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The best Joker is still Cesar Romero in the '66 Batman TV show, hands down
At last, we have a deeply serious Joker movie. Noted method actor Joaquin Phoenix is giving audiences the pathos and tragedy of the sad clown who laughs on the outside to conceal his pain on the inside. This is the real Joker — a tormented, brutalized, bullied soul, whose potentially problematic violence comes from an anguished understanding of the comic cruelty of existence.
The truth is that the very best Joker was not introspective and wounded and soulful. He was a cheerful, extroverted goofball, who tripped from crime to crime with purple tails flapping behind him in insouciant glee. I speak of course of that arch-criminal, Gotham's grinning Clown Prince of Crime, Cesar Romero.
Romero played the Joker in the 1960s campy Batman live-action series. His performance was an exercise in nefarious good-natured glee. Though the Joker in the comic books is often presented as mentally ill or criminally insane, Romero's white-faced arch-nemesis always had his wits about him. It was Frank Gorshin, the Riddler on the series, who played his masked villain with barely restrained manic intensity, giggling, staring, emotionally volatile, and on the verge of a complete mental break. The Joker, though, always seems to just be having a really good time. Whether playing prison baseball, hijacking a television broadcast, or challenging Batman to a surfing contest, Romero is always skipping across his criminal den with dainty malevolence, bursting into irrepressible gales of laughter at his own fiendish plots.
The only sour note is when the Caped Crusader interferes. Then the Joker's pointed eyebrows furrow and his painted grin elaborately scrunches into a scowl. "Batman!" he exclaims with congealed spite, his voice lowering to a mannered gravelly rumble. "Ooh!"
Latter-day Jokers have been celebrated for their sincere commitment to the role. Heath Ledger, who did a much-praised Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), in a hotel room for a month to find the anger and loneliness at the character's core. Jared Leto, who played the Joker in Suicide Squad, reportedly sent castmates a live rat and a dead hog as part of his method approach. These actors took extreme steps to get into what they saw as the Joker's extreme consciousness.
Romero's Joker, in contrast, was ostentatiously inauthentic. The actor refused to even shave his mustache for the part; it's visible in close-ups despite the layers of white pancake make-up.
You might see Romero's errant facial hair as indicative of a lack of commitment. But his laid-back approach to Joker grooming was appropriate for a villain who tended to take his life of crime with an easy chortle. In one memorable episode of the television series, the Joker enters an art contest. As other contestants fling blobs of paint and make giant bold swoops and swirls, the Joker dabs and brushes without ever actually touching the canvas; when he's done, it's completely blank. Of course, he wins first prize. Who needs elaborate plots when you can wreak so much sinister glee without even trying?
The Joker's forays into high art notwithstanding, Romero's portrayal of the pasty-faced pilferer is generally seen as an entertaining goof rather than a serious take on the character. Ledger's ominous lip-licking, or Phoenix's laughter bordering on tears, are supposed to be more thoughtful approaches. Even Mark Hamill's voice performance for Batman: The Animated Series, wonderfully over-the-top as it was, had darker undercurrents than Romero's.
Admittedly, it's hard to convey much depth of characterization while hooting "Hold tight for the bounce-a-daisy!" as Romero does while steering his Jokermobile. But when you have a character like the Joker, is depth really deep? This is, after all, a villain who wears clown make-up, dresses in purple, and hoots a lot.
Alan Moore, whose comic The Killing Joke serves as the blueprint for most serious Joker stories, eventually repudiated his own work precisely because "it put far too much melodramatic weight upon a character that was never designed to carry it." Taking a fundamentally silly idea and adding a tragic backstory doesn't necessarily make the silly idea more serious; it can even do the opposite. Picking up a villain in a painted-on smile, declaring him insane, and then musing on the chaotic ironies of existence isn't necessarily profound. It might just be an insultingly glib take on mental illness.
The genius of Romero's Joker is that he is exactly what he appears to be — a prima donna who is determined to eat every loose hunk of scenery in sight. If his Joker offers a message, it's not that the comedy of life conceals a secret tragedy. It's that comedies are comedies, and if we look too deeply into a blank canvas painted by a clown, the laugh's on us. Stories about evil-doers who can be identified by masks and dispatched with a Bat-punch (Pow! Wham!) are worth a hearty chortle, but it's probably best not to mistake them for philosophy. Cesar Romero is the best Joker because he is the Joker most in on the joke — while life is sometimes sad and cruel, art doesn't have to be.