When Joaquin Phoenix took on the title role in the new movie Joker, he could have found inspiration in the performances of actors including Jack Nicholson, from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, or Heath Ledger, who later played the same character. After all, Ledger’s performance was so celebrated that his family accepted an Oscar for it a year after his death.
But Phoenix, instead, modeled his Joker after a turn from another actor, Ray Bolger, who’s best known to audiences as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Bolger, who died in 1987 at 83, also was known for his work on Broadway, as well as other movies and guest roles on TV shows, including The Partridge Family, Little House on the Prairie and The Love Boat. He began his showbiz career in vaudeville, so it makes sense that some of his credits are variety shows.
Phoenix says he closely watched one of Bolger’s routines over and over again while preparing to play Batman’s eventual nemesis.
“I think what influenced me the most was Ray Bolger,” Phoenix told the Associated Press. “There was a particular song called ‘The Old Soft Shoe’ that he performed and I saw a video of it and there’s this odd arrogance almost to his movements and, really, I completely just stole it from him.”
Phoenix particularly paid attention to how Bolger moved his face.
“He does this thing of turning his chin up,” Phoenix said. “This choreographer Michael Arnold showed me that and tons of videos and I zeroed in on that one. That was Joker, right? There’s an arrogance to him, really. That was probably the greatest influence.”
Phoenix acknowledged that “disco” had also helped him develop his own take.
Something else that affected Phoenix’s performance was his weight. He dropped a whopping 52 pounds ahead of filming.
“I think the interesting thing for me is what I had expected and anticipated with the weight loss was these feelings of dissatisfaction, hunger, a certain kind of vulnerability and a weakness,” he said. “But what I didn’t anticipate was this feeling of kind of fluidity that I felt physically. I felt like I could move my body in ways that I hadn’t been able to before. And I think that really lent itself to some of the physical movement that started to emerge as an important part of the character.”
Joker is already earning rave reviews, with Phoenix considered to be an Oscar contender, although it doesn’t arrive in theaters until Oct. 4.
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