The curse of the Joker

The curse of the Joker

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How do you get into the frame of mind to play a psychopathic clown? And what are the consequences?


How do you play a deranged, homicidal, ruthless, sadistic, maniacal, lunatic, manipulative, intelligent and diabolical clown who wants nothing but chaos and anarchy wherever he goes?

Clowns are supposed to represent joy and laughter yet the Joker strikes terrifying fear into the hearts of his victims. A clown wears colourful makeup to deconstruct facial features to create an unrevealed identity. Emotionless and a black canvas, the Joker is a calculated cold blooded killer who smears the blood of his victim’s corpses on his powdered face, as his sinister laugh lingers in the numbing air. The Joker is a textbook example of antisocial personality disorder, calming the only sensible way to live is either to descend into madness or to live without rules. With these nihilistic and deluded notions etched into the mind of this maniacal madman, what is the psychological effect of playing someone with such extreme and chaotic views?

Many men have portrayed the mass murdering maniac etched with a killer grin on his face. But are there any emotional repercussions to playing someone so complex after filming has wrapped up? To get in the mind of a stark raving lunatic surly your own mind would suffer as a result? What makes the role irresistible to actors and the character such a favourite of fans? And why do some people say that playing the role of this epitome of evil is doomed and cursed?

Well first we need to start from the beginning. Who exactly is the joker? And what is the backstory of this infamous villain?

The Joker is a fictional super villain created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson that first appeared in the debut issue of the comic book Batman (April 25, 1940) published by DC Comics. He is considered to be the arch rival to Batman and a constant threat to the caped crusader.

The Joker has had various possible origin stories during his decades of appearances. The most common story involves him falling into a tank of chemical waste which bleaches his skin white, turns his hair green, and his lips bright red; the resulting disfigurement drives him insane. The antithesis of Batman in personality and appearance, the Joker is considered by critics to be his perfect adversary.

One of the most iconic characters in popular culture, the Joker has been listed among the greatest comic book villains and fictional characters ever created.

The Joker is an evil, ruthless, murderous criminal mastermind with a sadistic sense of humour and psychopathic tendency of murdering whoever he wants to. He is cunning in his behaviour, diabolically devious and often manipulating others to further his own adjective. So it must take someone brave and determined to step into the shoes of this fiendishly intelligent sicko.

In 1966, 20th Century Fox Television debuted its brand new Batman television series. The producers of the show brought in Cesar Romero to play the role of Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. Romero was known for his wide range of screen roles which included playing Latin lovers, historical figures in costume dramas and characters in light domestic comedies. So to say applying the white foundation and red lips of a crazy psycho clown was an odd choice for a seasoned and respected actor left some people scratching their heads in confusion.

Even though the series downplayed the character’s comic book homicidal side and turned him into more of a bumbling camp clown, Romero simply could not find a place for himself in the character, and he spoke of his problems with this duality many times in later interviews. He often left the set confused and unsure of himself and complained of severe headaches when he was brought in for an episode. He would later liken it to being in a constant war between himself and the Joker.

It was as if the Joker had a subconscious hold on the people portraying the deranged lunatic. To convince your mind that you are a psychopathic clown surly must create some kind of identity crisis in your brain, creating a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure. The Jokers laughter ringing in the ear of the portrayer like fingers being scratched along a chalkboard. Once you played the part it was seemly hard to let go.

In 1989. Tim Burton, a director who at the time was known for his Gothic and macabre visuals as seen in the cult hit Beetlejuice brought his vision of Batman to the big screen. His larger than life presentation needed larger than life actors to fill the role of the joker, step in legendary actor Jack Nicholson who joined the production as the Joker. Burton allowed Nicholson to dive head first into the darkness of the role and in the beginning, the actor relished the freedom of playing a man with no conscience who enjoyed killing and mutilation simply for the thrill of it as he uttered those now famous lines “Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?”.

His joy in the role would not last long, however. He began to complain of restlessness and severe insomnia. The stress of playing the mad clown seeped into all parts of his life, and though he has always spoken of how pleased he was with his work, he still alludes from time to time of the weight and toll the complicated character took on him.

In 2008 Heath Ledger thought landing the demanding role of the schizophrenic jester was a dream come true, but now some think it was a nightmare that led to his tragic death. Jack Nicholson, who had previously donned the trademark purple suit and creepy smile years before offered a cryptic comment when told Ledger was dead.

“Well, I warned him” Nicholson was quoted as saying. Though the remark was ambiguous It was later revealed that he was talking about a warning he had given the younger actor about some of the sleep medication he was taking, but it’s hard not to read a dual meaning in the words.

Before his death Ledger was quoted as saying “I slept an average of two hours a night” while playing the part of the mental clown prince of crime. “I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” Ledger was already in a less than ideal place in his life, having just ended his relationship and being separated from his daughter.

Locking himself in a hotel room for weeks, isolating himself from society and civilization before filming took place. Heath ruthlessly studied and mimicked the corruption, wickedness and depravity of the evil clown, immersing himself in every way with the man behind the makeup, even channelling inspiration from Malcolm McDowell’s character in the notorious film a Clockwork Orange.

Prior to his death he claimed to have ‘feared’ the role but wanted to make it different. ‘I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices, it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. ‘I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath, someone with very little to no conscience towards his act’’ Ledger was to say.

Ledger continued ‘He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown, which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what The Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke’.

As filming began, his fellow actors began to notice the effect the Joker was having on the actor. He seemed unable to leave the character on the set. It wasn’t long before the depression, anxiety and insomnia set in. He saw a variety of doctors during this time and was prescribed medications with dangerous interactions.

Heath Ledger was found dead in his apartment of an accidental overdose on January 22, 2008, a full 6 months before the movie was released.  The diary that Heath kept was later revealed, filled with pictures of hyenas, comic images and on the last page, in bold letters the words “Bye Bye”.

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