Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALISON STEWART, host:

"The Dark Knight" earned over 158 million dollars in its opening weekend, thanks in part to a broad fan base and probably some great reviews, including tremendous accolades for the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. The New Republic's Christopher Orr writes, it's a difficult performance to rate on any conventional sale, a whirlwind of energy and effects, ticks and tells, Brando and Hopkins and Nicholson thrown into a blender, set to puree, and then dynamited mid-spin. Here's a clip.

(Soundbite of movie "The Dark Knight")

Mr. HEATH LEDGER: (As the Joker) Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

(Soundbite of clanging)

Mr. LEDGER: (As the Joker) We are tonight's entertainment.

(Soundbite of glass clinking)

Mr. LEDGER: (As the Joker) I only have one question, where is Harvey Dent?

(Soundbite of bang)

Mr. LEDGER: (As the Joker) You know where Harvey is?

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): (As Gentleman at Party) We're not intimidated by your thugs.

(Soundbite of chewing)

Mr. LEDGER: (As the Joker) You know...

(Soundbite of bang)

Mr. LEDGER: (As the Joker) You remind me of my father. I hated my father.

STEWART: Now, the actor died just six months ago, almost to the day, of an accidental drug overdose, and Ledger's performance as the demented and tormented Joker has been deemed Oscar-worthy by more than one critic. Tom O'Neil, the LA Times, wrote about the possibility of him winning an Oscar. Tom, you're in studio. This is nice to see you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TOM O'NEIL (Movie Critic, Los Angeles Times): Good to see you here.

STEWART: So, first of all, do you think that Heath Ledger's performance is as good as everyone has been talking about, or as stunning, I guess, is the word?

Mr. O'NEIL: Sure, but that's not what they vote on at the Oscars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Right.

Mr. O'NEIL: Nobody gave Nicole Kidman an Oscar for one scene in a plastic nose in a movie called the "worst of the year" by Time Magazine. She had busted up with Tom Cruise. "The Hours" had all this artistic potential, pretense, so - but that's not why they vote for Oscars. But I just had to slip that snide comment in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Sure. Of course, but his performance, what did you think?

Mr. O'NEIL: Yeah. It was brilliant, of course, yeah. What did you think of it?

STEWART: I haven't seen the movie yet.

Mr. O'NEIL: Oh, shame, shame! Oh, you're such a slave to this job.

STEWART: I just had a baby. You know what I'm saying?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You can't get out that much when you just have a baby, but it is on my list, should I ever find a babysitter. What is it about the performance that has people just going over the top with the accolades?

Mr. O'NEIL: Well, he reinvented this classic villain that we've become familiar with. And actually, this was the first villain in the Batman lore, so it's the most important in that sense. But just, if you remember Jack Nicholson's portrayal back in '89, with the perfect makeup and the cackling laugh, Ledger does the exact opposite of everything. There's no - he rarely laughs. I think - I can't remember him laughing at all in the movie. And the smeared makeup, it's this brilliant reinvention, and then add that element of the fact that he's really dead.

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. O'NEIL: He portrays this guy who can't be killed on screen, and that adds such an extra creepy quality to a creepy character that - it's, like, reality horror movies, I would think of it.

STEWART: Wow. That's an interesting idea to think about. What is the likelihood of a nomination for Heath Ledger?

Mr. O'NEIL: Definite.

STEWART: Yes? Why?

Mr. O'NEIL: Yes. Well, because there's such an industry outpour over this role, and also, he was cheated the year of "Brokeback Mountain," of course.

STEWART: That's interesting, OK.

Mr. O'NEIL: Yeah.

STEWART: So, tell us a little bit about, for people who don't understand the inner workings of the way the Academy thinks, why would you not give it to him one year, when he probably really deserves it, versus a year when he maybe deserves it, but there are other amazing performances this year, as well?

Mr. O'NEIL: Right, because the Oscars have a different agenda. New York film critics named Heath Ledger best actor for "Brokeback Mountain." The Oscars, like everybody else, gave it to Philip Seymour Hoffman, for what I think is one of the worst performances in film history.

STEWART: This is for "Capote"?

Mr. O'NEIL: For "Capote."

STEWART: Right.

Mr. O'NEIL: We all know Truman Capote was this flamboyant fire cracker of a character, and his portrayal was this dark, stoic, kind of morose character, which Truman was not, but he was trying to do this angst-driven artiste number.

