Tuesday, July 15, 2008
What a pop culture pack of Jokers!
Okay,kids,we all know what the big weekend movie is-Batman: The Dark Knight(Mamma Mia! will just have to wait,alas)and part of the big reason for that is Heath Ledger's last completed on screen performance as the Joker.
Playing the Joker is no simple task;the character is a classic villain not only in comic book lore but in the all time pantheon of fictional foes. Sure,you can compare him to Lex Luthor and The Green Goblin but you could make a strong case for the Joker as the inspiration for such nasty charmers as Hannibal Lector,Mr. Blonde or most of Joe Pesci's mob roles in Scorsese movies.
As a warm-up to the latest representation of the Clown Prince of Crime,I thought it would be a hoot to look over the past versions of the Joker in films and on TV. So,without further delay,here are the laughing boys:
Many of us were first introduced to the Joker on the old school Batman TV show via
Cesar Romero. Romero fit right into the hokey cartoon vibe of the show and while there was more than one actress that played Catwoman(the best being Julie Newmar),Romero was always the Joker.
He appeared in the based on the television program's full length Batman movie,along with original bad guys performers Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshim(Penguin and The Riddler)with Lee Meriweather as Catwoman. A good solid bit of ensemble work there.
Romero pretty much created the template on which other actors in the role were to follow. Mark Hamill cites him as his muse for doing voice work as the Joker for the Batman: Animated Series(more about that later). Out of all the actors who went up against Adam West's Batman,Romero was the most beloved:
There were numerous doubts about how Tim Burton's take on Batman would go over with audiences but the one sure thing that lured the uncertain into the theaters was Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Nicholson brought his full arsenal of menace,charisma and willingness to go over the top and beyond to the role,making it a truly iconic performance.
One of the cleverest touches of the screenplay and/or the director was to slowly build up the reemergence of the character after his infamous Axis chemical encounter with Batman. The suspense created for what mob henchman Jack Napier now looked like as the reborn rogue,Joker is just as tense as those tricks used to make the fake shark in Jaws so terrifying a little more than a decade before:
There are so many great scenes with Nicholson in this movie,but one of my true favorites is this courtship clash at Vicki Vale's apartment,where Bruce Wayne is about to make a major revelation but not before the Joker arrives to renew his advances to Vicki. Watching Keaton and Nicholson play off each in this unexpected meeting between the two characters is crackling good fun,not to mention the odd sidebar of Basinger nervously nibbling on popcorn during the highpoint of the scene:
Batman:The Animated Series had a great cast of actors lending their voices to folks like Catwoman(Adrienne Barbeau),The Penguin(Paul Williams),Batgirl(Melissa Gilbert)and The Mad Hatter(Roddy McDowell),their best casting coup was having Mark Hamill as the voice of the Joker.
Hamill,best known now and forever as Luke Skywalker,was really able to stretch his range and showcase his considerable talents as an actor via his vocal stylings,adding more mirth and menace to the role.
He also voiced the Joker in guest appearances on Justice League Unlimited,Superman:The Animated Series and a couple of B:TAS movies as well. The character of the Joker was written for many episodes of the series but in my opinion,Paul Dini was the best writer for any Joker storyline and combined with Hamill's voice work,they helped to raise the playing field for what could be done on children's animated shows:
AND NOW A WORD ABOUT HARLEY QUINN
Another boon that Batman: The Animated Series gave us was the introduction to a spunky and silly sidekick to the Joker who is nearly as dangerous as the man himself. I'm talking about Harley Quinn,aka Harleen Quinzel,who made her first appearance as a hench woman on the "Joker's Favor" episode and kept coming back on the series to do all she could for her darling "Mr. J"(who could care less about her but found her to be pretty handy backup during fights with Batman and his allies).
Harley(voiced by Arleen Sorkin,who I remember as Calliope on Days Of Our Lives) also teamed up with Poison Ivy on occasion,usually after a spat with Mr. J but always returned to his side in the end. Harley has grown from a bit player to a full fledged villianess in her own right,with several comic book appearances,plus her own line of books and tie-in toys to boot.
She's so iconic that director Kevin Smith named his daughter after her(better than naming a kid Kal-el,if you ask me)and while she hasn't been included in the new Batman films,perhaps in time,she will make her big screen debut:
HARLEY AND IVY
So far,the only live action version that we've gotten of Harley was on the short lived Birds of Prey series(which has just released on DVD),with Mia Sara strutting her stuff but not putting on the make-up or the diamond designed outfit.
Sherrilyn Fenn was set to play Dr. Quinzel in an early pilot episode but then there was a switch and I have to say that Mia Sara was certainly sinister enough as a solo Harley out for evil hijinks and payback plans for Gotham City:
While it's too soon to tell if Ledger's turn as the Joker will live up to the hype surrounding it, one thing is for certain;the character will still live on for many other generations to come. New interpretations will cause some debate amongst true believers but the Joker's niche in the Arkham Asylum archives is too firmly etched to ever fade away:
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