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Heath Ledger - An Unconventional Choice
Author: Cary Ashby
Monday, August 21, 2006

I considered the news: Heath Ledger has been cast as the Joker. The sides of my mouth turned down slightly (very un-Joker-like, I might add) while my eyebrows went up slightly.

"Hmmm. Interesting," I thought.

That was it. There wasn't really much more of a reaction than that. It certainly wasn't the "WTF?" response Jett had.

I considered the thought of Ledger as the maniacal Clown Prince of Crime. While I wasn't thrilled, I wasn't offended or shocked either. That was an OK attitude - right?

Apparently I wasn't the only person to have a similar response. When I enthusiastically shared the news with several of my co-workers, most people reacted as I had: OK - and that was it.

One person who was (almost) as enthusiastic as I was about BATMAN BEGINS used the same word I did: Interesting. He even hummed afterwards. Another person in the newsroom said Ledger's casting was "awesome." She also said the actor's smile was a probably a reason director Christopher Nolan chose him. I countered that I hoped it had a lot more to do with Ledger's acting chops.

Judging from the responses on Movieblog.com, fans (including Jett and yours truly) never saw it coming. they also don't know what to expect from the actor who got an Oscar nod for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Ledger was never even on anybody's short list to play the Joker. While people are astonished, they at least are not up in arms.

A former co-worker said "you got your ear close to the Gotham streets" after my newspaper ran my twice-monthly column with the Ledger as The Joker news four days before Warner Bros. released its statement. He wanted to know "how fans (were) taking the news." I've thought about that time and time again since e-mailing him back and the phrase "unconventional casting" comes to mind.

Maybe that's not a bad thing, my sister told me. (FYI: She thoroughly enjoyed BEGINS and looked forward to the sequel. Keep in mind she had no use for any of the Burton-Schumacher films and doesn't watch super hero films.) My sister said casting Ledger could be Nolan's way of continuing to take his Batman franchise in a different direction. She pointed out you simply got Jack Nicholson with Joker make-up when he was cast in 1988.

And as a recent BOF source said: We don't want that again, now do we? I've heard Jett say the same thing: We fans want to see an actor embodying the nastiness of The Joker onscreen first and foremost, not Ledger or the actor portraying the villain.

I fully expected director Nolan to cast a relative unknown. Based on Nolan's casting of Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), I guessed the next Joker would be someone under the Hollywood radar who could blend into the character. I was surprised it was a rising "A-lister" like Ledger.

On the other hand, choosing Ledger fits with Nolan's earlier choices. I expected BEGINS to include nobody familiar. I was surprised high-profile actors such as Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson rounded out the cast opposite Bale, who has played a variety of roles yet disappeared into each one.

Truthfully, I know nothing about Ledger's acting abilities. But that could be an advantage since I won't have the baggage of knowing his earlier work when I see the THE DARK KNIGHT.

I simply hope Ledger makes a believable Joker. He needs a dangerous and psychotic edge, yet should be as charismatic and arbitrary as Nicholson's version and as looney and energetic as the late Cesar Romero's.

Nolan has a proven track record in telling intriguing stories and assembling stellar casts; I have no doubt that will continue.

Ultimately, I'm taking the same attitude as Jett: Nolan has earned the right to be heard. Take your finger off the "panic" button. Let's get on board, enjoy the ride and don't prejudge the casting decision -- and get ready for some more exciting sequel news. After all, Bale and Nolan both have been enthusiastic about Ledger being in THE DARK KNIGHT.

So what else can we expect next?

Considering I anticipated the Joker announcement about September (based on when it was announced Bale was Batman in ‘03), we should expect news to come quicker than expected.

The next wave of TDK buzz will be when Nolan announces who will play Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent. It's an important casting decision since Dent will become Two Face in the third film and the prosecutor (in the comics and animated series) considers Bruce Wayne his friend. If the Heath Ledger announcement is any precedent, expect the casting choice to be equally unexpected. I'm pulling for Josh Lucas, Liev Schrieber or even Matthew McConaughey.

2007's Comic-Con International would be the perfect time to reveal some footage, throw out some storyline teasers and/or do a presentation/group interview. It's a fantastic PR move that generates lots of press - and something intangible studios yearn for: buzz.

Overall, look for the first trailer before SPIDER-MAN 3next May and if history repeats itself, there will be a longer trailer broadcast during the 2008 Super Bowl.

BOF contributor Cary Ashby writes a twice-monthly comic book column for the "Norwalk Reflector." He is the newspaper’s crime reporter. Cary has an extensive collection of Batman comics and has been an avid fan for nearly 30 years. He can be reached via e-mail at ashby@goreflector.com.

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