Hopefully we can all agree on two things.
1. It’s sad that Heath Ledger is no longer with us, both because of the entertainment he brought us as an actor and more so because of the tragedy of dying so young, leaving behind a grieving family and a young child who will have to grow up without a father.
2. His performance as the Joker is nothing short of mesmerizing, making it nearly impossible to see the actor behind the character.
But after that, the camps are divided. In one corner you have those that have happily jumped on the “definitely deserves an Oscar nomination” train.
On the other side are those that, while perhaps impressed with what Ledger did with the role, are saying that the word Oscar is only being tossed around because of his unfortunate passing.
The first group is accused of joining in with the massive hype, declaring it “Oscar worthy” simply because it's the popular thing to do right now. The second group is immediately called "a bunch of haters," having taken the opposite view JUST to take the opposite view.
I think there would be a similar division if Ledger was still alive. Those that didn’t think he deserved the nomination would be accused of being against comic book movies. Meanwhile, Batman fans clamoring for an Oscar nom would be considered less discerning film critics, having latched onto an above average performance in an average, awkwardly put together film. (Though you can be in a horribly structured film and still win an Oscar.)
Obviously it’s VERY early in the year to be talking about Oscars, so we’ll have to wait and see. After I’ve seen some other good supporting actor roles, I’ll make up my mind about whether or not Ledger belongs with them. And if he should be nominated, I’ll decide whether I’d vote for him over the other nominees.
The only two complaints I’ve heard about his role are that there was nothing to the character and that he had no arc. I’d like to address both of these things.
As far as the depth of the character is concerned, an actor can only do so much with what he’s given. He can add layers, but he can’t add actual backstory. That's where the writing comes in.
Now in this case, I actually LOVED how the Joker was written. You can’t really explain him, so leaving it a mystery makes it that much more frightening. But even though the Joker is fairly one-dimensional, that doesn’t make him boring. I was particularly impressed with how much depth Ledger gave to a character that really has nothing underneath the surface.
Look at two other Oscar-winning performances: Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector. We know that Anton is out to collect the money and drugs, but we never learn why he’s the way he is. And the same is mostly true for Lector. Yes, the fact that he was a psychiatrist adds a bit of backstory, but his motivations and transformation is never fully explained. (This is pretending, as we should, that Hannibal Rising doesn’t exist.)
As far as an arc goes, Anton has none. I initially thought that Lector didn’t have one either, but a friend pointed out his relationship with Clarice. And this made me realize that the Joker has a similar relationship with Batman.
The Joker’s feelings for Batman grow throughout the film. Initially he just wants to kill him, but then he realizes that Batman gives him a purpose, something to fight against. This change is actually much more significant than Lector’s. Though Lector’s affection for Clarice grows along with their relationship, he knows from his first meeting that he would never want to kill her.
In addition, the Joker’s plan does escalate. Though some see this as pounding the message of the movie into the ground, I see it as the Joker’s revelation of what he is to do with his life: create chaos with as little interference as possible to show just how close the world was to going there on its own.
Though these are worthy criteria, I’m more inclined to judge a great performance by how much it affects me and by how much the actor ceases to be an actor and becomes the character. I’m dying to see the movie again simply to watch the Joker, since I can’t get some of his lines out of my head. While they were great lines for the most part, I can't imagine reading them on paper would have anywhere near the same effect as hearing Ledger speak them.
Add to that the aura of mystery that will forever surround this character since he’s not around to answer endless questions about his technique. While it doesn’t make Lector any less engaging, it is comical to learn that Hopkins created the voice by combining Truman Capote and Katherine Hepburn. We know Ledger dug deep (too deep, it seems) to form this character, but never knowing the full extent of that does make it more appealing, at least to me.
And I only realized the full transformation that Ledger made the other night. I was picturing the scene where his makeup is thinnest, which I believe is the interrogation scene. I tried to imagine wiping that makeup away to reveal the real Ledger underneath. And finally, it hit me. I was looking at the poster for A Knight’s Tale, and the true transformation that Ledger made really hit home.
The Joker isn’t Heath Ledger with makeup. Heath Ledger is the Joker WITHOUT makeup.