Home #Hwoodtimes Send In the Clowns: Joaquin Phoenix Stars as JOKER

Send In the Clowns: Joaquin Phoenix Stars as JOKER

–by Dr. Laura Wilhelm, LauraWil Intercultural

West Hollywood, CA (The Hollywood Times) 10/9/19 – “And as funny as it may seem/ Some people get their kicks/ Stomping on a dream/ But I don’t let it, let it get me down/ ‘Cause this fine old world/It keeps spinning around.”–Frank Sinatra, “That’s Life”

The variegated role of the villainous Joker has been tackled by some big names in modern television and cinema such as Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Jared Leto, among many others.  The late Heath Ledger perhaps gave the definitive Joker performance in Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).  Seldom has the unpredictable character of pure evil been so well conveyed on screen.

“. . .some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money.  They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with.  Some men just want to watch the world burn,” says Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), loyal butler to billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale)–aka the Batman.

The Ace of Knaves!  The Clown Prince of Crime!  The Harlequin of Hate!  The Jester of Genocide!  Interpretations and versions of the Joker have taken two forms over time.

The original DC Comics image of the Joker dating back to 1940 is that of a sadistic psychopath with genius-level intelligence and a warped sense of humor.  The other version is that of an eccentric, harmless trickster and thief.

In earlier times, evil just had to be combated and overcome by superheroes like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.  That was the HOW.

But now we also want to know the WHY.  What motivates villains to behave as they do?  And can they be rehabilitated if we understand them better?

Todd Phillips’ recently released film JOKER proposes a back story on the titular character played by Joaquin Phoenix.  The Joker’s name is Arthur Fleck, in case you were wondering!

Arthur is a party clown for hire and failed stand-up comedian who turns to a life of chaos and crime in Gotham City in 1981  He suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times.  Because of this, he depends upon a social services worker for medication–until city funding is cut, as so often happens.

Hmm. . .how interesting!  Whatever could happen to someone in such a disabling condition?

That of course is the main reason to watch the movie.  After some scuffles with street attackers and the law mixed in with a string of murders, Arthur finds a following of sorts amongst protestors against Gotham’s wealthy elite (among them the Wayne family) who don clown masks in his image.  And now, no more major spoilers!

Near the beginning of JOKER, the inimitable Robert De Niro is introduced as Murray Franklin, a talk-show host.  Viewers familiar with De Niro’s earlier film THE KING OF COMEDY (1983) will see many references to his well-remembered turn as comedian Rupert Pupkin who is obsessed with a talk-show host.

Obviously, JOKER is likely to interest those who work in media as well as law enforcement.  Both professions skate on the edge of insanity at all times trying to hold the line on criminal activity of all sorts.

Michael Keaton’s Batsuit, Vicki Vale’s dress, and Jack Nicholson’s Joker costume | Photo by Daniel Djang

To answer our question posed earlier, the WHY of Arthur Fleck’s nihilistic criminality clearly attaches to a family history of mental instability, poverty, abuse, and neglect.  Joaquin Phoenix lost over 50 pounds for the role of the Joker to underscore these conditions.

The usually attractive actor is all but unrecognizable as this gaunt shadow of his former self.  Stripped of his clown costume, Phoenix strongly resembles Robert De Niro’s murderous ex-Marine Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976).  Director Todd Phillips has acknowledged the strong influence of classic films like TAXI DRIVER from the 1970s and early 1980s upon JOKER, also citing Sidney Lumet’s SERPICO (1974), Milos Forman’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975), and Martin Scorsese’s RAGING BULL (1980) as thematic and stylistic inspirations.

The neon reds, golds, oranges, and blues of JOKER certainly seem familiar from TAXI DRIVER, as do its claustrophobic settings.  The inferno that is Gotham City could easily be 1970s New York.

Unlike most actors, Joaquin Phoenix tried to portray a character with whom audiences would NOT identify despite the possible “sympathy for the Devil” that might be generated from the Joker’s tragic history.  Let us hope for the sake of society that he called this one right!  In any case, Phoenix is almost sure to get an Oscar nomination for his performance.

JOKER is well worth a look during the Halloween season if only to see what about Arthur Fleck’s story scares us the most.  For the root causes of criminal behavior are often at least as frightening as the crimes themselves if not even more so.