I had always envisioned the Joker’s smile as it was depicted in the DC Comics version or by the great Jack Nicholson in the 1989 movie. As a little girl, I was always afraid of the joker and wondered what might be hiding behind those fake, painted on lips.
Joaquin Phoenix’s superb performance in The Joker 2019 was more than captivating. His story is told so well that you side with him in the film. Abandoned by his own mother as a little boy, lied to about his family history, bullied and beaten up as a man working as a clown trying to earn enough money to take care of his mother and get to the end of the month. We empathize with him and cry with him when others laugh at him. It’s impossible not to. It is clear that he is not only mentally ill but also extremely sensitive, and that his illness has probably been caused by a lifetime of traumas.
Let’s get back to his smile. We see him practice it in the mirror with and without his makeup on. He humanizes the evil Joker that we’ve been brought up with. The soundtrack to the film was so perfectly selected. When the rich, young man on the subway sings Send in the Clowns our blood boils. “Isn’t it rich? Aren’t we a pair?” We are reminded of the bullies in high school who made fun of the underdog. The scene is set up so well that we are shocked, but not completely convinced that the bully doesn’t get what he deserves.
When the Joker becomes violent, the plot takes yet another turn. He discovers that his mother, who he has been caring for, abandoned and abused him as a child. We also learn that she herself has a serious mental illness. Something changes. The Joker blames his mother and smothers her to death with a pillow. But what if his illness was genetic? What if he inherited it from her? Yes, she had been a terrible excuse for a mother. But she was just as delusional as her son. Had he not imagined a romantic relationship with the neighbor and had delusions of being on the late-night talk show before he was actually invited on the show?
So who/what is to blame? Genetics? Trauma? Life?
We mustn’t forget that The Joker is based on a comic and that heroes and villains in comic books are exaggerated and over the top. I wouldn’t want people to leave the cinema thinking that The Joker is a true depiction or the calendar boy of mental illness. Nor do I condone any type of violence. Mental illness is much more complex than that. “Normal” people who have not been abused can suffer from mental illness. People with a genetic predisposition to it can overcome it and lead happy lives.
One of the most impacting songs in the film is Smile by Nat King Cole. Before I add a link to the song from YouTube, I’d like to share with you something that Michael John Mele wrote in his blog about depression and suicide.
“For those who are depressed a smile is a scar, an unfortunate blemish on their body for the world to see but something they are ashamed of, it makes for pretty wrapping on the present hoping to hide the contents.”
And now, for the moment you’ve been waiting for, Jimmy Durante’s version of Smile, lyrics included.