Last week I wrote about Cesar Romero’s madcap 1960’s take on the Clown Prince of Crime as an introduction to a Halloween series about two things that terrify me – clowns (gah!) and the struggle to understand the very real evil in our world. The Joker, a character I feel personifies evil incarnate, will continue to be the star as we jump from 1966 to 1989. It’s time to explore Tim Burton’s Batman, a film that succeeded in putting the “gothic” in Gotham and making Jack Nicholson even more unnerving. Look at how the menace glints in his eyes with that smile! Aaaagghh!
In the wake of Heath Ledger’s posthumous Oscar winning performance in 2008’s The Dark Knight, it’s possible to forget just how excellent Jack Nicholson was in this role. In fact, up until I actually saw The Dark Knight I never imagined any actor could more perfectly personify the character. The Joker seemed like a role that was taylor made for Jack Nicholson to play. I mean, the man does all manner of madness so wonderfully!
Who could ever be a better Joker than Jack? He bounces back and forth between manic and sinister so effortlessly, walking the line between the clownish antics of Cesar Romero and setting the stage for the malevolent force of nature that would be Heath Ledger. And Nicholson embodies it all in Batman (1989). For me, it’s Nicholson’s performance that is the most enduring facet of the film. When long stretches of time pass between viewings, I may forget the banter between Vicky Vale and Bruce Wayne (or Vicky and Knox for that matter) or some of the bat gadgets but I never forget the Joker. His lines are forever a part of my quotable pop culture repertoire. “Wait’l they get a load of me.” “Where does he get those wonderful toys?!?” “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” Or, perhaps most memorable of all, that haunting final, recorded laugh.
Jack Nicholson understood the darkness of the role, the reality of evil the character represented, and he brought that all into his performance. The wild laugh. The menacing stare. The desire to rule it all or burn it down. Yes, this Joker was very much a mobster but he was always more dangerous, more malevolent than the criminals around him. In the wake of Heath Ledger’s death, a paparazzi photographer asked Nicholson for his thoughts on the news, “Jack, can you comment on Heath Ledger’s death?” Nicholson, asking for clarification, replied, “What happened to him?” The photographer answered, “Drug overdose. Overdose. He died in New York.” Sounding truly saddened he quietly said, “Oh that’s awful. I warned him.” The presumption has always been that he was referencing warning Ledger of the darkness you must encounter in playing a character like the Joker.
That darkness is a hallmark of Jack Nicholson’s performance though as well as the modern comic incarnation of the character. Moving through time in both comic and film, he becomes less of a prank playing clown and more the murderous monster we know today. If the clownish Joker that Cesar Romero presented in the 1960’s version of Batman scared me, little nine or ten (or however old I was when I first saw this movie…) year old me could hardly handle Jack Nicholson. Here was the thing though. It was the early 90’s. Right? Do you know what the movie options were for a superhero lover? Richard Donner’s Superman series and Tim Burton’s Batman. Out of a love of superheroes I forced myself to watch (and try to enjoy) this Batman but this Joker was so scary!!!!
I remember trying to look at anything else in the room whenever he was on the screen. I’d watch the movie and try to dart my eyes away (or flat out close them) whenever the camera would cut to his horrifying white face. I could sort of handle it when he didn’t have the makeup on (or, as the film goes, had his flesh makeup on over his bleached face) but that creeptastic clown face was NOT OKAY for lil’ me!! He freaked me out. Watching Batman (1989) as part of Cinemark’s Classic Series a month or so ago I was reminded (on a big screen in a darkened room) that this version of the Joker still creeps me out.
This version of the Joker, even more than Cesar Romero’s, can be creepy, unnerving, and downright scary in two very different ways. As a film character, as a villain, he is wildly scary in his own right. But symbolically he can serve as an illustration of evil in our world and our culture in many very real ways. We see the connection to organized crime. We see the fact that Batman was inadvertently responsible for his creation (begging the question of whether or not a hero always breeds a villain). We see how he thrives inside the broken system functioning in an already corrupt city. But, for me, the most insidious message this Joker conveys is how great evil truly exists in the world around us, perhaps most dangerously of all, where we don’t see it.
Infuriated that the Batman is stealing his headlines, the Joker decides to strike at Gotham. He interrupts all broadcasts to air a commercial of himself roaming a grocery store and cackling about his new secret ingredient – Smilex – hidden in many of Gotham’s products. Panic sweeps the city as people begin to suddenly drop dead after using random shampoos, makeup, conditioners, deodorants, etc. that the Joker has poisoned. They die with their face turned up, hardened into a grisly imitation of his ghoulish grin. The real terror (and something that actually used to give me very real anxiety when I watched this as a child) came from the fact that no one had any idea what products were poisoned. The Joker could be killing them in the form of any innocuous product. Evil was all around and the citizens of Gotham couldn’t see it until it was too late!!
Herein lies our deep, metaphorical meaning. This is the facet of this film I find most terrifying. This scares me because this is the world we live in! There is so much evil touching us, tempting us, tainting us each and every day and we so rarely see it or recognize it for what it is.
