"It's Jack Nicholson, ye know?! It's impossible to fill his shoes!" Heath Ledger says this with a nervous half-grin and a shrug of acceptance. It's autumn 2006, we're in the lobby bar of a downtown Toronto hotel, and the Australian star of Brokeback Mountain has just signed to play the role of his career - The Joker in the Batman franchise (a role originally made famous by Nicholson in Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster). Ledger's first task, he says, is to make it clear to himself, and to anyone who wants to listen, that he's not going to be doing "a Nicholson" on the role.
"I love Jack Nicholson's performance in that film," he says. "But mine is going to be completely different. He was catering that performance to Tim Burton's style of filmmaking. Whereas Chris Nolan's style of filmmaking is different." He chuckles at this, makes big wide eyes and repeats, "Radically different." Nolan, of course, is the British-born director (he has an English father and an American mother) who went from being a London University film nerd to a heavy-hitting Hollywood auteur in record time. After his ingenious flashback thriller Memento, and the Alaskan-set policier Insomnia, Nolan somehow, and against all odds, brought dignity back to a bankrupt Bat-franchise that had inexorably mired itself in camp and kitsch and the loony excess of co-stars such as Jim Carrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger (the latter starred in 1997's Batman & Robin for a rumoured $30 million [Dh110 million], inevitably becoming part of a financial disaster which cost an alleged $125 million, but failed to make that money back at the US box office).
Eleven years later, Batman's fortunes have turned around. The Dark Knight has already set a new opening day record in the US, taking $66.4 million on its first day of release, breaking the $59.8 million record set by Spider-Man 3 last year. It earned $18.5 million from midnight opening screenings alone, beating the previous record held by Star Wars, Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith, which took $16.4 million from midnight opening screenings in 2005.
In an attempt to keep up with audience demand, cinemas have been putting on extra screenings, showing the film at 3am and 6am, practically on a 24-hour loop. Even so, with many cinemas sold out, tickets have been changing hands on eBay and Craigslist for three or four times their face value, with some tickets to opening night screenings selling for more than $100. The tide turned with Nolan's Batman Begins, released nearly a decade after the fiasco of Batman & Robin. It deliberately dumped the quips, the Day-Glo studio interiors, and the rubber suits with latex nipples, and instead simply reinvented the titular superhero as a brooding avenger with possible homicidal urges.
Here his masterstroke was the left field casting of the intriguing UK actor Christian Bale in the title role. Bale had been steadily working since his breakout turn, in 1987, in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, but had then been earning a reputation as something of a method acting hardman - he famously lost 27kg to play an insomniac in The Machinist. Naturally, Bale brought to Batman Begins a requisite amount of simmering gravitas and, coupled with Nolan's impressive action set-pieces, ultimately rode the movie towards a hefty $350 million box office bonanza.
Nolan's challenge, thus, with his next Batman movie was to repeat the casting coup, and turn something as potentially corny as The Joker into a genuine audience-pleasing terror. Choosing Ledger was a risky move, and everyone knew it. There was some initial grumbling from the comic-book fansites, who wondered if Ledger had the requisite chops to carry into the 21st century the beloved nuances of Nicholson's iconic screen-chewing performance (remember him prancing about in smiley-face prosthetics, giggling maniacally and hissing out his signature line, "Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?"). Ledger, too, was clearly daunted by the challenge.
The actor had been in a perpetual struggle with the burden of his own talent since he first rose to fame in the romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. The Perth-born son of an automotive engineer father and teacher mother had fallen into acting, by his own admission, when in high school, after some drama department productions, he landed his big sister's agent. Consequently, he tended to be grateful, and occasionally bemused, when real roles started coming his way. When he hit Hollywood after 10 Things he allowed himself, he said regretfully, to be bought, sold and marketed like a can of Coke. He hated the media attention, the limelight, the speculation and the giddy industry nonsense that surrounded his status as The Next Big Thing. He nonetheless made movies like the Mel Gibson actioneer The Patriot, and the goofy rock'n'roll period piece A Knight's Tale.
