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No Joke! Ledger’s role is truly Oscar-worthy

If the Academy decides to bestow posthumous honors upon him, a defense could be mounted that his shot at the shortlist would be just as strong even if he’d lived.
/ Source: contributor

People get Oscar nominations for all sorts of reasons, from surviving a lengthy showbiz career of good service to mounting a savvy marketing campaign to, you know, giving a good performance. So the idea of whether or not Heath Ledger “deserves” a nomination for his portrayal of the chaotically evil Joker in “The Dark Knight” assumes that merit ever has anything to do with the Academy Awards.

But it was merit that was on my mind as I headed out to see the film a second time, and a November screening of a summer blockbuster proved educational in various ways. For one thing, it was the first time I’d ever had a repeat viewing of a film I’d seen in IMAX. And going from the several-stories-high screen to the teeniest house of a 13-screen multiplex in Beverly Hills was like walking out of the symphony at Lincoln Center and listening to the rest of the concert on AM radio.

It’s a testament to director Christopher Nolan and his cast and crew that “The Dark Knight” remained as compelling in less overwhelming circumstances. (The flaws were still there, too, but at least they didn’t grow inversely larger upon second viewing.)

As for Heath Ledger’s performance? Let’s just say that if the Academy decides to bestow posthumous honors upon him, a defense could be mounted that his shot at the shortlist would be just as strong even if he’d survived the drug overdose that tragically cut his life short earlier this year.

Watching “The Dark Knight” with a focus on Ledger, I was quite shocked to discover that he’s not in it nearly as much as I’d remembered. Long stretches of the film pass where the action focuses on Christian Bale in and out of costume, on Aaron Eckhart’s crusade to clean up Gotham City, on rooftop shenanigans in Hong Kong and on droll pleasantries from Michael Caine. Ledger’s occasional appearances pack such intensity, however, that we’re thinking about him even when he’s nowhere in sight.

There’s something to be said for a performance delivered in concentrated bursts. In revisiting movies like “Network” and “Shakespeare in Love,” it’s always a surprise to remember how brief the respective Oscar-winning screen appearances of Beatrice Straight and Judi Dench are, but subsequent viewings offer another opportunity to be blown away by the impression these actresses make in a relatively short time. William Hurt, nominated for “A History of Violence,” similarly imprinted himself on audiences in a performance that lasts under 10 minutes.

A focused, controlled performance

Granted, Ledger’s working in a superhero movie, a genre that’s somewhere between horror and porn when it comes to getting respect from the Academy. And the Joker — a black-hearted clown of anarchy who has no neat little psychological bundle for the audience to untie — is not the sort of character that loans itself to what we traditionally think of as “good” acting. Not that “subtle” is the first word to come to mind when describing such Oscar-winning performances as Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs” or Kathy Bates in “Misery.” Dialing it down was the last thing on either actor’s mind, and it would have taken away from the juicy delights that they both brought to these psychopathic characters.

Ledger gives a focused, controlled performance, but he also takes it to 11. Whether he’s freaking out a roomful of gangsters with his violent unpredictability or providing Batman with a dark mirror of the Caped Crusader’s own twisted soul, Ledger’s Joker compels you to watch his every diabolical move and dares you to avert your eyes from the cracked, streaking makeup covering up his hideously scarred face.

In my original review of the film, I noted that Ledger “skulk(s) about like a demented Jack Benny,” and his choices in the character’s voice and posture remain fascinating. Eschewing Jack Nicholson’s showboating and Cesar Romero’s hee-hee-ho-ho campiness, Ledger goes right for the heart of darkness, letting the Joker’s sick sense of humor come out of his actions and his wildly darting eyes. When he opens his mouth, this Joker hides his venom inside a flat drawl.

Ledger, of course, had a great ear for dialects and accents. When I interviewed the Australian actor upon the release of “Brokeback Mountain,” I had a momentary jolt as I realized that I was listening to his real voice for the first time. Up until that point, I’d only heard him speak in the laconic cowboy patois of Ennis Del Mar or with the European flourish he brought to “Casanova” and “The Brothers Grimm,” all of which were released the same year. If previous screen Jokers accentuated the clown in the character, Ledger’s version was more a stone-faced stand-up comic of the Steven Wright school.

For a textbook case of what Ledger thankfully didn’t do, try taking another look at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn as Mr. Freeze in the legendarily disastrous “Batman and Robin.” Better yet, don’t; trust me when I say it’s a wheezy, phoned-in performance, with the future governor pounding awful puns into submission and generally winking, mugging and leering at the audience.

“The Dark Knight” peered into the doom-black underbelly of the Batman mythos in a way that none of the previous live-action film or TV adaptations dared do. Its antecedents aren’t the work of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher as much as the graphic novels of Frank Miller (“The Dark Knight Returns”) and Alan Moore (“The Killing Joke”), stories that took the manias and obsessions of both Batman and the Joker to their logical, horrifying conclusions.

In Ledger, Nolan found an actor who could run with that vision and bring it to vivid and disturbing life. So any awards-season acclaim that comes Ledger’s way shouldn’t be trivialized as a sop to a handsome and talented actor who left us too soon; it would be an acknowledgment of the successful completion of a daring and successful high-wire act, one finessed without a net.

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