For example, the objectification of women in our culture is a disturbing trend. To say “disturbing” in fact is not nearly strong enough a term. Our culture attempts to turn women into sex objects devoid of personhood, sell a body image that is as unhealthy as it is unattainable, base value on arbitrary and culturally constructed physical attributes, and – worst of all – make this all seem normal. It is anything but. Our culture even trivializes the idea of “feminism,” trying to turn it into some sort of dirty word. So why does our culture work this way? Why target women so insidiously? First, it’s the issue of our living in a patriarchal culture that needs to keep women oppressed in order to hold onto control and benefit from the grievous inequality. This is done, in part, by trying to make women feel less than they really are. Second, our capitalist culture only continues to thrive based on our unhappiness. If we were all 100% content with our lives as we have them, there’d be no need for us to buy anything. Every time we buy something it’s, in part, to satisfy some need (real or imagined). Culture makes us feel inferior so we keep buying things. Body image is a MAJOR way to attack us in that fashion, especially with women, because our culture attempts to reduced women to a point where they derive their worth from male sexual approval. If we were allowed to be happy with ourselves we wouldn’t buy gym memberships, workout equipment, dietary supplements, everything in the GNC stores. We wouldn’t need workout clothes and “fat clothes” and “skinny clothes.” We wouldn’t buy as many tangential things either. Our patriarchal culture also devalues women’s bodies and constantly reinforces the idea that a woman’s worth comes only from physical approval to make women more willing sexual objects for men. It’s sick, twisted, and fucked up. It also makes me very, very angry.
There’s also the myth of redemptive violence. This is the idea that violence can, in any way, actually help things. We live in an increasingly violent world. Culturally here in the U.S. we pretend to decry violence yet we certainly don’t live in a way that supports this message. We wage wars, embrace capital punishment, and fight with a rabid ferocity to preserve our right to own guns despite the catastrophic national death toll they bring. We embrace all sorts of logical fallacies to assure us this is all alright or even that we need things like guns or capital punishment to maintain order in society. Studies show capital punishment isn’t a deterrent in murder as those crimes are committed in the heat of the moment, not thinking of consequences. Also many, many other developed countries have gotten rid of guns safely and seen a safer society as a result. America’s gun murder rate is more than TWENTY TIMES the average of other developed countries (proving our “we need guns for a safer society” idea is fallacious). Also gun violence disproportionately targets black men (who are TEN TIMES more likely to be murdered by guns than white men – black Americans make up 14% of the population but suffer more than half of all gun homicides) and women (in an average month FIFTY-ONE women are shot to death in the U.S. by a current or former husband or boyfriend). Despite all this, our culture tells us, we need guns to stay safe. “This is okay,” culture lies to us, “these guns are more important than human lives.” The media also glorifies violence. Whether the news or the films/television/video games/sports/music videos/etc. we watch, violence is often presented as heroic. From every angle culture tries to teach us that we need violence for security. This idea is wrong. It’s dangerous. And it’s EVIL. But tragically we rarely see that.
Another deeply saddening example comes in our unconsciously embracing a punitive attitude towards the poor. Our culture insists that poor people are poor because they are lazy and as such deserve to be poor. Ignoring for the moment that a large percentage of the U.S. identifies as Christians and caring for the poor was a DEFINING NONNEGOTIABLE PART of Jesus’ mission and message, the idea that the poor are deserving of their lot in life is simply not true. To live in poverty is to be constantly plagued by chronic hunger which means the poor never have enough food to give their bodies the nutrients they need to grow and properly maintain themselves resulting in starvation and malnourishment. In addition to chronic hunger the poor face homelessness where they are either literally homeless or part of the “hidden homeless” whose poverty prevents them from living in true homes that are safe and stable with a respect for human dignity, access to community, and ability to develop their full potential. There’s also the issue of inadequate education. Those trapped in poverty often lack access to a proper education due to a wide variety of reasons including inequality in school funding and the fact that the range of housing, transportation, and educational policies concentrate children from poor families in central city schools. When all the children in a classroom are fighting poverty it’s almost impossible to teach effectively to any of them. To be blunt, you can’t learn when you’re hungry or when you don’t have electricity or heat at home. When you add to this list the fact that people are making less in general when living costs more, there are cuts in federal aid, and many people living in poverty lack access to health insurance or quality medical care you have a crisis that is nearly impossible to escape. A lucky few can but they are the exception to the rule. We have created a system that allows the few to benefit from the suffering of the many. To allow this system to not only survive but thrive we actually lie ourselves into believing it’s the poor’s fault for being unable to succeed.
Just like the Joker’s Smilex, all of these hideous and dangerous ideas are ingrained in our cultural and are presented for us to absorb unconsciously. We are taught that they are a good thing when in reality they are every bit as evil and destructive as what the Joker rains down on Gotham. Jack Nicholson’s Joker then represents something even more malicious than his menacing grin. He illustrates our inability, or worse yet unwillingness, to see the evil imbedded in the messages we consume and integrate into our lives. And, just like his Smilex, these messages corrupt and kill with deadly efficiency. Sadly, we don’t have a Batman to battle this Joker for us. Rather, we need to break the mental constraints of culture, see the reality of the world we’re living in, and decide to let love, compassion, and mercy be our guiding forces instead.
We must reject all this evil in favor of a more powerful, nourishing, transforming love. But how do we do this? How do we honestly face let alone fight the evil in our world today? For that, we’ll have to wait until next week when it’s time to investigate Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
2 thoughts on “The Joker Examined – Jack Nicholson and Batman (1989)”
JN’s Joker was the one I grew up on, so others pale in comparison to me. You had some interesting insight on his portrayal and what he represented.
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Thanks! The piece became more passionate and more personal than I had intended when I began it but I ended up really liking how it turned out.
Heath managed to win me over as my favorite Joker (oops…spoiler for next week!) but I’m with you on growing up with Jack as the Joker. He leaves such an indelible mark on the viewer!
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