Opinionated Comparisons

… compare and contrast

The Joker: Jack Nicholson versus Heath Ledger

Posted by MAaP on July 23, 2008

Why so SERIOUS?.. creepy.

Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker had everyone impressed. He really transformed into a creepy murderous clown, and is worthy of being a Batman’s rival. Heath Ledger also became worthy of being Jack Nicholson’s rival for the role.

The Joker is one of the most sinister and most deranged villains of all time. Jack Nicholson is an Academy Award winner known for his roles of neurotic men. Heath Ledger was known for his portrayal of unique characters and was an emerging force in Hollywood.

Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson as the Joker

Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson as the Joker

Three utterly unique men. Two great actors who played an influential — and I cannot forget the word ‘creepy’ — character. One role that serves as a comparison between these two great talents.

1989’s Joker: Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson as the Joker

Jack Nicholson as the Joker

I don’t remember much of Jack Nicholson‘s performance back then since I was still a geeky kid at school who preferred books over TV. But I can remember his face — that really creepy face. The makeup and the hair would have been okay on any other face, but to put it on Jack’s werewolfy features and Grinchy grin produced a mean face. When I saw Jack Nicholson’s face as the Joker, I immediately knew he was a main villain. He was right for that role.

Jack Nicholson’s facial features did the first step. His portrayal of the character made the leap. Batman wasn’t set in a dark tone like the Batman franchise of today is so the Joker had to be a little more “happy” — irritatingly “happy”. But as the villain, of course, that “happy” demeanor should also be rotten, deranged, and flippantly destructive.

I don’t think there’ll be anyone who’ll disagree that Jack Nicholson made these characteristics a convincing part of him.

2008’s Joker: Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger as the Joker

Heath Ledger as the Joker

There’s been talk of a posthumous Academy Award, and I would definitely vote yes. Heath Ledger gave one of the most riveting and scariest performance ever when he took on the Joker in the recently released The Dark Knight.

While Jack Nicholson went for the comic presentation of the Joker in the 1989 Batman film, Heath went for the realistically deranged criminal genius who just wants to see the world burn up in exploding flames. IT was definitely one of the villainest villains. Heath added more darkness to the dark tone of The Dark Knight. His “clown” side allowed him to fumble with his movements, but he was still downright murderous genius.

Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger

The Jokers: Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger

Who’s Better As the Joker? My vote goes out to Heath Ledger. His performance said it all. It was mesmerizing and terrorizing, that I know I’ll remember Joker as one of the most vicious villains in history. If Jack Nicholson gave the same impression for me, I would remember him as a mean villain, too. But I don’t. And Heath’s portrayal clearly overrode his, in my opinion.


45 Responses to “The Joker: Jack Nicholson versus Heath Ledger”

  1. Bobby said

    I agree with you whole-heartedly. I long contended that 1989’s Batman was the best comic book turned movie, until 2005. Now I feel that torch belongs squarely in The Dark Knight’s – and Ledger’s – able hands.

  2. fixator said

    I thought Jack N’s portrayal of the Joker was brilliant. Though I must say that with Ledger mania going on people will overlook this fact.

  3. happyatom said

    I’m going to agree with Kevin Smith here, and say that you’re comparing apples and oranges (even though I think Ledger’s performance is more memorable). On the other hand, I feel that Ledger’s portrayal was a very “true” joker. I didn’t really like Nicholson’s saturated, acidic grinning character. I think Ledger hit the nail on the head.

    P.S. Fumble? Hardly! Remember the part where he pushed the guy’s eye right into a pencil? Or how he dominated the cop in the interrogation room? He just had a certain quality in his movements.

  4. It’s a tie !

  5. bermudaonion said

    I didn’t see Jack Nicholson’s Joker, but I do think Heath Ledger’s performance was Oscar worthy. He was mesmerizing.

  6. shiftee said


    Keyword there is “more memorable.” 😀

    Fumble = I know what you mean and that was actually my point too. But I didn’t know how to describe it or what exact word to use. 😀

  7. Andy said

    I have all the respect for Jack Nicholson as an actor, but on this one particular role as the Joker I personally thought Ledger was better as the Joker.

