Monday, July 21, 2008

Actin' All Crazy

There's been a lot of talk about Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker in the new The Dark Knight. Serious talk. Posthumous Oscar talk. I wrote about it a bit here, but that was before I had seen the movie. So now I've seen it and the question on the table is this: is Ledger good? He is. Everything about him works. His look, his clothes, his laugh. His performance of the Joker is good enough that it makes Jack Nicholson's take look like the kind of stuff for Saturday morning cartoons. One wonders how good would he be if Nicholson never played the Joker, but that's fodder for another post.

So then the next question on the table is this: is he Oscar good? Not really. Make no mistake though, this role is the kind of stuff reviewers drool over. And probably academy voters as well. But the problem with his performance is it's about this deep (you can't see this, but I'm putting my index and thumb very, very close together). There's nothing much to it. In the movie, what makes the Joker terrifying is that he's motivated by nothing. He doesn't want power, he doesn't want money, he doesn't want fame. He just wants chaos. That's a pretty scary thought and it gives the Joker some legitimacy among the bad boys of Gotham. But it's not real. I'm sure that 75% (probably more) of America goes to sleep believing that the terrorists are motivated by nothing more than chaos, and they would be wrong. To be motivated by nothing is to have no emotion. It's scary in thought, but it doesn't play very well. Or real.

There have been lots of actors who have played crazy in the past. And it's made me wonder how hard is it really? To laugh inappropriately. To have weird and obscure ticks. To act like nothing matters. It's not hard. And that's why I don't believe Ledger deserves an Oscar. Because behind those crazy eyes, there's nothing. It may make for a great performance in a middle of the summer blockbuster, but it doesn't make for performances that deserve an Oscar.


Fletch said...

I'm gonna go for the first example that popped into my head...

Now, I love Alan Arkin, but looking at previous winners (much less nominees for Best Supporting), wouldn't you say that Ledger's performance trumps one like Arkin's in LMS? By far?

Keep in mind that I've been on the fence with the whole "should he win the Oscar" debate - I just thought a little context might help.

Anil Usumezbas said...

And I have a question, out of curiosity: Do you have an acting background or have you ever tried playing crazy? The following judgement sounds like you have:

"And it's made me wonder how hard is it really? To laugh inappropriately. To have weird and obscure ticks. To act like nothing matters. It's not hard."

If not, I would love to know how you ended up with that conclusion. Not to belittle you or anything like that, mind you; just curious :)

Caitlin said...

See, with Ledger as the Joker, it's the little things that get me. The shuffle, the hunch, the slight movements that he did - you can tell he really thought out his performance and it's the little tiny things he does that really sell it.

Do I think he deserves an Oscar? Much more than some other people who have won it. Do I think he will win it? No. I don't think the Academy will award him one for political/internal reasons, and even if they do, I think it will have more to do with Ledger being dead than actually being deserving of it.

Just my two cents and all!

kramer said...

I see your point Piper.

Maybe we're getting more into personal taste in roles. Some people like a little crazy here and there. Putting a gauge on the difficulty to do it is tricky. Ledger said it was mentally the toughest role he'd done to date. (Granted this is from the guy that was best known for his work in a Knight's Tale for something like six years.)

Personally, I loved the role, but people need to let it sit before screaming "Hand him an Oscar!" I kinda roll my eyes when people do that with HALF the year left. For now I'm going to enjoy it for what it was; a lot of creepy fun. Oscar? I'm not sure either.

At least it wouldn't be Tom Hanks winning for Forrest Gump.

Piper said...

All excellent comments.

Let me begin by saying this. He was really good in the role. I don't want that to get lost in all this. And let's not count out makeup and direction here. They accounted for a lot of why he was so good.


He was better than Alan Arkin, but your comment raises a whole other issue about whether or not do I believe in the Oscars. The answer is yes. Do I also believe that they miss more often than not. Yes. But I still hold it to a high standard because it is still the best of the best. Or at least I want it to be.


Great question. And please know that this is my blog and I have an opinion which you can take or leave. I'm hoping that my opinion is good enough and consistent enough that over time people might listen, but who knows.

