Heath Ledger isn’t here. It’s July 2007, in downtown Chicago, and the actor was originally scheduled to be shooting a scene in which he uses a pencil as a lethal weapon. But the sequence has been postponed, and Ledger has the day off. Instead, we’re watching the cameras roll on a somewhat less riveting moment in The Dark Knight: Billionaire Bruce Wayne, exhausted from his late-night crime-fighting escapades, slumps into a chair and falls asleep in the middle of a business meeting. That’s right, we’re watching Batman take a nap.
No matter. Ledger is all over this set in another way — he’s all that anyone working on the movie wants to talk about. Director Christopher Nolan calls Ledger’s acting in the film ”fearless.” Christian Bale, the Caped Crusader himself, says it’s ”intense — a superb performance.” And Morgan Freeman, who plays inventor Lucius Fox (his job in today’s scene is to chat with Wayne after the Bat nap), chimes in with a simple ”extraordinary.” Even before a single frame of the film has been seen, Ledger’s twisted turn as the Joker — a part once played by no less an icon than Jack Nicholson — is already building buzz as a dazzling, demented tour de force.
Six months later, in January 2008, it will suddenly, shockingly, become much more.
With The Dark Knight, Nolan and Bale return to Gotham City for a second, even moodier and more savage installment of the superhero franchise they revamped in 2005 with Batman Begins. The movie delivers on its promise, pitting Batman against the freaky new fiend in psychotic cosmetics who robs banks and blows up hospitals for the sheer anarchic kick of it. Most of the familiar faces (and one new Two-Face) are on board, including wry butler Alfred (Michael Caine), stalwart police detective Gordon (Gary Oldman), and lawyer-slash-love interest Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over the role from Katie Holmes), as well as a new crusading district attorney named Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). The Dark Knight has everything fans expect from the series: gizmos like a sleek new ”Bat Pod” motorcycle, eye-popping stunts (most performed the old-fashioned way, with real stuntmen and real explosions), and, of course, the brooding Bale, arguably the best, certainly the most serious actor ever to growl under the cowl.
Still, when the film opens July 18, Ledger will be Topic A. His turn in The Dark Knight would have been widely talked about this summer even if the 28-year-old actor hadn’t died of an accidental prescription-drug overdose last January. It might have even earned him another Oscar nomination (it still could, posthumously). Now the performance is shrouded in tragedy, though, and may well be Ledger’s last cinematic testament (it’s unclear what Terry Gilliam will, or can, do with the actor’s unfinished footage from The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). And that loads The Dark Knight with a poignancy its creators never anticipated. Certainly one they never desired. Along with the grief it caused friends and family, Ledger’s death cast a shadow of uncertainty over the film. It had Warner Bros. reexamining its entire marketing plans for the movie, conducting taste tests on the appropriateness of Ledger’s clown face on publicity stills and in trailers. Hardly the way the studio had hoped it would be launching its biggest summer thrill ride.
NEXT PAGE: ”The guy had serious nuts. I needed someone who wouldn’t be afraid of the comparison with Jack Nicholson. This was an actor who wasn’t afraid to bury himself in his character — to a massive extent.”