  8. james said

    Jack Nicholson hands! down! he did the role better, he did a better laugh, and dressed better than heath ledger. in original batman jack turns into joker by falling into chemicals and then later he had sugery because his nerves were shot which gave him a freakish grin. In the dark knight heath ledger is joker by cutting his lips. ill admit he is kinda scary but nicholson is just original and that is the joker everybody wants. they changed it around. tommy lee jones was the best harvey dent!And danny devito was the best penguin the old batmans are the best there is no heath ledger no where in the old ones. so i think jack nicholson played the best joker

    • dan said

      you must be in some magic land of taking shrooms old batmans were entertaining but when the new ones made things look and feel realistic they threw those out the window so much better acting from ledger makes the joker so much more of the psychopathic lunatic he will always be portrayed as in the storys the 89 movie was for children is a better way to explain the point im getting across but as an addult the new ones are movies that would really open the franchise of movies into a whole entire audience of everyone.

  9. Joy said

    I haven’t seen the movie yet so I can’t really compare them…but I think both actors did justice to the role..^^

  10. Ana said

    I think Jack wa a better joke . He actually looks loke one. I mean ,Heath played a good role ..but he looked more like a psycho..not a joker JCK IS THE BEST!!!

  11. El Santo said

    Cesar Romero!

    This is actually quite tough. I can’t say one was better than the other. The greatest criticism of Nicholson’s Joker is that it’s Jack playing Jack… but I always imagined the comic book Joker to act exactly like Jack Nicholson in the first place. Plus, like you said, THAT FACE. I saw footage of him at a basketball game, and he still looks EXACTLY like the Joker. Arched eyebrows and permanent grin and all.

    Heath, though, was magnetic. Now, he’s not much the Joker of the comics. That’s not what he was supposed to be. However, he was pretty much the Devil, the epitome of all evil and suitable as the top Batman villain. In the comics, if Batman could kill one man, it would be the Joker. Heath portrayed evil so well you could see the dilemma Bats was going through, trying to restrain from delivering the killing blow.

    Like I said, a tough decision. I’m going to chicken out and say that both were great Jokers that totally stole the movie from the guy playing Batman. ‘Cuz that’s how Joker rolls.

  12. liam said

    i don’t see how you can draw a fair comparison in this piece of writing if you can’t even remember nicholson’s representation of the joker.

  13. kinetic said

    heath ledger was based on the graphic novels and was waaaaaaaaaay better then jack nicholson.. even tho jack had to make it comicky, but i bet if heath had to play a comicky joker he still would of creamed jack. jack nicholson was plain shit

  14. Dee said

    I vote for Jack Nicholson. Heath Ledger seems to miss the whole point of The Joker, which is that he’s supposed to be manic and cheerful, an overblown jester or trickster figure. The cinema is plenty full of morose, ugly deranged psychopathic killers. Who needs one more? The Joker is at his best when he’s that weird and paradoxical combination of twinkling good cheer and bubbly humor, and deadly and deranged mischief.

    Heath Ledger’s Joker is scary, but so what? He leaves us with no real paradoxes or quandaries, because he’s not very likable. But Jack Nicholson’s Joker is charming enough and funny enough that he makes you like him even when you know you should hate him. Ultimately, that inner paradox has the potential to be even more disturbing to the psyche than mere horror.

  15. shiftee said

    @ Liam

    I remember he was more “cheery” and that he was good enough for me to remember him even though I wasn’t such a TV addict back then..

    And this post invites everyone to make a fair comparison of their own, despite my written opinions. 🙂

  16. vichipp said

    To me it seems as though many people hav’nt seen the original from start to finish, and only remember glimpses of Jack as the joker…..we’ll they should watch it before jumping on the Heath bandwagon. Who played to perfect Joker? Neither to tell you the truth, as Jack was too happy and was not as dark and evil as he should have been. Heath on the other hand portrayed a Joker who was very evil and clever, but he lacked the classy personality. So basically, a mesh of these two Jokers would be perfect.

  17. mnauel said

    ok well on this new bat man that came out was the best iv seen but the thing is the heath ledger joker was serious some funny moments but jack had lots of funny moments it is a hard choic cause heath did have crazy moments that was really like the joker you know he just had that crazyness but jack was funny it is real hard th decide but i think i have to say heath ledger just you know to bad he died

  18. hi all, heath convinced us big time, no doubt bout that, but if jack nicholsons script writer and director had aloud jack to let loose in a darker more terrorizing role, im sure jack could have equally blown us to date.. remember “THE SHINING”??

