On January 22, 2008, the world was in shock to discover that Heath Ledger had died at the age of 28. This news was especially shocking to the filmmakers of “The Dark Knight” who were planning on releasing the movie in July of the same year, a movie where Heath Ledger was infamously going to portray ‘The Joker.’ Heath Ledger’s death automatically made “The Dark Knight” a movie with a completely different viewing experience than what was originally intended – all of a sudden the audience is viewing the movie with the knowledge that the actor playing the main antagonist in the film is dead, and that started speculation that the film and character itself may have led to Heath Ledger’s demise.
Heath Ledger was very much a method actor, and spent months before filming the movie transforming himself into the role of ‘The Joker.’ While most actors temporarily become their character for the time they’re playing them, it seemed as though Ledger had become consumed with ‘The Joker’ and was unable to disengage from the role. ‘The Joker’ is a psychopathic villain, and his whole purpose in the film is to show that when given the chance, people always choose chaos over control. Ironically, the same proved true for Ledger, as his obsession with his character became chaotic and destructive in his own life, rather than being able to keep everything under control and differentiate real life from fiction.
When I started watching the movie for the first time, the same thought kept reoccurring in my head – “I can’t believe that because of this character, Heath Ledger is dead.” Although, the further I got into the film, it really wasn’t that unbelievable. Heath Ledger is completely unrecognizable, and it’s not just because of the make-up covering his face. It’s his mannerisms, his voice, his walk, and everything in between that makes his performance unforgettable and haunting. It’s one of those roles where the performance is so believable, you forget it is just that – a performance. Underneath that character is a human being and what they’re doing is essentially a job to them, yet in the case of Ledger, that wasn’t exactly how it went.
All of this changed my viewing experience significantly. Instead of seeing ‘The Joker’ as the creepy and chaotic villain in the movie that he was supposed to be seen as, I saw an actor overcome by a character, playing a role that would eventually lead to a drug addiction that would end his life far too early, and therefore, he becomes a tragic character in my eyes. This is obviously not how the movie, or the character, is supposed to be viewed and interpreted.
I believe any viewer watching the film with the knowledge of Ledger’s death would not be surprised to discover that his role in ‘The Joker’ aided in his downfall. As a result, viewers will watch the film differently than if just watching it without knowing about the repercussions of this amazing performance. I think that this is powerful in that Heath Ledger became so indulged in this character for us – the viewer. Obviously any actors goal is to be a character that is believable and to act to the best of their ability to make their motion picture as good as it can be. Therefore, it is a bit eerie to think that Ledger had put all of this pressure on himself to become ‘The Joker,’ all for the benefit of our enjoyment, and in the end he was unable to escape being ‘The Joker’ and return to reality.
In conclusion, “The Dark Knight” may have been intended to be a movie about Batman fighting to be the hero that he believes his city of Gotham deserves, yet the only character that truly stands out in my eyes in this film is the Joker – he became the hero for the movie in that not only did he make the movie great, but it is almost as if he sacrificed himself to become the best he could be for the film, and because of the unfortunate ending to his story, he will remain forever young in the movie that he will always be remembered for. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor posthumously for this film, and I’m not entirely sure if that would’ve happened had he not suffered the tragic ending that he did, which made his performance that much more special and memorable. To quote from the “The Dark Knight” itself – “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
The Dark Knight. Dir. Christopher Nolan.Warner Brothers Pictures. 2008.
http://www.biography.com. A&E Television Network, 17 May 2016. Web. 3 Nov, 2016.