Jack Nicholson Was a Better Joker than Heath Ledger

If I’d made this claim a couple of years ago, I might have been lynched. But perhaps in 2011, we can finally look back with a bit of historical clarity and, at worst, agree to disagree.

Listen, Heath Ledger was at the top of his acting game in The Dark Knight and his Joker was an interesting character with an even more fascinating portrayal; but after watching a mere 10 minutes of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman yesterday, I laughed more than I laughed throughout the entirety of The Dark Knight. And that’s the problem in a nutshell: Ledger’s Joker just wasn’t funny.

I’ve heard a lot of annoying and petty complaints about Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker. He was too chubby for the role is one I’ve heard more than a few times, and probably ranks amongst the stupidest criticisms ever. I’ve also heard that he wasn’t playing the Joker, but was playing Jack Nicholson…or playing Jack Nicholson playing the Joker, or whatever. I simply don’t agree, and this, as well, strikes me as being rather ignorant. But all of this aside, the reason Nicholson was a better Joker than Heath Ledger is that he played both sides of the Joker’s personality well: the comedian and the sociopath.

In case you’re curious, the scene I watched yesterday was the bit where the Joker interrupts the newscast to run a commercial for “new and improved Joker products!” That’s a fantastic illustration of how funny Nicholson was, from that little high-kicking dance while pushing the shopping cart, to the way he delivered the line, “With new and improved Joker brand, I git a grin…agin…and agin…”, to the infectious, slightly demented laugh following the line about hair color so natural only your undertaker knows for sure.

Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson more or less nailed it in my opinion. Which is not to say that the film was perfect, but I think it remains probably the best film in the Batman franchise, problems notwithstanding.

If I had to rank Joker performances outside of these two, I’d probably have to give the gold medal to Mark Hamill–in particular, in later episodes of the animated series in which Joker went a little darker, culminating in the amazing and–to my mind, definitive–portrayal given in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. It may only be a voice-over, but Hamill knocked it so far out of the park that, for me, it’s almost difficult to imagine a pre-Batman: TAS world.

Oh, and just to put this out there, as well: Michael Keaton was a great Bruce Wayne. Actually, he and Val Kilmer were the best of the live action Batmans, though I will concede that Clooney was the absolute worst (and I like George Clooney).

Edit: Since posting this online, it has been the source of a very steady stream of traffic to this blog (to this single post, anyway), and a fairly lively discussion in the comments section. I’ve long since said my piece there, but I would encourage visitors to keep the discussion going (and civil). Just note that WordPress seems to have stopped notifying me when I get new comments on this post, so during my posting lulls, it may take a while for your comment to be approved.

Thanks to everybody who has visited and commented. Looking back at it, I only wish I had written a better post! Ah well.