  19. Dee said

    I don’t know if this comparison has been made before, but to my mind the Joker should resemble the character of the Master of Ceremonies, in the musical Cabaret. He’s a very dark figure, gleefully presiding over the end of the world as it slides into nazism, but he is at heart mainly an entertainer, a cheerful fellow for whom the main thing is simply that the show must go on — nazi genocides or no nazi genocides. He’s more amoral than malevolent, and therein lies the paradox and the ambiguity.

    Jack Nicholson played the Joker a bit closer to that archetype; while Heath Ledger’s Joker is simply malevolent and not very interesting. The mystery and intrigue of the Joker is how he can be of such light-hearted good cheer, while causing mayhem and chaos. If the cheery aspect goes away, then there is not much mystery or intrigue or paradox. Plain malevolence is mostly boring and banal, no matter how severe it is, or what horrific acts it commits. The Joker is not really intriguing unless he is truly a Joker, an gleeful and amoral figure who lives and kills for laughs.

  20. Alex said

    Are we forgetting Cesar Romero’s performance as the Joker in Batman:The Movie and the Batman TV series from the 60s? Neither Nicholson nor Ledger had the balls to sport a mustache under the makeup.

  21. Josell said

    Heath Ledger

  22. Marcin said

    who want’s next joker like Jack. One Joker like Jack was. who wants more?? I don’t. It would be boring. Heath tooks Joker’s character on next level. He was amazing. My vote goes to Heath definitly.

  23. daevyd said

    Jack Nicholson for me. He acted more like his namesake – the Joker. The guy looks like him even without make up. It was like he was born for the role. With all due respect to Heath, his portrayal of the character was just to plain. It was just another vicious criminal which, come to think of it, wasn’t really larger than life.

  24. cme said

    I really never got all the fuss about Jack Nicholson being such a great actor blabla. Apart from his earlier works, all I remember him playing is himself. His ego got probably got too big with growing success.
    I saw his interpretation of the Joker and I didn’t and still don’t like it. He didn’t make me laugh and he wasn’t scary and in the end I thought the film was crap because of him.
    Apart from that, what’s with all his childish comments about not having been considered for the role, who the hell does he think he is? Just because they always save a seat for him in the first row so he can grin into the cameras? Whatever, enough of that…

    I just finished watching The Dark Knight and I was absolutely glued to the screen from beginning to end (despite the movie being so long) thanks to Heath Ledger’s performance.
    He was perfect, and surprisingly far from any nice guy-character he ever played, unrecognizable in fact, mezmerizing, twisted, freaky, scary, and he was funny in his own terrifying maniac way. I totally loved it.
    When the new era of the Batman movies started with Batman Begins, I was all praise for Christian Bale, who is a terrific actor, but I must admit, I hardly ever noticed him in The Dark Night – it was Ledger’s movie, without a doubt, and one he will be remembered for.

  25. Anthony said

    Im a fan of both. jack nicholsons joker was great for the film he was in. The style it was made. It was set in a much more fake world.

    Ledger was more real and he was portrayed as a kind of terrorist. The world today can relate to that more. Also the world it was set in was todays and not a make beieve one.

    As for the looks. Heath ledger read the comic (Batman) ‘the killing joke’. If you look at the joker in that you’ll find that heath ledgers joker is much more like the comic.

  26. NoGivenUpNow said

    Ive recently seen the dark knight, and there is not doubt that heath ledger gave an impressive performance as an actor and as the joker. But they did not play the same joker. One I dont care what anyone says, nothing that heath ledger did was cooler than when jack N shot the bat plane out of the sky with a revolver, period.

    That said I believe the reason Ledger played such a scary role to people today is because the realism he played off of, real fears that modern society has. Ledger’s Joker was a terrorist, pure and simple, which is a huge issue in today’s society.

    Nicholson (after recently re watching the 1989 film) gave a performance that reminded me of the Joker as I think of the character. That and he made me laugh more. As well as make me go ” holy sh** he is nuts.

    All in all, in MY opinion. I preferred Jack N over Ledger.

