Michael Keaton may have courted all manner of controversy when he was cast as the dark knight for 1989’s Batman, but the path ahead for finding his perfect foe was fittingly the opposite of the heat that Keaton would generate. Whereas Keaton’s role saw all kinds of fan outrage lobbed his way, the idea of a big Hollywood production that wanted to breathe new life into the clown prince of crime saw dozens and dozens of names thrown at director Tim Burton and his crew.
One of the most hotly contested roles of the year, everyone from Robin Williams to David Bowie was rumoured to be in the running to don the greasepaint of the Joker and dance with the devil in the pale moonlight. Much like Superman had done back in 1978, this version of Batman knew that it needed to cast a big name to give the project an air of legitimacy. Plenty of names may have been thrown into a casting hat, but from day one there was only one actor considered for the role: Jack Nicholson.
“Jack Nicholson as the Joker, it’s like that was everybody’s first choice because he is the Joker,” Tim Burton would say years later in an interview.
There’s no question about it. The fear is almost more like he’s too perfect but he’s so great he even transcends that. He goes beyond your expectations just because he’s so good. Once somebody like him gets involved, it just raises the bar of everything else and it just creates a buzz about it, an excitement that permeates everything.
“Part of the thinking in getting Nicholson, was really similar in going back to the Marlon Brando concept in the first Superman picture,” executive producer Michael Uslan said.
You get such a great deal of respectability for the picture, for what you’re trying to do that not only does that help bring audiences in from young to old, but it also makes it very attractive to other major stars to want to become the next Batman villain, to follow in the footsteps of Jack Nicholson.
The catch here, was that Nicholson knew he was the right choice. He knew just how good he was behind the camera but he was also the actor who would not commit to a project unless he believed in it. Meetings were held, contracts were hammered out and Burton even found himself riding a horse alongside Nicholson up in the snowy peaks of Aspen as he worked on convincing him how his Batman film would be a game-changer, according to producer Peter Gruber.
“We had known Jack Nicholson for a while, and the idea was ‘would Jack play a role like that?’.This is not the kind of film that Jack Nicholson played in, the guy from The Last Detail, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” Gruber said.
We’re talking about a force of nature, an acting force of nature. It changed the nature of the comic framework, into a film. From a movie into a film with the inclusion of Jack Nicholson. There was something to be discovered there by the critics and by the media. Because they would find it intriguing that Jack would want to do that.
Nicholson still had some doubts before the project kicked off, but Burton’s vision eventually sold him on what Batman could be.
“I was afraid because of my feel of the television series and the way movies tend to be done and talked about, I didn’t want this to go through the normal ‘let’s brighten this up for the kids!”. I thought this was a very strong and transitional movie about the genre and really why they wanted me in there. On a superficial level, it gave that moment of ‘oh this is not another cartoon movie’, Nicholson explained.
To this day, I always took this performance more seriously than probably anybody in the world because I looked at it that way. My early experience told me from working for an audience full of children, the more you scare ‘em, the more they like it. That was my response to the Joker, because after all this was a hateful occurence this man if you looked at it literally.
Every kid loves this guy, I believe. I particularly just loved the name, Joker. It was fantastic.
From there, it was all a matter of working out how best to portray the Joker on the big screen. “The story says here’s a man plunged into nuclear waste and comes out this other identity, right? So my simple thought on it is the guy is, from then on, shortwired. And I love that,” Nicholson said. Finding the right personality and insanity may have been the easiest part of the process for Burton and Nicholson, but coming up with the perfect visual look for the character? That was a real challenge and one that was left up to Joker make-up designer Nick Dudman to figure out.
“People have said to me, did I feel nervous about taking on a task where you were going to produce some work that was going to be viewed in such detail and analysed in such detail. I had an initial nervousness about what Jack Nicholson was going to be like. But that’s largely because you’re going to be nervous about any actor who you might have to spend three or four months with,” Dudman explained.
My attitude was very practical, it was if you have somebody of that calibre they’ll have a 12 hour turnaround, you’ve got to do the make-up in under two hours whatever it is. You have to have a practical approach to how you would do a character like that. And I saw my job very much as whatever this guy turns up with, I’ll be augmenting. And I think in the first discussions, Tim’s vew was exactly that. We would see where we went and he didn’t dismiss any approach at all at that stage. He was very open.
I did one lifecast as you would normally, with just his face relaxed and in a normal position, and one cast where I asked him to pull the most extreme grin that he could pull. Which was quite extreme. I moulded these items, produced casts of him smiling and not smiling that I could sculpt on. So I then went back and started trying to sculpt a smile that was always there but needed him to smile behind it to take it to the full extent. And then stood back from them, painted them and thought “What do I think?”
At what point in this row of faces do I lose Nicholson? Because anything beyond this point where I lose him, I should just dismiss now. Because if you’re doing prosthetic make-up, you’re gluing bits on somebody’s face and wherever you glue those bits you’re camouflaging the performer. He’s got to sell through it.
With the make-up done and the manic persona emerging, there was only one thing left to do: Get the clown prince of crime into some stylish threads. With filming kicking off in England’s massive Pinewood studios, there was only one logical choice for where the Joker’s impressive wardrobe could be tailored, a part of the production that made Nicholson very very happy.
“Bob had wanted to take that kind of elegant gangster that was in his very sharp pin-striped suit and when he got dipped into the acid, turn it into this zany version,” assistant costume designer Graham Churchyard said.
Jack’s known for coming to London to have suits made. We used a Savile Row tailor to make these amazingly well-crafted suits, so he was so happy with his whole look.
After a lengthy shoot of 106 days, top billing on the film marquee and a whole lot of (deservedly earned) royalty cash later, and Nicholson’s Joker became the stuff of legend. Here was a harlequin of hate reborn, a far cry removed from the campy incarnations that had existed before. Lethal an completely unhinged, the Joker raised the bar for cinematic villainy as Nicholson’s portrayal of the ace of knaves was maybe the reason why audiences flocked to theaters in the summer of 1989.
Want more? Wait until you get a load of the first part of our Batman 1989 retrospective, right here!
Last Updated: June 4, 2019