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?
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”