  27. Darnell said

    Did you see Tim Burton’s Batman? It is set in an extremely dark and macabre world, in typical Tim Burton style. Everything is moody, industrial, and almost theatrical (like someone else already noted.) I’d say the ’89 Version of Batman is definitely darker than Nolan’s version.

    That being said, there was plenty of darkness in Nolan’s version, and I was pleased to see the slightly cheerier mood of Nolan’s Gotham. At the same time Ledger’s Joker was a much more terrifying and unpredictable sociopath. I preferred Ledger over Nicholson, though I think Jack did a fine job. It’s sad that there won’t be a Ledger encore if a sequel is made.

  28. Olie said

    Okay, everyone thinks that Jack Nicholson did the comic version of the Joker. But actually IF YOU READ THE COMICS Heath Ledger is more of an original comics Joker. Plus he did the better performance. Also, if you read any of the comics, the new Batman movies ( Batman Begins and The Dark Knight)both of those stories are actually based on a certain comic. unlike them pulling a plot out of their asses and shoving a horrible acted villian into it.

  29. maziyar said

    my vote goes out to heath ledger.he was wonderful

  30. Joey said

    They both played very different aspects of the character. Jack played a more sadistic and wise-cracking Joker, Heath played a more demented and psychotic Joker. All these elements can be found in the Joker from the Batman comics. Though I thought they were both great there were some things I didn’t like about both. Heath Ledger’s Joker was a little too serious and didn’t make enough jokes, and Jack Nicholson’s Joker just wasn’t insane enough.

  31. Ian said

    If you don’t remember the first Batman movie, why compare them.
    It’s obvious that you don’t remember a thing about it. You say it was lighthearted? I’d say it’s “darker” than the Dark Knight by a long shot.
    But that brings me to another point; what does “dark” mean and why does it matter? Different people can define it differently, but all that matters is that it DOESN’T matter.
    Now, another thing that proves that you don’t know what you’re talking about is that you say Jack is more like the comic’s Joker. Just read Batman #1… Now, how close it is to the comic also doesn’t matter.
    Heath played a cliched criminal. Jack played the Joker. See ya.

  32. Harley said

    Jack wins hands down. He is original, from the vat of acid down to the suit with the fedora hat and the chalk white skin. Heath did an amazing job. But he wasnt playing “The Joker”, he was playing “a Joker”. He reinvented the role, anyone with eyes can see that.
    Jack played a trick on Gotham that The Joker would do; when he planted smile-x in beauty prod.
    The Joker actually did that in “Laughing Fish”.
    Heath had few things the original Joker has; the mind (commiting chaotic acts with no reason), instilling fear in folks by just a look, and his agility.
    I am a huge fan of both Heath and Jack.
    And for the Joker…Lets just say hes my obsession.
    You have to get the over all Joker to win my vote. And Jackie boy did it.
    The jokes…The psychotic actions to throw you off…THE LAUGH…THE BANG GUN…THE LIST GOES ON AND ON.

  33. jacksparrow said

    Jack is one of my favorite actor though its Heath who did a marvelous Joker by far.

  34. fred said

    i liked both jokers. yes, nicholson(sp?) was born for the role, but the people who made “batman” misused his true talent. he was restricted to be more cartoonish. he was only allowed to be so violent, or evil. ledger had no restraints, and he pulled it off nicely. what all of you are forgetting is that the joker ALWAYS WAS a “terrorist”. it was his core. just because the reality of his character pertains to current times(and by the way, there always was “terrorism”), it does not subtract from the fact that this is exactly what the joker IS. all humor aside, all various takes on his character since he was made aside, every single thing that is the joker IS terror. he just has fun terrorizing. i think that, mentally, ledger came much closer to the true psyche of the joker than nicholson(sp?), but, jack wasnt ALLOWED to be himself. its just too bad that we didnt see what COULD have been.

    so, to recap:

    ledger=winner (but ONLY because)
    nicholson wasnt ALLOWED to be the true joker

  35. Heath Ledger is an awesome actor, I think he absolutely wins in the match. Never thought a comic book movie would be one of my favorites!

  36. brofist said

    liam said
    August 10, 2008 at 9:16 am

    i don’t see how you can draw a fair comparison in this piece of writing if you can’t even remember nicholson’s representation of the joker.


