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:
- “He couldn’t seem to disengage; the inexactness bothered him.”
- “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.”
- “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.