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The verdict is nearly unanimous: As the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” Heath Ledger gives a great performance. But what exactly does that mean?


As we watch a movie, the mysterious alchemy of script, direction, gesture, voice and even makeup creates an impression that either rings true or it doesn’t. But for critics and Oscar voters, assigning the credit is the tricky part.


cover art

The Dark Knight

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Eric Roberts, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

(Warner Brothers)

Review [16.Jul.2008]
cover art

No Country for Old Men

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson

(Miramax)

Review [9.Nov.2007]

The most-talked-about male performances of the past year have been Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood” and Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men.” The latter two actors won Academy Awards. There’s growing speculation that Ledger may follow suit, albeit posthumously.


It’s no coincidence that all three actors play villains. When an actor we’ve previously accepted as a sympathetic hero plays a bad guy, we have points of comparison to determine that he’s acting.


But just as Ledger’s poignant performance in “Brokeback Mountain” made some people wonder whether he was really gay, his immersion in the role of the Joker has reopened an old debate about whether an actor has to have something in common with the character he is playing.


In Ledger’s case, did delving into his dark side contribute to his sleeplessness - and his accidental drug overdose?


Bardem thinks that suffering for your art is a personal handicap, not a professional necessity.


“If you’re a person who tends to suffer, you will suffer as an actor, even if you are doing a comedy,” he said in a recent phone interview. “If you are a person who doesn’t suffer, then it doesn’t matter if you are playing the worst villain.”


Bardem plays a romantic Spanish painter in Woody Allen’s new comedy “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” But even though Bardem, 39, is a Spaniard and a heartthrob, he was nonetheless acting.


“I am closer to this character than to the psychopath Chigurh in ‘No Country for Old Men’ - thank God - but that doesn’t mean I am this guy,” He says. “The joy of the actor is to find the characters inside of you, because we are holding all of them. If you are not holding him inside of you, you better run, man, and find him.


“You have to understand him. There are as many different ways to do it as there are actors in the world. What I like to do is start from the inside feelings, not from the outside behaviors.”


Aaron Eckhart, who plays the deformed Two Face in “The Dark Knight” opposite Ledger, thinks his co-star was exploring something deep inside.


“It was a pleasure to watch him,” Eckhart said when he was in St. Louis in April to promote the locally lensed comedy “Meet Bill.” “He was making bold choices. And when you’re working with someone who’s doing that, you can’t touch him, you just have to stand back and let it happen.


“I know he had the admiration of the cast and crew, because we knew he was doing something special. You don’t often get to see that on a movie set. He was inside himself - which is even better than being outside himself, because that’s where all the murky, dark, good stuff is. He was using it all.”


Critics have noted that instead of merely reciting the words, Ledger seems to be chewing over each line of dialogue before he spits it out. You can detect the process of invention as it extends to his posture and to a voice that vacillates between a sly serpent and a cartoonish Tasmanian devil. The way the character subconsciously flicks his tongue around his scarred lips is comparable to the way that Day-Lewis’ character in “There Will Be Blood” continues to limp for decades after he breaks his leg in a mining accident.


In February, Day-Lewis dedicated his best actor award from the Screen Actors Guild to Ledger, who had died just a couple of days before the ceremony - even though he had never met him. Actors, it seems, are keen judges of each other’s work.


At a news conference after Bardem won his Oscar for best supporting actor, he extolled the competition:


“Philip Seymour Hoffman, for me, is one of the most amazing actors of all time. There’s no moment of ‘not truth’ in his performances. When I saw Hal Holbrook in ‘Into the Wild,’ I have a heart attack almost, and I almost have to leave the theater with the scene in the truck when he wants to adopt the boy. That’s an amazing, intimate moment of a man who is really putting away the mask and transforming in front of the audience.


“Casey Affleck in ‘The Assassination of Jesse James,’ the whole journey is a piece of jewelry. And Tom Wilkinson in ‘Michael Clayton,’ I haven’t ever seen a madman so funny, crazy, dangerous, and the same time so heartbroken.


“So this award is a lottery that I won. It doesn’t mean I am better than the others.”


Eckhart says what’s most impressive about great film actors is their ability to block out distractions.


“In the world of independent film, a lot of performances get noticed and praised, but often it’s because the director can only afford to shoot master shots, and everybody is good in a master shot,” he says. “It’s when the crew and the lights and the cameras pull in for a close-up that inexperienced performers tighten up.


“As an actor, I know how amazing Denzel Washington was in ‘Training Day,’ because he’s doing all that invention with a co-star and a cameraman stuffed into the car with him.”


Eckhart says the process of reaching deep inside under pressure takes it toll.


“There’s a reason that Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t make a movie every three months,” he says. “If you do it right, it’s emotionally exhausting. As you get older, you learn to save a bit of your psyche for the next time.”


Bardem lost 30 pounds to play a Cuban poet in “Before Night Falls” and spent five hours in makeup each day to play a quadriplegic in “The Sea Inside.” He says that he, too, is easing up on himself.


“Maybe when I was younger, I was more of a 24-hour actor,” Bardem says. “When you spend three months suspended inside one character, it’s going to affect you. But you learn to be conscious of it and let it go when you don’t need it. To do good work, you have to go on living.”


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