STEWART: Right.

Mr. O'NEIL: Hoffman was. But anyway, that aside, the problem is now is that only one person has ever won an Oscar from the grave, and that was Peter Finch for "Network." And he had just died a few weeks before the Oscar ceremony. Literally, he was campaigning for the Golden Globes. He was pumping hands in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, dropped dead.

STEWART: Really? Wow.

Mr. O'NEIL: Yes, yes. And Hollywood was so overwhelmed with grief just at the time they got their ballots that he won. Heath Ledger is going to be dead a year exactly when Oscar nominations come out. Will that matter? I don't know.

STEWART: Well, let's listen. For people who don't remember Peter Finch's performance, I think we have a little bit of it from "Network."

(Soundbite of movie "Network")

Mr. PETER FINCH: (As Howard Beale) We sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be! We know things are bad, worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we're living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms! Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won't say anything! Just leave us alone! Well, I'm not going to leave you alone. So, I want you to get up now, and go the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!

STEWART: I'm riled up already. Wasn't this an Oscar-worthy performance?

Mr. O'NEIL: Of course it was, but that year, Robert De Niro was winning every award in sight for "Taxi Driver."

STEWART: Oh.

Mr. O'NEIL: And only the death of Finch reversed that so that he suddenly won the Golden Globe, then the Oscar.

STEWART: Two movies with lines that people repeat repeatedly.

(As Travis Bickle) You talking to me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: The case of Spencer Tracy, tell people about this.

Mr. O'NEIL: This is really fascinating, because he died in 1967 just hours after the cameras went off for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," a best picture nominee. Katharine Hepburn was nominated, as well. Hepburn really had a minor role in the film, and it wasn't very emotionally flamboyant. But he gave this magnificent performance, this soliloquy at the end of the movie, which was one of the great, great soliloquies in Oscar history.

Everybody assumed he would win that year, but when he died, there was at least six or eight months before the Oscar ceremony. And then what was interesting about the Oscar outcome is not only did he lose, Hepburn won. So, in other words, they wanted to recognize this death with an embrace, but they didn't want to hug the dead guy. Hepburn, of course, was his de facto widow.

STEWART: Right, right. So, you were talking a little bit earlier about the timing factor, might actually work against a win for Ledger, but you really think a nomination.

Mr. O'NEIL: Yes, and I think he can win.

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. O'NEIL: I think the outpouring is there.

STEWART: This also will be his last opportunity, too.

Mr. O'NEIL: I know.

STEWART: That's sort of the - the other sad part about it.

Mr. O'NEIL: It's a cruel, hard place, Alison, Hollywood is.

STEWART: Hollywood, I know it...

Mr. O'NEIL: You're six feet under, you're out-of-mind sometimes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: So, one of things I'm interested also about is the role itself, in terms of big, splashy, comic-book roles or, you know, comic-novel roles, as opposed to things like "The Hours," as you mentioned earlier. Do people tend to get nominated? I'm trying to remember. The only thing I can think of recently, maybe, Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean," was the only sort of comic-y, big, splashy person to be nominated in the role.

Mr. O'NEIL: So, that's a good example. Jack Nicholson did not get nominated for the original Joker, even though he was nominated by the Golden Globes. The only cartoonish villain in modern times that - or ever, I guess, that was ever nominated at the Oscars was Al Pacino, for playing - what was it? Big - Bad Boy Caprice from "Dick Tracey"? But that's it.

STEWART: Oh. So...

Mr. O'NEIL: So, they don't really appreciate these popcorn movies. But I'll tell you what a wonderful, interesting wild card is, and that is villainous roles rarely won Oscars in the old days. You had Kathy Bates in "Misery," and you had Anthony Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs." Otherwise, they liked the inspiring, heroic roles. But lately, we've seen Hollywood's dark side emerge with...

STEWART: Last year.

Mr. O'NEIL: Three of the four winners last year were villains, Javier Bardem, Tilda Swinton, and Daniel Day Lewis.

STEWART: Hm.

Mr. O'NEIL: And the year before we had Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin. So, you know, this bodes well for Heath.

STEWART: It's possible. Tom O'Neil writes the "Gold Derby" column for the LA Times. Thank you for coming into the studio.

Mr. O'NEIL: Thank you.

STEWART: As a pleasure - oh, it's always a pleasure. Nice to see you.

Mr. O'NEIL: Same.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.