Did the Joker Kill Heath Ledger?

One of the more intriguing things bandied about in the days following Heath Ledger’s tragic death last month was that the Joker — the comic book character Ledger plays in the upcoming The Dark Knight — killed him.

By this people didn’t mean that the Joker, a fictional character, literally killed Ledger, but they didn’t exactly mean it in a wholly figurative sense either. Rather, people seemed to be suggesting that Ledger was haunted by the Joker, unable to get him out of his system after playing him, and that this might at least partially explain his untimely death. In the words of John Brackett, “So did the Joker take over his mind and eventually end his life in a horribly ironic twist worthy of his green haired alter-ego?”

As more of the facts surrounding Ledger’s death came to light, the less people suggested that the Joker killed him. Yet, after reading Rolling Stone’s recent obituary for/appreciation of Ledger, I’m not entirely convinced it’s frivolous to ask whether the Joker might in some weird way be responsible for Ledger’s death. And if that is indeed the case, what does it say about the psychic power of fictional characters?

The following lines in the Rolling Stone piece seem to reinforce, if only subtly at times, the idea that the Joker killed Ledger:

  1. “He couldn’t seem to disengage; the inexactness bothered him.”
  2. “Ledger had no formal training, and there’s this to be said for acting school: it teaches you to approach a role as foreign, as a language you’ll temporarily speak. Ledger didn’t appear to have that. He needed to dig for (and inhabit) the part of himself that was the character. ‘Performance comes from absolutely believing what you’re doing,’ he said. ‘You convince yourself, and believe in the story with all your heart.’ It didn’t always shut off when a production did, and I think it ground him.”
  3. “As The Joker in next summer’s The Dark Knight, he will appear as a man severed from all connection. A ‘psychopathic, mass-murdering clown with zero empathy,’ is how he described it to the New York Times. On set, Michael Caine said the performance sometimes turned so frightening he forgot his own lines.”

I find these three quotes really provocative.

Interestingly, the article begins by mentioning Daniel Day-Lewis’s heartfelt reaction to the news of Ledger’s death on Oprah.

Most people probably thought that Day-Lewis was simply being classy and emotional, and that he deserved kudos for saying what was really on his mind, for acknowledging something Oprah probably wouldn’t have mentioned otherwise. But maybe Day-Lewis’s reaction had more to do with the fact that both he and Ledger approached acting in the same way, i.e., they both sought to become the characters they played. Maybe Day-Lewis expression of grief had something to do with the kinship he felt with Ledger, not just as a fellow actor, but as someone who knows how hard it is to detach after inhabiting a character body and soul.

Consider, for instance, a recent profile of Day-Lewis in The Guardian which tries halfheartedly to debunk “the popular image of him, namely that, for all his extraordinary talent, he is a tortured genius, living the life of a recluse, reluctantly breaking cover once every few years to inhabit body and soul hugely demanding screen roles,” but in the end simply reinforces this view.

The article notes that for The Last of the Mohicans (1992), “Day-Lewis underwent rigorous weight training during which he added 20lb of muscle to his body. Not content with that, he also learnt to live off the land and forest, as his character would have done, by spending six months learning how to camp, fish and skin animals. By the end of his training he had built himself a canoe. He also carried a Kentucky rifle at all times during filming and learnt how to load and fire it while running.”

Likewise, for In the Name of the Father (1993), “Day-Lewis lived on prison rations to lose 30 lb and spent extended periods in the jail cell on set, while crew hurled abuse and cold water at him.”

For The Crucible (1996), “Day-Lewis went back in time. He stayed on a Massachusetts island in the film set’s replica village — without electricity or running water — planted fields with 17th- century tools, and built his character’s house.”

For The Boxer (1997), Day-Lewis “trained with former world champion Barry McGuigan, who said he could have been a professional: ‘He was in the gym twice a day, seven days a week for nearly three years.’ Injuries included a broken nose and a herniated disc in his lower back.”

For Gangs of New York (2002), “Day-Lewis hired circus performers to teach him how to throw daggers and trained as a butcher. He got pneumonia during shooting, initially refusing to have treatment or trade his coat for a warmer one.”

Stories like these make me think that maybe Ledger couldn’t leave the Joker behind as well as Day-Lewis seems to be able to leave the characters he plays behind. Callous as it may sound, if the Joker really did have something to do with Ledger’s death, it actually makes me even more interested in seeing The Dark Knight.

24 responses to “Did the Joker Kill Heath Ledger?