So to answer your question. I have done some acting. But more importantly, I've done some directing. And I've been involved in commercial production for around 15 years now (mostly writing). My point is that it's easier to yell than it is to whisper. How's that for cryptic? I think of Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs Of New York. The monologue he has with DiCaprio is an excellent example. No doubt Bill the Butcher is crazy, but he is a fundamentalist. He believes what he's doing is right. It's a point of pride with him. His monologue is terrifying because you don't know if he's pissed or not. And although he's very calm and quiet, you feel that he could lash out at any moment. That's acting. That's a deep character.

There's no way within the context of a summer blockbuster like The Dark Knight that Heath Ledger would be given the luxury to explore everything this character has to offer. Maybe he had it in him. Maybe he didn't. I have to judge what's up on the screen. And from what I saw, he was very good. But not worthy of an Oscar, in my opinion.


Thanks for your thoughts. Always welcome here.


It was good fun. And he had a fun time doing it. You can see it in the performance.

Fox said...

I haven't seen The Dark Knight yet so I will hold on Ledger's performance, but I agree with you that "crazy" gets recognized too much for awards. I think it's that people are attracted to the "evil side" of actors, not that they think the performance is great.

That's generalizing of course....

I still wish comic actors got recognozed more during the Oscar season. Jim Carrey in Me, Myself, and Irene is one of the decade's greatest performances, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Piper on this one. This is also how I felt about Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys.

Anil Usumezbas said...

Thanks, this explains a lot of things. I guess I have to see the forementioned film before arguing any further :)

Piper said...


That's exactly what I was thinking about when writing this post.


Never saw any of this as arguing. Just discussing movie ideas. Keep it coming. Even if it is wild and crazy and from the hip. That's how I work a lot.

Piper said...


I wrote about the Bill The Butcher scene. Here's the link.

Anonymous said...

Pipes knows how much I respect him. BUT... I don't think a guy should be out of Oscar contention just because he played a crazy bad guy. In Pipes's glorious post he mentions that Heath made Nicholson look like a cartoon character. Considering Nicholson is a great actor and they are both playing the same character, that says a helluva lot about the nuanced performance of Ledger. Keep in mind, I haven't seen it so I have no right to an opinion.

Ray said...

Piper, I disagree ... and here's why:

By your definition, ANTHONY HOPKINS did not deserve an Oscar for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, even though that 16 minute performance of "crazy" is still talked about 17 years later.

I think you are wrong about this one, my friend. Just as wrong as you are about TITANIC. In other words, you are titanically wrong.

Anonymous said...

I take back what I said.

If Ray and I agree, and Ray professes love for Titanic, then I am wrong.

It's simple logic.

Piper said...


I read your post and commented on it. I won't get wordy here. You make good points, but I still don't feel it's Oscar worthy.

Ray said...

Another example: JOHNNY DEPP's nomination for PIRATES. His performance is almost entirely surface, yet he was nominated and roundly praised.

Ledger's performance here is BY FAR superior.

Garrett said...

Great movie! Everybody in this was excellent- Bale, Ledger, Eckhart, Oldman, Freeman (what a follow up to the bucket list), and Gyllenhall (total Fox). Maybe the movie itself will win an award, but not single out one particular person. Thats not an exciting argument but it sounds fair, right?

W.E.B. Adamant said...

I'll just post this for your comment that "it's not hard."


"To prepare for his role as the Joker, Heath Ledger lived alone in a hotel room for a month, formulating the character's psychology, posture and voice (the last one he found most difficult to do). He started a diary, in which he wrote the Joker's thoughts and feelings to guide himself during his performance. He was also given Alan Moore's comic "Batman: The Killing Joke" and "Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth" to read. Ledger also took inspiration from A Clockwork Orange (1971)'s Alex and Sid Vicious."

To say there's nothing behind his eyes, that there's no human there, is the point. Ledger made himself transform to become that character, and left his personality out of it all. What imaginary standard are you holding Oscar winners to that Ledger's performance doesn't make the cut? Does it take delivering the lines in the script, because any old SOB can do that. That part's not the hard part. I'd say it's that point where you totally own the character. Ledger's performance was almost entirely his own machination. Hardly anything he did was in the script. He reinvented himself to make the Joker. Nolan didn't make that character.

