For some reason, I always remembered the original Batman as a sort of sublime representation of the property; a wonderful blend of the serious, dramatic side and the charming camp of the television series. Before we get to The Joker and Jack Nicholson, a few notes from when I watched it again recently:
- I totally forgot Billy Dee Williams was Harvey Dent. Obviously this never built to him playing Two-Face for whatever reason. That would have been very interesting to see. Shame.
- I’m not a big Tim Burton guy; I enjoy most of his work, but I don’t automatically like everything he does. His work in Batman is superb though.
- The art destruction scene, while campy and dated, is a pretty great representation of the Joker character.
- The pileup after the first chase scene is hilarious. It’s like a million cars, vegatables, bricks, and a mountain of other inanimate objects.
- I still think Michael Keaton was a curious choice for Batman/Bruce Wayne. He ended up being quite good, but I can’t recall any body of work that would make anyone think he would be specifically good at either part of the role. But he is.
- Why would Batman fly up to silhouette on the moon like that? Oh whatever.
- I think there might only be four women in this movie. Vicki Vale, the girl that was dating the Joker and the old mob boss, the news lady, and Bruce Wayne’s mom. I think all the extras were dudes. This movie is a sausagefest.
- Fucking Danny Elfman. Everything he touches is gold.
OK, with that out of the way: Jack Nicholson as the Joker. It gets weird.
So, the defining characteristic of all of all of the 80s/90s Batman movies is that they paid homage to the camp of the TV series. To me it’s pretty clear that this was intentional, but I also think it would have been done deliberately if only because Batman villains are very cartoonish and campy in their own right. The villains typically don’t have superpowers (since Batman technically doesn’t either), so they are strange and fantastical in their own right, with curious origin stories and blown-out characterizations.
What we now know is that the Joker can be gritty, real, and terrifying while still maintaining the trademark name, facepaint, and character traits. Heath Ledger’s turn as the iconic villain has been heavily lauded as one of the greatest villain performances in history, and much of that is owed to the writing of the character. In The Dark Knight, the Joker seems very real, very dangerous, and very believable to many extents.
However, the original Batman movie was still stuck in the mire of camp, so the characterization of the Joker was still rather silly. Creating an origin story that had never really been explored, Jack Napier is a bad guy turned worse by circumstance, with a mangled face (to explain the perma-grin) and a chaotic sense of entitlement.
However, when compared to all the other villains in that initial run of Batman movies, the Joker certainly stands out. Part of this is that the Joker is simply the least ridiculous of the villains; all the others were either historically weirder or just portrayed as extreme caricatures. The other part is Jack Nicholson.
Is it strange to feel that Nicholson both helped and harmed the Joker character in Batman? I feel that his performance was a double-edged sword. Let me explain.
What Nicholson did lend to the Joker role was prestige and menace. The simple fact that it was him portraying the Joker made the performance important, only because Nicholson is important. Not to say Michelle Pfeiffer, Jim Carrey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny DeVito, et al aren’t important, but Nicholson brings with him some serious dramatic weight, no matter what the role.
Additionally, nobody can appear menacing and charming at the same time quite like Jack. This did lend the Joker character a true degree of danger, despite the purple suit, cheesy jokes, and perma-smile. I’m not sure if Nicholson was the only person who could have done that, but he certainly did it.
However, Nicholson clearly didn’t have his heart into the character whatsoever. It’s a common problem with him in many movies, where his performance is still good because he’s largely incapable of poor performance, but his lack of enthusiasm is evident in the quieter parts of the performance. The crescendos are magnificent, but the expository parts of the dialogue are lackluster. It’s as if the gravitas of his personality still fills the role, but he himself isn’t trying very hard.
The casting alternatives for the Joker role are always tantalizing. Names like Robin Williams, Tim Curry, and David Bowie are fun to think about. However, the best name I’ve ever heard associated with that role was Willem Dafoe. I think Williams and Curry would have definitely filled the humor and insanity parts of the role well, but I would have concerns on how much menace and danger either of them could portray. Dafoe would have been able to make the Joker more dangerous, similar to how Nicholson did.
Funny thing I just realized while typing this: I probably would have never considered myself a Batman fanatic, but I’ve written like three or four blog posts in the last month about the movies. I guess I am one.