  1. i know this will sound corney but when I was watching the oscars last week and Daniel was making a speech for his win I said to my cousine that Daniel Day-Lewis had a lot of Heath Ledger’s character in him I see a lot of Heath in Daniel. Both have this sweetness in their eyes but very strong ,they both have a softness and kindness ,and they look sinciere , it makes sence that their acting is so real and reached in depths that sends shivers down our spines ,Heath was very intense so is Day-Lewis . It is so scary to learn that something like this could actually happen, where an actor goes to the extent of not shaking off his characters ,Imagine then what Heath was going through after taking on roles such as Ernis Delmar in brokeback Mountain.

  2. I’m not really saying that it would be connected to his death, but some people think it did. They say that he went very deep into the role of the Joker. Rumors say that he had trouble sleeping at night because of it, so he took sleeping pills to help him sleep, which led to the overdose. Infact, Michael Caine quotes during production of the Dark Knight:

    “He’s gone in a completely different direction to Jack. Jack was like a clown figure, benign but wicked, maybe a killer old uncle. He could be funny and make you laugh… Heath is like a really scary psychopath. I did one scene with him and he was ready to go and had to come up in a lift and raid our place… I didn’t see him for rehearsal and when he came out of the lift he was so incredible I forgot my lines. He frightened the life out of me. … I’d never met him before. He’s a lovely guy and his Joker is going to be a hell of a revelation in this picture.”

    To get ready for the role, Heath lived in a motel (or hotel) alone for a month, formulating the Joker’s posture, voice, and psychology. He also started a diary where he would write down the Joker’s thoughts. He was also given Batman: The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth to read.

    I’m not saying that the Joker’s role really killed Heath Ledger. Infact, in a interview with Interview maganzine, Ledger’s former fiancée Michelle Williams stated: ‘For as long as I’d known him, he had bouts with insomnia, ‘He had too much energy. His mind was turning, turning turning – always turning.’

    Insomina may have been the reason he took those sleeping pills. He was one hell of a guy though, and one hell of a actor. He would always go in depth with the role he was playing. I do want to see the Dark Knight.

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  5. NO! Indeed, it is apparent he poured a lot of himself into the character and perhaps too much…but I think he felt he had to give the joker a different light as it has been played by many others before him… I’m utterly amazed at the Joker he created in Dark Knight… I assume he had a lot of pressure as well but I don’t think he took on the role not knowing what he was getting himself into…. but to say the role took his life would be a little irresponsible torwards dedicated fans to Heath Ledger and to the Joker… because he is afterall an immensely talented actor and while the role required a lot, he had just as much talent to play it…. and the joker (a character defined by so many other actors before) if played any differently by Heath Ledger would have not only disappointed fans but also dissappoint the joker himself….

  6. JokerInvestigater

    I am a complete fan of The Joker and i was listening to a talk show about him learning about anti phsycotic drugs (aka The Joker licking his lips all the time) to becoming the Joker by thinking he was a puppet (aka the way he skulks down Gotham streets with his shoulders intentionally higher than his head, like a puppet) Ledger might have got so caught up in his role he felt as if he was the Joker. to spend months away from people to become a physcotic maniac with no intention or means of striking. he might have gotten into a rutine of things, and i became too much for him. as Dr. Crane (scarecrow) ironiclly said in batman begins, “the mind can only take so much”

  7. digitalpotato

    nice post, Interesting point though but I think people have totally blown Heath Ledgers death out of proportion. I’m guessing if this type of news continue to circulate around the NET it will grow into somekind of “Hollywood urban myth/legend” like the so called “superman” curse, where all character that played the man of steel. something significantly unfortunate will happen to them.

    I think Heath Ledgers Death was just that, a simple case of self medication overdose, nothing more.

    Considering they did not kill the Joker in the Film, we’ll see if the next guy to play the “mad clown” fall in the same path as Heath Ledger.
    If that should happen ….then the Joker has totally mad a “killing joke”.

  8. (grr, just typed a big response to this post then my computer crashed), I shall have to try again)

    I hadn’t heard of this rumour of Heath Ledger’s death being caused by the haunting of the joker until I saw the film and my friend told me. But I can definitely see why people think this. Heath Ledger plays this character so creepily and slimy that it makes you uncomfortable to watch.
    I can understand why any actor would need to get into the zone of a character but I’m sure it would disturb anyone to get into the mind of a fictional character so twisted.
    I saw a video on YouTube of an interview with Heath Ledger talking about the joker and he was fidgeting an awful lot. Some people said that it was like he was the joker whereas other people said he was simply on heroin or cocaine. I think either could be correct.
    I don’t really know anything about Heath Ledger’s death other than there was a suspected overdose. I think this could have been any reason, personal, the joker or drugs. I like to think he’s an amazing actor and was just having a tough time. It seems too chilling to think that playing the joker could kill him. It also sounds like too much of a scary fairy tale. Something that couldn’t really happen. There has to be lots of reasons for an overdose to happen, and probably most of the reasons the public will never know.
    I definitely think Heath Ledger should be praised for his ability to play such different roles as well. One film I love which he is in is the teen high school rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You which is totally different to The Dark Knight in every possible way.