When ownership is easily recognizable, I'd say it's time for an Oscar. And Ledger completely owned that role.

elgringo said...

I agree about the index finger/thumb distance.

People are screaming, GIVE HIM THE OSCAR, but let's remember that Oscar season isn't here yet. I would bet that by the time the ceremony comes round, there will be three or four other performances captivating audiences.

Also, I'll say it. If Ledger didn't die, no one would be screaming GIVE HIM THE OSCAR like a bunch of maniacs.

Piper said...

w.e.b. adamant,

Well, if I had one regret about the post it would be that line that you called out. To do what Ledger did is hard. He did a very good job. And you're right to call me on it because it was unjust.

As far as the story on imdb... it's an interesting one, but it's nothing new. Val Kilmer went through the same thing for The Doors and Jim Carrey for Man On The Moon. And Stone made the entire cast of Platoon go through real boot camp, etc.

It reminds me of a story about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier while shooting Marathon Man. It was towards the end of the shooting when the two have a face off. Hoffman was exhausted because he had stayed up for days in preparation of the scene. He looked like shit and Olivier asked him what had happened. When Hoffman told him what he had done Olivier's response was "you're an actor. So act."

Whatever Ledger had to do to get ready for the role is what he had to do. Some actors don't need all that, and some do. I don't think knowing that makes me think he deserves an award any more.

And when I say there was nothing behind the eyes, that doesn't mean that I expected to see Ledger in the role. It meant that I wanted to see motivation because then there would be emotion. You can't be crazy all the time. There needs to be some range within that.

Caitlin said...

You can't be crazy all the time. There needs to be some range within that.

The thing that's pretty scary for me about the Joker is that he does have small, distinct moments of clarity. For example, when he's discussing the overall situation at hand with Batman in the police station, he seems to have a much better grasp of their overall roles in Gotham and the fact that as long as there is someone like Batman, there will be someone like the Joker to counter him far better than Batman seems to understand.

So for me, the thing is that he may be insane, but that doesn't mean that's necessarily the end of his character; he's smart, he's devious but he also has his weaknesses.

Ledger deserves some sort of recognition for this, I think, because I can see how any actor would straddle a fine line between "scary" and "camp" and he worked to come down on the right side of the line. I think people are just so blown away by how much they underestimated him that now they're overcompensating.

W.E.B. Adamant said...

I agree that the actors have to do things sometimes to get into the role. I'm well-aware that method-acting is an art in itself that many actors have taken part in. But I reject the notion that it wasn't a stellar performance because you've misinterpreted what the Joker is - a character motivated only be chaos. He is crazy, and people who are associated with the comic character of the Joker are well aware that he nailed it.

As for the merits of an Oscar, I asked a reviewer for the AV Club what it means in her opinion to give an "Oscar-worthy performance." Her answer is at the link below if you're interested.

I don't want you to think I'm attacking you, because I'm not. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion (and I've tried to be nicer about it than some). It's an honest point for debate that will extend far beyond Oscar time.

Anonymous said...

w.e.b. - I happen to agree with you, but let's move on. I don't want Pipes to become soft with his POV just because it's bold and controversial.

Piper said...


I don't see it as attacking me. I know that what I proposed is debatable and I always welcome a debate so thank you. I would much rather some intelligent banter go back and forth than just the standard "good post" or "you're an idiot".

W.E.B. Adamant said...


Oh, I'm ready. But I asked that question before anybody was ready, and just yesterday got a response.



Anonymous said...

Piper can handle the comments. That's good.

Then I agree with w.e.b.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't it seem that they left lots of room for more Joker in the next Batman. He didn't die like Two-Face did, only arrested. There is obviously a troubled history behind this character and they hinted that they wanted to go further into his story. I wonder what they intended for the next movie, and obviously how have those plans changed since Ledger's untimely death.

Piper said...


It's a good question. Batman made a point to not act on anger so it makes sense that the Joker didn't die unless he made himself die, which he obviously didn't.

I had forgotten that Scarecrow didn't die, so I was surprised to see him in the second. The same might go for The Joker. However I would argue that the make-up allows for others to fill that role as long as they can maintain the characteristics that Ledger established.

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