In Todd Phillips’ Joker, in cinemas from Friday 4 October, we discover how Gotham’s most notorious villain came to be. According to audience and critics, Joaquin Phoenix already has the Best Actor Oscar in the bag for his Joker.
But it’s no small achievement to be the greatest actor ever to wear the white slap – so let’s take a look back at the competition and the history of Joker in films...
While Batman’s roots have been given hours of screen-time, the Joker’s backstory has never been fully explored. Until now.
In a performance set to eclipse even his note-perfect turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Phoenix brings vulnerability, empathy, the physicality of a praying mantis and a runaway train of psychosis to his portrayal of Arthur Fleck: a stand-up comic turned murderous harlequin. As Pete Hammond of Deadline says: “You might as well start engraving Joaquin Phoenix’s name on the Oscar now…”
Romero’s legend was assured in 1966’s Batman, when he slipped into the purple suit and cracked a smile like the world’s creepiest cheshire cat (although he drew the line at shaving his trademark moustache, insisting the makeup was applied on top).
"When you get in an outfit like that,” Romero once shrugged of his no-nonsense approach to the role, “you fall right into it.”
Considering his off-screen reputation as an unhinged, shark-smiling hellraiser, perhaps it wasn’t too much of a stretch for Nicholson to bite off the role of arch-villain in Tim Burton’s gothic 1989 reboot.
The movie might have been called Batman, but Nicholson’s hooting hell-clown steals every scene with acid-squirting flowers, deadly hand-buzzers and that laconic drawl.
“My early experience working for an audience full of children,” the actor remembered, “told me that the more you scare ’em, the more they like it.”
If Nicholson’s manic portrayal was straight out of the cartoons, the much-missed Australian made a more terrifying nemesis in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Looking like a panda left out in the rain, Ledger played Joker as a streetwise sadist, always ready to pop a rival’s eyeball with a pen or feed dissidents to hungry dogs.
“To try and even touch what Jack Nicholson did would be a crime,” noted the actor, who won a posthumous Academy Award for the role. “But when Chris came to me, I knew it was open for a fresh interpretation.”
Emaciated and intense, with lurid hair, silver teeth and ink worthy of a bassist from an emo band, Leto’s Joker didn’t need the ‘Damaged’ tattoo on his forehead for us to know he had a toolbox-worth of screws loose.
While filming Suicide Squad, the actor took the method approach to new extremes, sending co-star Margot Robbie a live rat in the mail and refusing to break character to even acknowledge the cast and crew.
The Hangover star was shrunk to a snaggle-toothed mini-figure for 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie, and gave us a needier Joker who craved his superhero nemesis’ approval.
“Men don't talk about their friendships,” noted Galifianakis. “So to force this almost therapeutic dialogue between the two of them just seemed natural and a fun thing to play on, as if they were working out their problems.”