Readers Write In #132: Why I believe Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is better than Heath Ledger’s

Posted on January 19, 2020


(by Alex John)

This has been one of the closest contests in the history of cinema on who played the same character better than the other. I mean, there have been countless remakes of different films in world cinema, and several takes on the dreaded comic villain Joker himself, but Heath Ledger raised the bar so high in the 2008 version that nobody plays that character escapes the inevitable comparison, or did. Oscar fever is on, and Joaquin Phoenix, like any other actor, would have braced himself for the big day, but did he better his Christopher Nolan’s version counterpart? I have found the answer for myself. What would that be? Well, let me cut to the chase right away.

I think he did. Why do I think that? Let me try and expound on how impeccable a task I believe Phoenix carried off in 2019’s Joker. What the film company did was to put an iconic comic character’s name on the posters of the film, and unleash a fairly wide campaign on it. Hopes were pumped up, and what the viewers who rushed in got was a film without any of the usual ingredients of a comic book movie. The film didn’t have the bone-tickling wit, captivating computer effects, great action scenes and didn’t even have a long enough fight scene. And most importantly, it didn’t have the comic character plot like what the viewers read in the comic books. What audiences got instead was a dark, gritty and almost original emotional tale viewers usually turn their backs to these days. Meaning? The movie almost entirely depended on Joaquin Phoenix’s histrionics to pull off the impossible. And it went on to become the highest grossing R-rated movie worldwide, and crossed the prestigious billion dollar mark without having to depend on Chinese ticket counters. This should be a fairly good account of the arduous task this actor shouldered without being stooped down by its weight.

Okay then, what about Heath Ledger’s Joker? An astonishing performance undoubtedly, but it had all the above mentioned comic book movie elements to back it up(although not sure about the computer effects). And a much higher budget. And a director who belongs to an entirely different league than that of Todd Philips. And another thing which could be a cruel fact, but a fact nonetheless. Ledger’s untimely death definitely generated an emotional current that propelled his character portrayal into much greater fame and acceptance. I wouldn’t say more than it deserved, but more than it was intended to get. As a fact as it remains, I feel I should stop writing about it and move on to one more reason why I believe Phoenix’s Joker outdid Ledger’s.

It is the wide range emotions Phoenix could bring on to the screen while playing Joker. Ledger’s performance was mostly physical and one of the wildest ever in the history of Hollywood. But Phoenix, while being rambunctious enough, displayed a variety of minute emotions that are characteristic of a great actor. I am in no way trying to implicate physical acting is easy , but there are reasons why Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are hailed as great performers, not great actors. Joaquin Phoenix’s face had that all. The sadness, the agony, the helplessness, the seclusion and that wry smile that made viewers sadder than they already were. And while Ledger got to don a mask during the physical act, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker had to face the audiences because the film was telling them a man’s story, not the comic book version of it. I believe Heath Ledger, for all his talent, could do justice to this role too, but was destined to play the less acting and more performing version of the celebrated antagonist. Last year’s Joker was a scrutiny of Joaquin Phoenix’s acting and theatrical skills, and he came off with flying colors. See, my biggest issue with this film is that it shied away from the cold-blooded monster Joker really is, and stopped where he is kind of a run-away vigilante due to obvious mercantile reasons (or is there a Joker 2?). But I didn’t care about this while I watched the film as I was so invested in the soulful performance of its lead actor. A truly absorbing cinematic experience it was.

So, let me wrap this up by saying this;while Heath Ledger’s joker is delightfully hyperactive,Phoenix’s melancholic act stays closer to the norms of Cinema, with slices of great theater added in. Summing all these up, I am left with no choice than to believe that on any given day, Phoenix’s all-round portrayal of Joker has an edge over Ledger’s unforgettable performance,Oscar or not.