The Dark Knight: Darker than you’d like
Of course, Heath Ledger’s performance was outstanding. It was not nearly as eerie as the performance Christian Bale pulled off in American Psycho, and probably not quite as impressive as Bale’s performance as Batman, but still great. In any case, the Joker is a much more interesting character than Batman; and he has never been more realistic, more terrifying, or more awesome in make-up and wardrobe than he is in The Dark Knight.
The acting was apparently difficult to pull off, too. According to Alex Cohen, a writer for NPR, “the challenge of the role wasn’t lost on Jack Nicholson. When told of Ledger’s death, the actor’s immediate response was: ‘I warned him.’” …And there it is: the charge that playing the Joker caused Ledger’s death.
The compulsion to inquire remains: did Ledger’s overdose have anything to do with playing a demented villain? Director Christopher Nolan and costar Christian Bale find such “amateur psychology” offensive, pointing out that Ledger was a great actor who stepped into character convincingly without forgetting to step out once he left the set. According to the Nolan, the mind that could envision and execute this Joker was far too strong to have succumbed to the fiction’s potential influence.
Interesting. Still, I have to lean toward Nicholson’s view—after all, he doesn’t have a movie to promote or a career to establish. He has the freedom to be politically incorrect.
We should ask if there exist pre-requisites for roles affecting actors negatively. On that note, it’s important to recognize the recent misbehavior of Christian Bale, who was arrested after allegedly assaulting his sister and his 61-year-old mother. I’m not saying that playing Batman caused Bale to get into this skirmish, but perhaps it was a factor. Being Batman, even the fictional Batman, is a lot of weight for one man to carry.
Ironically, the real-life tragedy of Heath Ledger has strong parallels to the movie’s tragic portrayal of Harvey Dent. In the movie, Dent is the ideal representative. He’s tough on crime, he cares for the city, and he is beyond reproach morally and ethically. However, after losing his girlfriend along with the skin on half of his face in his attempts to save Gotham City from the Joker, he surrenders to his darker impulses and goes on a killing spree. It does not last long, however; Batman comes to the rescue and, accidentally, squishes to death the public-servant-turned-public-enemy.
Surprisingly, Batman and Commissioner Gordon veil (postmortem) Dent’s transformation from exemplary hero to the mentally deranged villain, Two-Face. It’s Batman’s idea, and Gordon reluctantly admits that Batman is “the hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs right now.” Instead of telling the truth about Dent’s death, a death he brought upon himself, they decide to make Batman the scapegoat. Consequently and despite the reality of his surrender to evil, Dent’s reputation is salvaged, and he becomes the poster boy for the hopes and dreams of Gotham’s people, the symbol of the city’s supposed indefatigable morality and ethics.
It may be that Ledger, an exemplary actor, slipped into a kind of derangement at the end of his career that the Chris’s would rather not reveal. He was a great actor, and he may indeed be the kind of hero we need right now. Commercially, at any rate, we are all over it. But as cool as the Joker is, is that character really the hero that we deserve? And to take it a step further, as good of an actor as Ledger was, was he really the better actor in this film?