The Last Performance

I will indeed get around to reviewing “The Dark Knight.” But, after seeing the 12:01 show tonight, I texted a friend that the movie was: “very good and very complex.” So until I come to terms with some of the questions in my head, this will have to do.

This was the role that Jack Nicholson played. It was, infamously, the role that Jack warned about. It’s a role that demands two faces, Harvey Dent be damned — between humor and anger, between psychopathic and plotting. It’s a role that has been getting Oscar talk since the first day Michael Cain was on set. It’s also, of course, the last role of a great actor’s life.

Put it all together, and the following is hyperbole that fits: it is the most anticipated performance in the history of cinema.

Needless to say, with anticipation comes a divergence in strange opinions. Some claim that this is the role that killed him. Some claim that it’s an injustice that the last time we’ll see Heath Ledger on screen is portraying a delusional face of evil. Some claim the posthumous Academy Award already belongs in the grave. It’s expected given the man, the death and the role, but it’s all a bit ridiculous.

I’ll first say that I don’t think this is the role that killed him. I believe Christian Bale when he says that he saw Heath having fun with this movie, having fun with this role.

Why do I believe that? Because it shows on screen. Looking back, if I can say one thing about Ledger’s performance, it’s that he was pitch-perfect in every comedic note. More than anything else, he made an anxious theatre erupt in laughter more than once. Personally, it came as a relief, that the darkness of the role was overshadowed by the comedy of it. Heath didn’t go out as some face for evil, he went out painted like a clown and acting like a brilliant comedian.
As far as the Oscar, this is dangerous territory, especially seven months out, especially without a deep knowledge of the performances yet to be seen. Speculating or handicapping his chances is a fool’s errand. But I’ll say that Nolan’s script is monologue-heavy, and if Supporting Oscars are awarded to the man that steals the most scenes, Ledger is in good position. That Batman’s actions speak louder than his words allows for Joker’s voice to be the most vocal in the movie.

Walk out of the movie, and think of a scene. It will be one of Heath’s, almost assuredly.

Before his death, Ledger talked about the difficulty of the role because — and I’m paraphrasing — the Joker is a character without conscience. He kills, but there’s not an ounce of remorse. He doesn’t kill to make a point. If I recall correctly, the Joker refers to himself as “an agent of chaos.” It’s a nuanced role, and for the first third of the movie, I questioned whether Heath was giving the nuanced performance that was promised. For awhile, the comedy was shining too bright, it was casting a shadow over the other aspects of the character it was supposed to balance with.

And rather than overstep my boundaries, I will say that he flips on the switch, turns the performance on the head and takes off. Nolan’s monologues get some of the credit, but halfway into the film, Ledger toes every line.

We wondered, and some worried, whether “The Dark Knight” would be the fitting conclusion to Heath’s legacy. In the end, I’m happy to report, Heath Ledger will be “The Dark Knight”‘s legacy.

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