The Touching Way Joaquin Phoenix Paid Tribute to Heath Ledger in ‘Joker’

Without a doubt, Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight will go down in film history as one of the most iconic, menacing performances of all time, let alone a portrayal of the infamous Batman villain The Joker. The actor famously took a method acting approach to the performance in order to set his portrayal of The Joker apart from the performance of Jack Nicholson. Ledger received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor posthumously.

Over a decade later, The Joker would appear on the silver screen again, but this time in his standalone film. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Joker has also received critical acclaim and naturally, critics and audiences have started to compare his performance to Ledger’s. While Joaquin Phoenix didn’t exactly imitate Ledger’s performance in any way, the film did pay tribute to the late actor in a way that was subtle, yet very important to The Joker’s character.

Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix
Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix | Photo by KMazur/WireImage for Turner

Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger were friends

According to Comicbook, Phoenix and Ledger were good friends in real life. They both found their footing in Hollywood and began to reach critical success around the same time, being the early 2000s. Phoenix reached international levels of fame for his portrayal of Commodus in the 2000 film Gladiator, while Ledger was receiving positive acclaim for his performance in the romantic-comedy 10 Things I Hate About You.

The pair reportedly had a fair amount of mutual respect and admiration for each other, making the tribute in Joker especially touching.

Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger | Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images

Heath Ledger’s Joker

Heath Ledger delved deep into the practice of method acting to develop his iconic portrayal of The Joker. For six weeks, Ledger isolated himself in a hotel room spending his time creating the character’s chilling laugh and voice. He devoted himself to authentically living in the role, even going as far as to tell Christian Bale to actually beat him as hard as he could during a fight scene.

In order to return back to the twisted psychology of The Joker, Heath Ledger would carry around a character diary he created on set. The book contained all sorts of horrors, from creepy drawings and sketches to actual disturbing news stories. On the final day of shooting, Ledger wrote the words “BYE BYE” in large letters over the last page.

Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix | Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker carries around a similar journal

In the first quarter of Joker, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, named Arthur Fleck, visits a social worker who asks him to show her his journal. After he hands it over, we’re given a glimpse of the disturbing content inside as the social worker flips through the pages. The journal contains very disturbing drawings and phrases, but also a very genuine cry for help when Fleck writes, “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

Throughout the film, Fleck empties his innermost thoughts and turmoil into the pages of the journal. The content of the book becomes increasingly disturbing and unnerving as Fleck descends into madness and becomes The Joker.

Making such a unique character habit such a focal point of the movie couldn’t have been done by accident. While Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the evil comic book clown was very much his own, there’s no doubt that this piece of Arthur Fleck’s character came from the dedication and sacrifice of Ledger’s performance as a tribute to an old friend.