“The Joker,” opening this week and presenting Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Batman’s arch-enemy as fitting the classic mass-shooter profile, has provoked all sorts of ethics- related debates. Is it responsible to release a film that may risk triggering the psychopathic loaners with access to guns we all know lurk in the shadows? Is the studio risking another Aurora-style theater shooting? Should such films be boycotted? Regulated?
These debates, which are retreads of the same old refrains the nation has been tortured by since dime novels through Warner Brothers gangster movies, EC comics, “The Untouchables” TV series, the Legion of Decency’s reign, Sam Peckinpah films and “A Clockwork Orange,” are all appeals to censorship using “Think of the Children!” rationalizations, and are essentially attacks on free speech. The contrived debate is alarming but not difficult to call: the would-be censors are wrong, motivated by emotion, and that’s that.
No, the really interesting ethics debate the new movie has revived is another old one: Was it ethical for actor Cesar Romero to keep his moustache when he played the Joker?
Cesar Romero (February 15, 1907 – January 1, 1994) is now largely forgotten, but he was a familiar presence in films, radio, and television for almost 60 years. Sort of a Grade B Riccardo Montalban, Romero had a rather narrow range, with his portrayal of dashing Latin lovers, historical figures in costume dramas, and characters in light comedies all looking and behaving similarly. Romero’s trademark was his moustache, especially in the post-Errol Flynn era when leading men seldom wore them.
When the 1966 camp TV show Batman became a brief sensation in 1966, the casting of Romero as the Joker was a shock. He had never played any role remotely like it, nor was broad, silly comedy his typical milieu. Most shocking of all, when the Joker finally made his appearance on the show it was obvious that Romero hadn’t shaved his upper lip. Reportedly the actor refused to eliminate his moustache for the role, and so the supervillain’s white face makeup was thickly smeared over it throughout the series’ three-year run and for Romero’s co-starring appearance in the 1966 film.
I wasn’t a big fan of Batman in the comics or the TV show (though the series’ celebrity guest villains like Burgess Meredith’s Penguin and Victor Buono’s King Tut were guilty pleasures—and Liberace’s turn as villainous super-pianist “Chantal” (and his gangster twin brother, Harry ) is one of the most hilariously shameless pieces of bad acting in the history of show business—but Romero’s facial hair bugged me even as a teen. Now I see that the controversy has been resuscitated as the latest Joker portrayal has spawned a welter of “Who was the best Joker?” pieces.
[NOTICE OF CORRECTION: Thanks to A.M. Golden for pointing out that I had the name of Chantal’s gangster brother wrong in the original post.]
The Times rated him #6 (out of seven, not counting Phoenix), writing in part,
Romero’s interpretation of the Joker as a merry prankster is one of the show’s highlights. But he doesn’t make much of an impression to modern eyes — and the series’ recent high-definition upgrade draws even more attention to his regrettable decision not to shave his mustache for the role.
SyFy Wire’s critic, in contrast (did you know that the collective noun for critics is a “shrivel”? CORRECTION NOTICE: I originally had “snivel.” Thanks to Fred Davidson for the correction—it wasn’t a typo for once; I really thought it was snivel.) rated Romero the best Joker of all, in part because of his moustache…
The truth is that the very best Joker was not introspective and wounded and soulful. He was a cheerful, extroverted goofball, who tripped from crime to crime with purple tails flapping behind him in insouciant glee. I speak of course of that arch-criminal, Gotham’s grinning Clown Prince of Crime, Cesar Romero…. Latter-day Jokers have been celebrated for their sincere commitment to the role. Heath Ledger, who did a much-praised Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), in a hotel room for a month to find the anger and loneliness at the character’s core….Romero’s Joker, in contrast, was ostentatiously inauthentic. The actor refused to even shave his mustache for the part; it’s visible in close-ups despite the layers of white pancake make-up. You might see Romero’s errant facial hair as indicative of a lack of commitment. But his laid-back approach to Joker grooming was appropriate for a villain who tended to take his life of crime with an easy chortle.
Well, after half a century, it’s time to settle this controversy, and I’m just the one to do it.
The “Batman” TV show’s producers and director should have given Romero an ultimatum: shave off the ‘stache, or lose the role. His refusal demonstrated that he regarded the part as slumming and beneath him, and thus wasn’t willing to make the effort to do his best to portray the character.
I see a bit of his dilemma: it would be a recurring role, so if Romero shaved once, he would have to keep doing so, meaning he would either have to go hairless when he turned up on “The Love Boat” and the equally low-brow fare that was casting him at that stage in his career, or he would have to take a couple of weeks after Joker gigs to re-grow his accessory. Fine, Cesar: do you want the role, or not? This isn’t negotiable. It’s not like you’re the only familiar actor who can wear white make-up and a green wig, and you’re not exactly Marlon Brando. Or even Glenn Ford.
In the end, Romero and the show’s production staff demonstrated that they had no respect for genuine fans of the comic books, or for entertainment integrity itself. His being allowed to keep his moustache was a “what the hell, who cares?” decision, and unprofessional.
A confession: I had to deal with my own version of this exact problem when I was directing a dinner theater troupe at a hotel one summer. We performed a Broadway revue six days a week, but we were asked by management to present the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” on Sundays. The problem was that the member of my troupe who would have to play Charlie Brown sported a flamboyant handlebar moustache. He refused to shave it, sparking a huge battle among the performers, who divided sharply over the issue, with me in the middle.
Unlike Romero’s facial hair, that thing would not grow back in a couple of weeks. The actor also was something of a baby-face, meaning that enhancing his credibility as the Peanuts character would arguably hurt his effectiveness in the revue, which we did six times as often. The actor argued that since the conceit of the show was that adults were playing the comic strip’s kids, who were, after all, really meant to represent adults anyway, why was the moustache a big deal? He also pointed out that a human being—me—was playing Snoopy.
In the end, I gave in, and we had a Charlie Brown with a handlebar moustache.