By John H. Foote
The talk of the festival right now is a film only those critics arriving from Venice have seen. Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival to absolute rave reviews, in particular for the performance of Joaquin Phoenix, and is the hottest ticket here. There are two press screenings at the same time Tuesday morning and I expect them to be full houses. Phoenix, though a difficult actor to interview, is hugely gifted, no one can deny that. This might be his Oscar winning performance!
A very proper English critic was sitting behind me at a screening yesterday and started in, loudly, on why do we need another Joker? Why, when Heath Ledger won an Oscar in the role in The Dark Knight (2008) and Jared Leto was impressive in Suicide Squad (2016), do we need yet another? Clearly he was on a roll, not talking to his friend, but talking at her. I shook my head in disgust, and he caught it.
“My good fellow” he said, in a condescending tone, “you seem to take exception with what I am saying, though I am not saying it to you.”
Snotty bastard. My dark side crept in.
“No, you were not speaking to me” I answered, looking him directly in the eye, “but you are speaking loud enough for the entire theatre to hear your wisdom. I happen to disagree with you.”
Taken aback, he apologized and reached for my hand. OK, decent man,
“May I ask why you disagree with me on this illicit Joker business?”, he asked.
“Yes. Are you familiar with the works of Shakespeare?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Yes, yes, of course”, he said.
“There have been many actors play Hamlet on film: Olivier, Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke and Branagh, and no one complains. How many Romeos, or Juliets, or Macbeth’s have we had? No one argues that because each brings a new interpretation, right? Now, I am sick to death of the comic book genre, but will never deny a great film, such as The Dark Knight (2008), Wonder Woman (2017) or The Avengers: Endgame (2019) nor should anyone deny a great performance in one of those films”, I said.
“You cannot seriously compare Shakespeare to comic books can you?” He retorted.
“I did not say that, I am talking about interpretation. If 10 actors were to play Hamlet, we would get 10 different interpretations. If 10 actors were to play the Joker, the same thing would happen, correct? If Joaquin Phoenix surpasses what Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, or Jared Leto have done, is that not exciting?”, I asked.
Nodding, he took it in and again reached for my hand as the lights dimmed.
The lady beside me touched my arm as the lights came to black and whispered, “well done”.
I learned a long time ago through my work in the theatre no two actors will ever play one role the same and the excitement comes from watching what each brings to the role. This man had obviously not thought out his argument and was talking to hear himself talk, spreading his wisdom for all to hear. Not once did I raise my voice, but spoke only to him, leaning into my seat as did he.
I think it is exciting a film based on a comic book character is making the festival circuit. It means it is different, unique, and brings something potentially new to what is fast becoming a very well worn genre. And if Phoenix, the third truly great actor to play the part, gives us something new, that is reason to celebrate. Is that not what a film festival is all about at its very essence?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.