  9. This is ridiculous. Do I need to pull out the interview where Heath said it was the MOST FUN ROLE HE’D EVER PLAYED? Where he LAUDED the shooting schedule because it gave him time to SURF? You people are so caught up in how disturbing YOU’D find the role that you’re ignoring how HE dealt with it. Ask any of the actors involved; he was HAPPY. He was showing off his daughter and hanging out listening to music. He was NOT haunted by the role.

  10. Who knows.

    I mean seriously, can any of us really say that we are 100% positive that Heath intentionally or accidentally overdosed, got too into the role of the Joker, or if any of the other rumors floating around are true? The fact of the matter is, we can’t, and we never will know really know if his death was suicide or not. All we have now is speculation. The family doesn’t know (or knows and doesn’t want to talk about it), and the media isn’t any more reliable than the internet. So we don’t know, and we won’t know.

    My opinion: Leave it alone. Just let it be. No more speculation, no more rumors, no more bullshit stories. What happened happened. It’s tragic, yes, but spreading rumors and horror stories around about his death won’t do anything.

    We should remember Heath for who he was, not for how he died.

  11. this is the stupidest thing ive ever heard most of this stuff is untrue and ppl keep trying to make his death such a big deal and start stupid rumors oo its the joker oo the batman is cursed BULLSHit you people are retarded sorry but you are Heath died because of overdose not because the joker was haunting him.

  12. Well im sorry too Jamie, but I personally think mocking people is retarded and stupid too.

    Human mind is so unpredictable. I if someone should know since i’ve been haunted by paranoia and autism diagnosed as aspergers syndrome. I think it makes perfectly sense if he SOOO loved the role that it kept coming to his mind. And if that’s the case along with all the pressure he had since the movie wasnt out yet, he might’ve had hard time sleeping which led to sleeping pill overdose. And not taking the sentence “joker killed heath ledger” too god damn literally i assume you can smell my point very clearly.

    And quit crying about not speculating anymore. It’s fun to read these. Haters can go make their own blogs.

  13. after watching dark night and watching heath play the joker. i left the theatre traumatised by his chracter and the way he pulled it off so well i was out of words the first time. the whole thing with his death and that playing the character killed him. i cant say im suprised that he got absorbed by that character and it lead him to overdose on sleeping pills.
    i guess he got absorbed too much by the character just as we are absorbed by it when we watch it in the movie. all in all he really cracked that chracter of the joker and deserves recognition as an actor

  14. I have not watched the movie. I loved Batman Begins and couldn’t wait until this movie. I have had 2 freinds commit suicide by the time I was 19. It fealt the same way. All of the sudden. Two ton heavy thing. The human mind is so complicated. I had a saying when I was young and could lie my way out of any situation. It takes 90% truth to make a lie believable. It is completely within the realm of possibility to believe this role, in addition to tragic situations occurring in this extremely intelligent mans life, could have lead directly to his death. The reason no-one will talk about it is because it is bad. The family would be speaking out if they were not in such a whirlwind of bad feelings and hurt. Warner Bros. will not accept this scenario because they are all about making money off the back of a dead man. The more rumors, the more sick twisted people will want to see this movie and buy it on DVD. What should happen is a discussion on how to help actors when they play roles like this one and are suffering inside. If we don’t treat our war vets right I doubt an acting man could get any help in this dog eat dog world. We all need to love one another and look out for your bredren. One Love JAH Rastafari.

  15. This is too stupid. Even Christian Bale said that Heath could detach himself from the role on set and seemed incredibly happy. There is no need to mythologize his death. It was a simple overdose of a very bad combination of medications.

  16. it’s weird…i didn’t even know Heath Ledger cause he was an actor…but–i miss him. i have never have missed an actor before when they died..but Heath….its like something went missing in the world when he left it. he is missed and loved by many….RIP Heath!

  17. i also agree that the whole haunting this is stupid…i forgot to say that before…i dont believe in ghosts or hauntings…they dont make sense. but anyway..yeah. later

  18. Please do not comment if you don’t have the smallest idea what the article is about…
    Read it!
    No one mentioned any fucking ghosts.
    It’s all about the human mind.

  19. Joker didn’t kill heath ledger.. Joker immortalised heath ledger.. Heath’s medication overdose killed him..
    Through batman, heath showned us how acting is to be done.. Jack Nicholson acted perfectly as the joker.. but the one from the comic book.. Heath brought joker from the comic universe into the real world..

  20. Matt —Did you write this? ;)

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