"I almost felt like I couldn't do anything else," Ledger explained. "I didn't have the confidence to say, 'Stop! I don't want to do this anymore.' And I had been incredibly grateful too. I was this kid from Perth, and I was like, 'OK, sure. I'll be a knight. Rock'n'roll music? Great!'" Ledger eventually, and gradually, found the nerve to break free from the mainstream, building on a series of oddball performances, in films such as Monster's Ball, The Lords of Dogtown and The Brothers Grimm. By the time he played the cowboy Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain, it seemed that he had finally arrived in the acting superstratosphere. His performance in that film, all simmering tension and lockjaw delivery, was duly feted, and Ledger was Oscar-nominated. Yet by the time we met in Toronto he had begun to see the movie, and all the attendant hoopla, as something of a trial. The constant awards shows, the constant promotion, the media attention, the sneering cowboy jokes and undying public profile had been overwhelming.
"The whole thing was exhausting, the whole process," he said. "It was such a relief when it ended." Ledger had since done a small Australian indie called Candy, about a drug-addicted artist, but otherwise he seemed to be back at square one, and riddled with self-doubt. He just wanted to make sure his Joker was different, he said, repeatedly. It was like a mantra. Initially, everything went well with The Dark Knight. Nolan told the press that Ledger was giving an "iconic" performance. His co-star Michael Caine said that he was pushing himself really hard, while Ledger simply said that he was having the time of his life, and the best fun he'd ever had on a movie. Then, over a month after he had finished shooting, Ledger was found unconscious and died in a Manhattan apartment, the victim of what was officially described as "an accidental overdose of prescription medication".
For a moment it seemed that The Dark Knight was going into free fall. Media pundits suggested pulling the film entirely from its planned July release, while others suggested removing Ledger from the film and re-shooting it around another Joker. Nolan, and the studio Warner Bros, however, ploughed ahead, eventually even using Ledger's visage, in full Joker make-up, for their early teaser posters, underneath the tagline, "Why so sad?"
Some industry-watchers were outraged, and the director Terry Gilliam, who was shooting The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus with Ledger when he died, publicly decried the studio for exploiting Ledger's death for their own ghoulish ends, allowing his tragedy to give their marketing campaign some morbid friction. Nolan was unrepentant. "We're just putting the film out there exactly the way we always would have, which seems like the right thing to do," he said.
Early sneak screenings of the movie seemed to prove his point. Critics, unanimously, have run out of superlatives for Ledger's performance. On screen, with blackened eyes, stringy wet hair and grotesque red torn-pocket mouth, he is eerie, horrifying, electrifying, captivating, stunning, mesmerising, repellent, shocking, awe-inspiring, and more. "Ledger is mad-crazy-blazing brilliant as The Joker," gushed Rolling Stone magazine. He has given "A sinister and frightening performance", said The New Yorker. "He is so horrifically riveting that you cannot take your eyes off him," added the New York Daily News. And then, strangely, in the midst of the glowing tributes, a new hysteria seemed to emerge. Rolling Stone topped their review with, "If there's a movement to get him the first posthumous Oscar since Peter Finch won for 1976's Network, sign me up."
Suddenly, this became the story. Oscar hysteria gripped a movie that was not yet released. "Will Ledger get the best supporting actor award at next year's ceremony?" was the question that surrounded the movie and spread through the blogosphere like a virus. The bookmaker William Hill joined the fray by slashing Ledger's odds from 12-1 to 3-1 for a win. Even Caine announced on the red carpet, at the movie's New York premiere, "I won't be surprised if he gets nominated for an Oscar, I'll be surprised if he doesn't win it".
And yet all the noise surrounding the movie, and all the references to Oscars, to campaigns, and media buzz seemed to reflect the very thing, curiously, that had driven Ledger from the limelight in the first place. This hysteria was not something he craved. There is surely an irony somewhere in the fact that in his last completed movie he would be involved in more media attention, hysteria and hype than in anything he had done while alive. And that, somewhere along the line, audiences and industry-watchers alike just might miss the fact that in portraying The Joker, his Joker, this Perth-born actor had simply done what he had always wanted to do. Something different. Something radically different.
For an online feature about The Dark Knight and a chance to win tickets to the Dubai premiere of the film, visit www.thenational.ae/darkknight. The competition closes at noon today.