    You’re full of fail for writing a comparison between something you just saw and something you can’t remember.

    Analogy: I have never been to China. So, here’s my article comparing China to Canada based on experience.

  37. k said

    I imagined what would happen if Ledger’s Joker met De Vitto’s Penguin. I think Penguin would shoot Joker in head. Reason: from moment Penguin would see Joker’s scars, he would ask himself does Joker feel himself to be freak. Seeing Joker’s way of talking and acting, Penguin would consider him extremly dangerous and shoot him.

    Batman Returns Penguin is actually much more similar to Dark Knight’s Joker than Batman’s Joker is. Both men are disfigured persons unhappy with mankind, only Penguin is more disfigured and less unhappy with mankind, or just taking it in more sane matter. Also, both Penguin and Dark Knight’s Joker reffered to themselves as freaks and symbolism of dogs in Dark Knight seems to reffer same thing that Batman Returns did, that we all are animals inside. In sense Nolan was in very challenging situation, having to create different movie than Batman with Batman Begins and at least equally dark movie compared to Batman Returns with Dark Knight.

  38. TeRRiFieD said

    Are you people retarded? Why are you comparing them on role they played? Someone said Ledger “didn’t play the role right” I didn’t know he wrote the script The movie is called The Dark Knight. It is supposed to be dark, not cheerful. The Joker always should be dark and crazy. The Joker happy and cheerful is childish and annoying. Have to compare actors on the way they acted. Jack is a great actor but Ledger wins hands down.

  39. Kirk Brinkerhoff said

    First the dark knihgt was done 20 years after BATMAN.Jack Nicholson is the JOKER.jACK NICHOLSONS FACE EXSRESSIONS are 100 times better than Ledgers.Jack could get a call 1 day before filming and could pull it off no problem.Movies are so different now.Ledger was great but he had to work his ass off to play it and he was on heavy drugs during filming because that was the only way he could do it.If Jack played the Joker in that film he would have been 100 better if you think Jack cant play evil then you dont know shit

  40. Kirk Brinkerhoff said

    Jack Nicholson has won more oscars and has the most nominations of all time.In 89 Batman was the biggest movie of all time thats why Tim Burton gave Jach 60 mill without Jack asking because Jack was the movie.That double the money the best actors make now and he got his in 89.Jacks laugh was way better than Ledgers plus Jack didnt have to practice.Ledgers face exspressions wernt even close to Jacks.People now like more villance in movies than the did in 89.If jack was younger and was the JOKER in the dark knight he would have been so evil and better than Ledger that he would have doubled the oscar record.

  41. Dustin said

    Heath did an amazing job, i was glued to the tv with my jaw droped the first time i saw it. It was awesome, ive watched it several times, and Heaths acting performance leaves me in awe everytime, however, its not the Joker, Jake is and will forever be the true Joker and Tommy Lee was a much better two face by a land slide

  42. Dave said

    I believe Jack played the joker from the TV series Batman with Adam west, Burt Ward and Cesar Romero as the Joker. This Joker was a COMPLETELY different character than the dark Joker from the comic books which was so brilliantly played by Ledger. Jack portrayed the Joker exactly as I remember him from the 1960’s. So trying to compare against one another is apples & oranges & shouldn’t be done as it is truly not fare to either performance. They both played their parts beyond superb.

  43. Johny said

    I watched The Dark Knight last night and when i first saw the Joker i thought “oh no, who’s this? It can’t be the Joker. This will be s**t”. I really did enjoy Nicolson’s Joker and never thought it could be matched.
    How wrong was i!! Ledger absolutely smashed it! I’ve never been so gripped by an actor’s performance and have never felt compelled to find out what others thought (which is why i ended up here).
    Dark knight was by far the better film and Ledger was the icing on the cake. I am very upset that Ledger has passed and whoever replaces him in the future will not be able to match his performance.
    I hope i’m wrong about that but the bar’s been raised!

  44. Joe said

    I’ve only seen the original Batman and clips of The Dark Knight, I personally like Jack better. The thing is, I thought Ledger was creepy, unpredicable, and phychotic but I was only scared of Jack. I don’t know why, I always thought Ledger was intimidating but he just doesn’t scare me as much as mildly disturb me.

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