WHY SO SERIOUS? – Heath Ledger, Chris Nolan, & the Villain of the Century

See, their “morals”, their “code”… it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these, ah, “civilized people”? They’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” – The Joker (The Dark Knight)

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 It’s been ten years – January 22, 2008. I had gone online after my supper to check out what was up regarding the avalanche of film awards that were just starting to rumble down the hillside and it was like I’d been hit in the face with a brick. My favorite contemporary actor was gone. 28 years old. I was gutted. All that we had left were nineteen sublimely naturalistic performances from the previous 15 years. And the immense expectations of all he would certainly have achieved, evaporated.

The trick with Heath Ledger was his unique ability to never let you catch him acting, whether it was Brokeback or Dogtown, I’m Not There or A Knight’s Tale, you were never watching Ledger, you were watching the character he wanted you to see, undistracted by his youthfulness and his “movie star” looks. His performances were immersive to the point of total abandon. He wasn’t acting, he was free-falling into another plane of reality, sometimes light, sometimes heavy but always committed to the character he became.

Chris Nolan was in the process of editing The Dark Knight when Ledger passed, and I can’t put myself in his place, watching all that footage, the clock ticking towards a deadline and a release date and the weight of the tragedy front-of-mind. What he was seeing was a performance that went beyond what was expected in the genre, even beyond any previous portrayal of psychopathy onscreen. Ledger’s Joker wasn’t ham or cheese, like his television and cinema predecessors; it was painful, damaged, insidious – and funny. Ledger gave him the goddam real thing – evil incarnate.

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Christopher Nolan is a director who likes to make you – the audience – work for your rewards. He fractures his narratives and draws you deep into any world or time space he creates. Batman Begins dared expose the dark underbelly of the comic genre by throwing a dense veil of noir over what had always been accepted as campy fun. The camp was still there, but we saw its sinister origins. Our laughter no longer tripped the light fantastic, but was drawn from the pit – of fear. It was the defense mechanism of choice for hero, villain, and everyone in between.

“You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan”… even if the plan is horrifying. If, tomorrow, I say that, like, a gang-banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because “it’s all part of the plan”. But I say that one little old mayor will die… and everybody loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.” – The Joker (The Dark Knight)

So how would The Dark Knight play, now that the tabloids were loaded with everything from ambulance-chasing speculation to industry and fan-base shock at the loss? Certainly Ledger’s performance would be overshadowed by the actor’s untimely death, and if that were the case, would it torpedo audience appreciation of this second chapter in Nolan’s trilogy?

Had Nolan selected a lesser performer, or even a bigger name without Ledger’s signature skill at completely disappearing into character then, yes, The Dark Knight would have blown a tire. We would have been constantly snatched from the story with the distractions playing-out in the media subliminally screwing with our heads. It is also probable that another director lacking in Nolan’s commitment and vision would have been able to provide us with the unflinching benchmark that The Dark Knight holds in the genre.

Luckily, that was not the case. The Dark Knight is, by far, the best film in the Batman trilogy, a series that makes early attempts by other filmmakers at this particular modern mythology look anemic and later attempts, well, pathetic. Heath Ledger is the only Nolan lead actor to reap critical acclaim and top it all off with an Oscar – posthumously. No glad-handing parties, talk show campaigning, no bullshit falderal that puffs from these proceedings like a bad case of gas. It was his performance, pure and simple, that overcame, for one brief moment, AMPAS’ distaste for both the genre and actors his age.

We will forever miss what-might-have-been with the loss of Heath Ledger, but we will forever have what he gave us during his too-brief stay. Thanks to Chris Nolan, it is a joy to go back watch their creation, their Frankenstein monster, as he terrorizes his environs – he’s the greatest villain in movie history.

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4 thoughts on “WHY SO SERIOUS? – Heath Ledger, Chris Nolan, & the Villain of the Century

  1. This is a marvelous tribute to an iconic chapter of cinema. You clearly are moved by this great loss, it shows in your passionate words of Ledger and that immense portrayal of The Joker.

    I remember that period well. Embroiled in an Oscar race seemingly in mourning – Daniel Day-Lewis demonstrated a raw melancholy and admiration of Ledger during his SAG win.

    Wonderful piece Steve, my eyes were welling as I finished reading, but I was also exhilarated by the prospect of revisiting Ledger’s talent.

  2. Thanks, Robin. It was an easy piece to write – no other actor would have gone as deep to play the character and no other director would have given him the canvas and smart script to do so. Just as the “chaos” in Nolan’s script brought them together, so did it also cause the life event that would mark the role so indelibly that it still stands out today. Like the Joker said, “chaos is fair”

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