When you watch this clip of actor Tom Waits, it becomes very apparent that Heath Ledger based his amazing Joker performance on the music legend. While he might have drawn inspiration from other dark places too, this one particular 1979 interview (on the Australian talk show The Don Lane Show) must have been high on his list of influences.
Few performances are as memorable as Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, a role which earned him a Best Supporting Oscar. This recently discovered footage clearly indicates where Ledger drew his inspiration from American singer, songwriter, musician, and actor Tom Waits. The mannerisms, the laugh, the voice, the dress code, the smile and the strangeness… it’s all there and clearly shows signs of our favourite agent of chaos. It’s not too much of a leap.
It’s a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script and then just closing my eyes and meditating on it. I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices – it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath – someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts. He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown.”
Before we continue any further, let’s watch the Tom Waits clip that everyone believes inspired Heath Ledger’s Joker:
If there’s one fact that every comic book fan can agree on is that Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is one for the history books. His unique take on one of the most iconic Batman villains completely redefined the character for millions of fans. That isn’t to say that Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto or Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker wasn’t amazing, or that other villains like Harvey Dent aka Two-Face and Michael Jai White’s Gambol didn’t leave a mark, but Ledger left a mark on history. Although he looked like the Joker we are used to, with the makeup and the hold that he has over Gotham City, spurring on a little anarchy, he was one of the best representations of the comic book supervillain we have ever seen, leaving all other actors to live in his shadow.
He was a formidable foe to Batman throughout the movies, causing the death of Rachel Dawes, putting out a hit on Coleman Reese after he threatens to expose the real identity of Batman as Bruce Wayne, and every time he played with the status quo, putting all the little pieces together to create thought out plans to foil Batman
Ledger’s Joker felt like an oddity in the otherwise realistic Gotham crafted by director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan. From his awkward mannerisms with the occasional magic trick and scars to his threatening outbursts, this Joker was unlikely anything any Batman fan had ever seen, especially not during the events of the Dark Knight or since the film’s release. However, the same can’t be said of music fans, who have been seeing a very similar character for a few decades now.
It’s no secret that Ledger dedicated his life to the Joker character. His method-acting antics are now well-documented, but not every fan knows that he might have based some of his performance on a well-known personality in the music industry.
The actor himself has mentioned two central inspirations for the character: one of them was Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, and the other was the punk rocker Sid Vicious.
Some elements of Vicious’ aggressiveness and distaste for “the system” are rather easy to spot in the Joker from The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises and hinted at in Batman Begins when Commissioner Gordon tells Batman about a new threat in town. Alex DeLarge is another evident source of inspiration for the character: for film buffs, no maniac is more easily recognizable than the machiavellian, even if Alex’s iconic codpiece is missing for obvious reasons.
However, there’s another character — from real life, this time — that might have been the inspiration for Ledger’s speech patterns and odd posture: Tom Waits.
In 1979, the elusive deep-voiced singer gave an interview live on an Australian late-night TV show. The interview itself is a rarity: Waits is one of the most reserved personalities in the entertainment business. However, what most fans were quick to notice is that Waits behaved almost like Ledger’s Joker, complete with the slow, strange drawl that made his character unique among the many versions of the Clown Prince of Crime.
It’s worth noting that Heath Ledger comes from Australia, and he was born the very same year the Tom Waits interview aired in his home country. Though it’s unlikely that he saw the interview when he was younger, there’s a slim possibility that he used the tape as a reference when he was coming up with his clown mobster’s unique speech pattern.
Another connection between Ledger and Waits would emerge a year after the actor’s untimely passing. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a trippy fantasy film directed by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame. The movie was Ledger’s final film, and it just so happens to star him and Tom Waits together.
Anyone who looks at the Tom Waits interview and any scene featuring Heath Ledger as the Joker would immediately notice the similarities between the two. However, the saddest part in this story is that, since Ledger passed before he could confirm the rumours, we might never know if he truly based his performance on that legendary Tom Waits interview.
There is still a lot of hope being held out for a film that uncovers the mystery of Joker’s origin story. We have vague clues. We know he is somehow connected to the mob and Arkham Asylum, but nobody knows for sure how Joker became part of the established order of crime within Gotham City.
One thing is for sure: if Heath Ledger did take inspiration from Tom Waits, then his Joker’s singing voice would have put Christian Bale’s growling Batman voice to shame.