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Ledger is frightening as Joker in ‘Dark Knight’

Director Chris Nolan says he got exactly what he wanted when he hired Heath Ledger to portray a frightening villain whose chaotic life threatens audiences.
/ Source: Reuters

He hired actor Heath Ledger to portray a frightening villain whose chaotic life threatens audiences, and Chris Nolan, director of new Batman movie "The Dark Knight," says he got exactly what he wanted.

The film marks one of the final big-screen appearances for Oscar nominee Ledger, who died in January of an accidental drug overdose at 28, and his portrayal of the villainous Joker has wowed audiences in early screenings.

"We both saw it (the part) exactly the same way," Nolan told Reuters in an interview on Sunday. "It had to be very frightening, very much a force of anarchy, someone completely devoted to chaos and the idea of ripping down the world around him for his own amusement."

At a Saturday showing in Los Angeles for reporters, cast and crew, there was an audible gasp of shock from some audience members when Ledger's evil Joker first appears on screen during a tense bank heist in the opening sequence.

With his scraggly matted hair, chalky-white scarred face, smudged raccoon eyes and drunkenly-applied blood-red lipstick — all the more disturbing when worn with a neat shirt, tie and vest — Ledger seemed to have tapped into his darkest, deepest demons, only to channel them back into a malevolent anti-hero.

In the movie based on the "Batman" comics, the Joker orchestrates a series of murders, kidnappings and bombings in an attempt to bring Gotham City to its knees, and it's up to Batman (Christian Bale) to stop him.

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Ledger's villain is a far cry from the campy Joker that Jack Nicholson portrayed back in 1989's movie, "Batman."

Ledger’s legacyNolan said he had wanted to work with Ledger "for some time," and that his portrayal of a taciturn gay cowboy in 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," which earned Ledger a best actor Oscar nomination, made Nolan believe he could tackle any role.

"There's nothing done (in "Brokeback") for vanity or the audience. He plays a lonely introvert, and plays it sincerely, which is kind of heartbreaking and so bold," Nolan said.

Ultimately, Ledger may be best remembered as a sensitive, gifted actor who in a few brief years exhibited an impressively broad range of talent from the tanned hunk of "A Knight's Tale" to the murderous nihilist of "The Dark Knight."

He seemed equally at home in roles as a charming uber-lover in "Casanova," an eager-to-fight 18th century teenager in "The Patriot," and a California surfer in "Lords of Dogtown." Other films included "Ned Kelly" and "Monster's Ball."

Nolan said he met with Ledger to discuss The Joker before a script was even ready, and the actor and director began crafting a villain directly inspired by "punk influences and films like 'A Clockwork Orange."'

"Then, Heath went off and did a lot of work to create this iconic character that's still human enough to be frightening, because if he's not human, you won't believe in him," Nolan said. "He did it in a complex way and is terrifying in it."

But as strong as Ledger's performance appears to be for now — critical reviews await the movie's debut on July 18 — Nolan called it "bitter-sweet" that this is the actor's last role.

"Inevitably there'll be this sense of, 'What could he have achieved if he'd lived?' And that's the heartbreaking thing about it, to see somebody achieve such greatness and have all that potential tragically cut short."