For years, I stated my preference for Brian Cox’s interpretation of Hannibal Lector over Anthony Hopkins. Cox portrays a killer who is much more believable. Almost every serial killer is described by neighbors as perfectly nice; truly the last person you would expect to be capable of such horrible things. Cox’s performance captures this. His Lector is a wry gentleman, which makes the knowledge of what he has done all the scarier. I always viewed Anthony Hopkins’ version of Lector to be a little over-the-top, as if he were a James Bond villain.
However, these days, my views have changed. Had Cox been cast as Lector in The Silence of the Lambs, his subtle performance would have been swallowed up by the Gothic art direction and slightly-melodramatic tone. He wouldn’t have fit in. Hopkins’ performance is molded to the movie that it is in. I understand that now.
I ask you to keep this concept in mind this weekend, as you see Heath Ledger’s amazing turn in The Dark Knight. While I haven’t seen it yet, the film is getting wonderful reviews, with Ledger’s Joker a specific standout. However, in many of the reviews that I’ve been reading- professional and otherwise- the reviewer feels the need to call out Jack Nicholson for his interpretation of the character in Tim Burton’s Batman. Words like “campy” and “silly” keep popping up. People have maintained that Nicholson’s performance has more in common with Caesar Romero’s than Ledger.
Let’s not go overboard, shall we? Surely, Ledger’s performance is amazing, but please keep in mind that the character himself has been reimagined since 1989. Based on the reviews, Christopher Nolan’s Joker is a man tortured by demons that only he knows about. Not so in Burton’s film. Here, he is a bit more cartoonish. However, that is not Jack Nicholson’s fault. Nicholson does what I think is an amazing job in Batman. He captures something fundamental about the character: in spite of being homicidal, he is often very funny. And the fact that he is consistently funny seems to make him a little more frightening, because when the violence comes, it is not really expected.
The Joker’s character arc in Burton’s film is an interesting one. Because, over the course of the film, he goes from being a somewhat rational criminal to completely insane. After his transformation from Jack Napier to the Joker, his actions make sense at first. He takes revenge on his old boss, who betrayed him. He then tries to convince the local members of the crime syndicate to follow his lead. They refuse, so he has no choice but take charge by force. So far, nothing we haven’t seen in such films as The Godfather and Little Caesar.
However, Joker’s actions start to become more and more unpredictable. He has no interest in monetary gain; just chaos. He goes on a rampage of biochemical terror. He has no demands, so there’s no telling when or if he will stop. He kills indiscriminately; whomever happens to use the right combination of chemicals will die. Rich, poor, male, female. It doesn’t matter. By the end of the film, he uses money to lure people to their doom, gassing hundreds, if not thousands. He even kills his own men. He doesn’t care about other people. If they live or die, it’s really all incidental.
And, of course, throughout it all, he’s laughing his head off. Even after he’s dead. In light of this, can we really compare Nicholson’s Joker to that of Caesar Romero? Romero was not at all threatening. He was merely flamboyant. Nothing wrong with that, either, now that I think about it, because his performance was in keeping with the tone of the old Batman television show. Why would I expect Romero to give the performance that Nicholson did when it would have been so out of step with the show?
This is not the Presidential Election; we don’t have to choose between Ledger or Nicholson. Both men deliver performances that are appropriate for the film they appear in. By all means, you can talk about which Joker you prefer. And, with the nihilistic attitude that the Joker from The Dark Knight seems to have, you may well like that one more. But, let’s not use that as an opportunity to insult one of the best actors of the last fifty years, okay?