Tom Jolliffe looks at the idea of River Phoenix as the Joker and other parallel universe castings…
It’s 2019. It’s an era of perpetual rebooting. For some, we’d barely settled on the idea that Jared Leto was cast as the clown prince, before it was announced that Joaquin Phoenix would don the make up in a Joker-centric pic about his turn from being mentally unstable Arthur Fleck to becoming Gothams deadliest antagonist.
Joaquin Phoenix by almost every account (even from those who’ve not quite taken to Todd Phillips’ film) is exceptional. From my own view too. It’s an brilliant performance by Phoenix that (whether you want to see it or not) demystifies one of the comic and cinema worlds most enigmatic villains. Sometimes things work best, ala Chris Nolan/Heath Ledgers version, where we are kept at barge-pole length from the truth of the character. As an outright villain I suppose that works best. Still, seeing Joker identified as Fleck, and chipped to his disturbed Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin-esque core is still fascinating.
That being said, this is Hollywood baby, and there’s undoubtedly going to be other actors playing Joker in the years ahead. Still…who? Much like other icons, like Bond, there’s a definite ‘what if?’ aspect to picturing actors donning the paint and green-dye. Indeed why only look ahead? We not ponder back? Or even think of an alternate universe where some departed may still be around.
Joaquin is amazing. Just as almost every Joker incarnation (bar Leto) has been. Ledger is still my favourite, but I digress. In seeing Joaquin do his thing, and see him in press during build up talk about the impact his late older brother River had on his fledgling acting career it got me thinking of an alt-universe somewhere. River Phoenix, one of a family of immense talent it should be said, is still around. He’s developed from that Jimmy Dean-esque edgy youngster with talent in abundance and become a modern great. He could have played Joker and done something dynamic and interesting with the role, and undoubtedly too, something markedly different from Joaquin.
His youth was spent largely playing the edgy outsider. His approach to acting had raw, emotive power. See that power in Stand By Me whilst barely into adolescence, or hitting maturity beyond years in My Own Private Idaho. That film (Gus Van Sant) in itself was an interesting one and has gathered a cult following over the years. There’s one particular scene that anchors the film and injects a level of pathos and depth that might not otherwise have been there without it. A campfire confessional between River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. A simple and beautiful scene, and it came from Phoenix. An idea. An aside, but it was all part of his process (treating his craft with the seriousness and deep infiltration that Joaquin now does) and it made the film.
He might have gone away from that totally insular intensity that Joaquin did so well (or does so well generally…see also You Were Never Really Here). Needless to say, River as Joker would have been exceptional.
Who else? Perhaps taking someone like Mickey Rourke with elements of The Wrestler, and some of his edgier earlier work and step Joker 20-30 years beyond his inception. Now a tragic monster. There’s an air of despair, discord, listlessness at becoming a broken down piece of meat. Ineffectual in his antagonism now. Wearing the scars that Rourke would bring behind the make up and the ultimate tragic clown, threatening to make us sympathise before grounding us in the reality of his unstable evil in a last hurrah of villainy. (I’m totally copyrighting this all by the way DC).
I could imagine Rourke being a really interesting Joker, in a film made by Darren Aronofsky perhaps. In that alt universe somewhere with a post peak Joker rather than pre-peak, it would undoubtedly be a fascinating watch.
Now…here’s a real curveball. In another parallel world somewhere, we’ve also got the calls for a female Batman, Bond, and every other iconic male character. Now granted there’s Harley Quinn and there’s Batgirl, but sometimes you still get those calls for an actual gender change. Well if I’m thinking of an actual female Joker I refer to a post I saw on Bai Ling’s Instagram page once. She’s decked out in full Joker attire with the face paint etc. Then I think of some of the more theatrical offerings of the character with Cesar Romero or Jack Nicholson. Then that simple picture started giving me odd visions of her as Joker…and they were oddly awesome. Bai Ling is most definitely a one off. A firecracker of unpredictable energy and unrestrained (both on and seemingly off screen) manic. Apart from the fact I think she makes almost everything she’s in these days infinitely more interesting (because she explodes in and out of scenes, and many of these low budget films don’t offer much interest outside of the Bai scenes) I think with a decent film-maker, allowing her just enough freedom of expression, she would be a really different and kind of bat-shit crazily good Joker.
One final thing I often wonder…had Heath Ledger not sadly departed us. Would he have returned in Nolan’s follow up? What would the character have offered? Would there have been a tease of back story? Could he recapture that intensity and make it just as electrifying a second time?
Who do you think would make a great Joker? Totally free choice… let us know in the comments below or on twitter @flickeringmyth.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has several features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019/2020 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/