This weekend at the Venice Film Festival, Joker made its world premiere. Todd Phillips’s reimagining of the origin of Gotham’s most iconic villain received surprisingly strong reviews, with some proclaiming it a masterpiece. It’s not been without its fair share of controversies, of course, with even some of the more positive critics digging into its suspect politics and wider implications for societal impact. It’s a discourse that will be calm, friendly, and not volatile in the slightest, surely? Ha. Ha. Ha.
Anyway, the film has already opened way stronger than most of us had predicted it would, which bodes well for Warner Bros. and their plans to make this a real prestige hit and potential awards player. A large chunk of that campaign will inevitably be focused on the leading performance of Joaquin Phoenix, who received, a couple of exceptions aside, near-universally glowing write-ups. It still feels a tad too early to call a Best Actor nomination a lock, but it’s certainly a major step forward for comic book movies that this title is even getting talked about in such terms.
But, of course, with that spiel comes a whole lot of dodgy narratives, including this perennially exhausting one.
We all expected headlines like this because it plays well to our questionable attitudes towards acting and how ‘difficult’ it should be before we consider it good. Besides, this cycle of tragedy, agony, and prestige is now just a part of the Joker mystique and has sadly been the norm since the death of Heath Ledger. Are you really working at being the clown prince of crime if you don’t send yourself into a mental health spiral and/or send your co-workers used anal beads? Of course Phoenix went mad playing the role!
Except he didn’t say that.
What he actually said, during the movie’s press conference:
The first thing for us was the weight loss. I think that’s really what I started with. And, as it turns out, that then affects your psychology. You start to go mad when you lose that amount of weight in that amount of time.
So context matters in this case. He is specifically referring to how one is physically and mentally impacted by dramatic weight loss in a short amount of time (he lost a reported 53 pounds for the role). You can extrapolate what you want from that quote and play up the angle of method-style commitment through physical transformation — I’m sure it will come up a lot during the next few months of promotion — but it’s still an important distinction to make.
Side note: But Phoenix also mentioned in an earlier interview with Italian publication Repubblica that he’s originally asked Todd Phillips if he could put weight on for the Joker since he didn’t want to go through the speedy dieting again following Mary Magdalene, but it was the director’s choice and it made sense for the part of a mentally ill man on various medications with serious self-image issues.
I know we’re going to hit all the beats with this Joker press tour, whether the cast and crew make various points themselves or whether the press just goes for the easy SEO-friendly headlines. This seems to be the only way we know how to talk about the Joker as an actor’s work, and frankly, it’s kind of ghoulish. There’s a reason you don’t see anywhere near the same number of headlines focused on Phoenix admitting he really enjoyed playing the Joker, as he said in the below video. How do you sell the enticing image of a tortured actor haunted by personal tragedy when said actor is riding around on a speedboat with his fiancée and not bragging about sending rats to his colleagues?
And now, I’m sure we can all go back to talking about Joker without descending into madness. Right?
Please enjoy this image of the totally tortured and miserable Joker riding around on a speedboat taxi in Venice with Lisbeth Salander.