As a child, he was sold to criminals who mutilated his face and forced him to beg for money on the streets. They abandoned him in a snowstorm, where he discovered a blind infant girl whose mother had frozen to death. Together, the two children managed to grow up and fall in love while traveling with a freak show carnival. However, ashamed by the permanent grin scarred on his face, he was prevented from ever fully trusting her love. His disfigurement, combined with his tragic backstory, ultimately led to her death and his suicide.
This was the story of Gwynplaine, the boy who was abducted and sold to criminals by the cruel king in Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel “The Man Who Laughs.” Our beloved comic book hero, Batman, has much to thank Hugo for when it comes to the inception of his archenemy, The Joker. Batman creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane, together with Jerry Robinson, based the appearance of The Joker on actor Conrad Veidt, who starred in the 1929 silent film adaptation of the novel. Veidt’s unsettling smile and deathly pallor became essential characteristics for Gotham’s most notorious criminal mastermind.
Although The Joker’s creepiness can be attributed to the character of Gwynplaine, his backstory is not connected. At least, it hasn’t been up to this point. The Joker is one of the most recognizable supervillains, yet his origin story is less than definitive. It’s this mystery that makes the planned “Untitled Joker Origin Movie” so fascinating. Expectations are set high with “The Hangover” director Todd Phillips on board, along with Martin Scorsese hopefully producing. Perhaps the biggest challenge now is choosing who will play the next Joker.
The studio seems to be interested in having Leonardo DiCaprio step in as the notorious supervillain this time around, but it’s still fun to imagine what other actors could embody the spirit of The Grim Jester. After all, if this is an origin movie, we might expect to see an actor younger than DiCaprio in the role. With that in mind, here are three candidates who could make a convincing Clown Prince of Crime.
Once a Clown, Always a Clown
The consensus is that the newest film adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” is a commercial success, thanks in no small part to Bill Skarsgård’s unnerving performance as Pennywise the Clown. His terrifying, buck-toothed smile and nervous tics helped to conjure a truly terrifying monster. Perhaps these are the qualities that could make Skarsgård an excellent choice to play The Joker.
Skarsgård put a lot of work into the process of becoming Pennywise, which included developing a sinister voice and incorporating his own fears into the character’s behavior. “Everything I did took 100 percent of my energy,” he says during a New York Times interview. “It was by far the most exhausting character I’ve ever done, physically and mentally.” You can imagine how he would undoubtedly approach the role of The Joker with the same amount of dedication.
In addition to his proven acting abilities, Skarsgård has youth and charm on his side. The classic Joker is debonair, with a twisted sort of sophistication. After seeing Skarsgård’s take on Pennywise with his combination of wit and malice, The Joker’s type of mayhem seems like it would come naturally to him. While the actor has already weighed in on the difference between the evil of his Pennywise character and the anarchist nature of The Joker, there’s promise that Skarsgård could have one more clown role in his future.
A Most Deviant Bastard
If you watch HBO’s “Game of Thrones” then you are most likely familiar with the sadistic oeuvre of Ramsay Bolton, played by Welsh actor Iwan Rheon. He brings nerve-wracking tension to each scene he appears in and seems to carry malevolence with him on his very shoulders. Rheon revealed, in an interview with “The Independent,” that he initially based his villain on Heath Ledger’s Joker, a performance that both earned a posthumous Oscar for Ledger and has become a benchmark for subsequent portrayals.
Rheon’s nod to Ledger may go to show that he has an uncanny ability to deconstruct the psychotic mind. His wicked representation of Ramsay Bolton is evidence of this skill, considering how he embodies trickery and deception in the process. The Joker is the ultimate trickster, an expert in his guile and craftiness. That’s why Rheon could make a compelling Clown Prince; he’s proven himself to be a performer who can fool you.
Unfortunately, the problem with Rheon isn’t with his skills, but rather his career plans. “I want to try and move away from bad guys because I really fear being typecast,” he told “The Independent.” Let’s hope he reconsiders that fear if a role as The Joker becomes available to him.
The Troubled Boy
There’s a notable restraint and almost timidity that makes the modern-day Joker so menacing. Heath Ledger found this note in the villain’s psyche and played it remarkably well, riding the line between a feeble psychotic and an all-powerful antagonist. If this were an attribute that might be applied to The Joker’s origin character, then Freddie Highmore is an actor definitely worth mentioning.
Highmore’s take on a young Norman Bates in the TV series “Bates Motel” impressed fans and critics alike. He was able to channel the spirit of Hitchcock’s original “Psycho” character and actually gave him more humanity in the process. Highmore’s teenage Norman might actually be more sinister than Anthony Perkins’ adult he was modeled after, which is a remarkable feat.
While the young actor might be considered too innocent and harmless to ever don The Joker’s purple suit, those qualities could be exactly what makes him a good candidate. Highmore’s angst simmered beneath the surface as Norman Bates and brewed up to explosive events. In this, we might find a fascinating Joker, who battles with his own inner turmoil at a young age.
Whoever is chosen to play next Clown Prince of Crime, one thing must be remembered; a hero is only as good as their villain. There’s a scene in Christopher Nolan’s critically-acclaimed Batman installment “The Dark Knight” where our Caped Crusader faces his sworn enemy alone. In true villainous fashion, Ledger’s Joker perfectly defines their relationship in just one sentence: “I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you?”
Many would argue that The Joker stands on his own and doesn’t need Batman to define his evil genius. But it’s by comparing him to heroes like Bruce Wayne that we find his significance as a character in the difference. Jack Napier is a man who wants to “watch the world burn,” as Michael Caine’s Alfred so expertly explains. This is why he’s such a terrifying character; his motivation is hard to understand for anyone who is well adjusted.