It’s kind of interesting to learn that actors can be intimidated by other actors, but it does happen. This isn’t to say that some actors are actively trying to intimidate their costars, but that has happened in the past as well. But in the case of Jack Nicholson and Micheal Keaton it was simply due to the fact that Nicholson was a well-established and very powerful star when he took on the part of Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, and Keaton, who had already starred in a couple of movies, was still getting his legs under him when it came to his overall act. One should be able to remember that he’d already starred in movies such as Beetlejuice, Clean and Sober, Touch and Go, and of course, Mr. Mom, by the time that he was given the role of Batman to work with. But it could also be argued that he hadn’t had to work with anyone like Nicholson, was a force of nature on a set according to some actors, and was known to go over the top a time or two in some of the best ways. To this day some of Nicholson’s best roles are still enjoyed by many people since he helped to create a new cinematic standard that a lot of people have been trying to follow and even copy ever since.
Plus, Jack has a tendency to overshadow those that he stars with sometimes, usually by accident since his personality is simply that big and he can’t appear to help himself. In a big way, it doesn’t feel as though the 1989 version of Batman was really a superhero movie as much as it was a type of drama/thriller that happened to feature a superhero as the main character. That sounds odd to say, but both Keaton and Nicholson played their roles beautifully, even if it felt like a push and pull kind of act that had both men vying for dominance at times. The scene in which Bruce Wayne is caught in Vickie Vale’s apartment by the Joker was a good example of this since Keaton had to pull out a crazy moment to really contend with Nicholson, and at the same time, Nicholson calmly walked right past that moment before flashing that maniacal smile and getting right back into the act when Bruce was apparently well and done. That’s how deceptive Nicholson can be with his acting, and it’s not too hard to imagine that Keaton was just trying to keep up at times since he’s become a great actor over the years, but back in the 80s it did feel as though he was still trying to establish a solid identity and really contend with someone that had been established when he was still coming up through the ranks. In fact, one could say that Keaton kind of tried to channel a bit of his Beetlejuice energy into that one scene, and it worked, but Nicholson took it in stride and kept going. This is the guy that starred in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after all.
Surprisingly, Nicholson is not being lauded as the best Joker of all time by a lot of people. Or maybe it’s not such a surprise since a lot of people think that Joaquin Phoenix is the best for his meltdown as Arthur Fleck. Personally, I’m still on board with Heath Ledger’s take on the iconic clown prince of crime since he appeared a little more realistic and on point since he could take a lot of damage and wasn’t in it for anything other than the chaos that he could spread. But to be fair, all three men did a very good job of portraying the villain, though the idea that, according to the Fleck model, that Joker would be anything but a villain is kind of hard to swallow since it implies to many people that the choice to do wrong is taken away by something that people just can’t control. When it came to Nicholson’s Joker, he was a narcissistic gangster that knew what he was doing and didn’t care, while Ledger’s was a chaotic and unknown that was out to prove that chaos was in fact normal, which is hard to argue against really. Phoenix’s Joker was more or less a deeply troubled and mentally unstable individual who finally embraced his instability rather than running from it, but in some ways, this does make him third-best despite the awards, since his character is, in reality, a mentally unstable and insecure individual that could easily continue to suffer, whereas the Joker of legend is someone that lives for the suffering of others and the continued tormenting of a certain masked vigilante that he finds to be his perfect match somehow.