batman. There’s no question about it. However, we love the Joker just as much. In Burton’s blockbuster Nicholson’s Joker had more screen time, which is understandable since the movie was practically centered on Joker’s origin. Most scenes included Joker killing his victims while laughing and prancing about like a lunatic. Here are the most Joker memorable scenes of Batman:
1) Joker’s iconic Prince music dance with his henchmen in the Gotham museum, vandalizing paintings and statues until he attempts to woo Vicki Vale with his grotesque sense of art and humor.
2) Joker throwing a parade for Gotham’s citizens, also while dancing to Trust by Prince, with a promise to shower the people with $20 million. However, he unleashes fake money over the city and unveils his real motive: to poison Gotham City with giant, clownish-looking balloons.
3) Joker shooting Carl Grissom repeatedly shortly after his transformation and confessing that he’s never been happier.
While there are likely to be more Joker interpretations in the future, Nicholson’s Joker will always be close to our hearts. Letting his own personality blend with Joker’s darkness gave comic book fans an outstanding performance unlike anything at the time. It can’t be an easy feat blending two conflicting traits in one character seamlessly. Besides, few actors can pull off Joker’s well-known iconic laugh. Nicholson may not be Ledger or Mark Hamill, but his own laugh was enough to instill both chills and chuckles. Here’s hoping for more iconic Jokers in the future.