Ethics And The Joker’s Moustache

“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.

24 thoughts on “Ethics And The Joker’s Moustache

  1. “Sort of a Grade B Riccardo Montalban” And what grade was Ricardo Monatalban? “Look what they’ve done to my car!” “Fine Corinthian Leather!” At least Ricardo had the self possession to admit he maid the “Corinthian leather” thing up out of whole cloth. I remember reading an interview where he said, as I recall, “It just rolled out of my mouth. But it sounded good so the director went with it. There’s no such thing as Corinthian leather.” Maybe apocryphal, but ….

  2. I’ve thought about this mustache far too many times for my own comfort.

    As a kid, the intended audience even if I was too young to care during its run, I really did not notice. The reception was always fuzzy out in the country. >not a problem

    In-universe, Joker’s insane. Merry prankster is the most forgiving way to tag him. Any version would grow a handlebar or do anything to mess with people’s heads, especially the Bat. Annoying Batman would be a laugh in character. >not a problem

    As far as the character’s mentality, psychotic, violent sociopath does not go far enough to describe his character for the last fifty years. (the TV show was really the last full expression of the pablum comics after the Comics Code censored all comics for decades starting in ’54 ‘because of the children.’ The comics for the next kid generation are mostly unreadable today as Little Lulu and Tubby were supposedly what people wanted and needed. On the DC side which barely survived the censorship, only the big three of Supes, Bats, and Wonder Woman had unbroken runs. Other publishers that had thrived on horror and tru crime went belly-up) But Joker is horrible, and not someone to be lauded and admired in any way to be edgy or relevant or hip. I question the validity of making him the lead instead of antagonist. Someone to emulate instead of reject… Joker has a huge ego and would not hide a mustache if he wanted one, he would have done something violent if it was shaved unwilling- like take one he liked. After eighty years as a character pancaking it? >does not fit

    And lastly the actor’s viewpoint. As a part-time gig, I really doubt they were paying enough to not require other gigs. He might not have any lined up, but he would not have wanted to negate better jobs for a silly camp show. Also, the part more recently has come under focus for being hard on the psyches of the actors playing Joker. Ledger being the most prominent, but the other actors have agreed. Having the tangible mustache might have kept the clown as a psychotic skin over substance. This may not be true, but I suspect many actors who play villains regularly have a mental or physical talisman, Vincent Price was a cultured gourmet. That makes the ‘error’ a safety belt. >good idea

    But these viewpoints are not equal in importance. Just because kids don’t notice or the actor gets too much into the character for their own comfort, doesn’t mean the actor can shirk playing the character to the best of their ability. If they can’t through counseling or a less visible talisman, they should get out. The mustache is a signature for incompetence to not play the part properly going in. They could have changed the look and painted it the same green as the hair or some other fix. It does look a little pathetic and even the silly King Tut seemed more villainous as he played it a little more authentic. (around this time in comics the first big Marvel titles like Spidey were making waves by being more authentic and the 70s was the resurgence of the detective and the in the Batman tales) I can respect that he was the first memorable screen Joker, but he never left the shallows to even become scarey. I wonder how much of “It” was influenced by darker aspects of the Joker?

    • “I question the validity of making him the lead instead of antagonist.”

      Ditto. I hope there is a follow-up movie where Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker meets Batman, who demonstrates that he’s no visionary, just a sad messed-up little man who chose the wrong way to solve his problems.

  3. Actually, Milton Berle played Louie the Lilac. Liberace played the dual role of Chandell and his evil twin brother Harry.

    The quality of TV screens in those days (and the ones I grew up with) made the Joker’s mustache near impossible to see. The children watching it either didn’t notice or didn’t care as mariedowd pointed out.

    I didn’t realize Romero kept his mustache until reading about it as an adult. Now, admittedly, the high-definition televisions of today make it impossible not to notice, but it’s hard to expect that the producers or Romero should have foreseen television technology improving so substantially…or even that the series would become so beloved that people would still be watching 50 years later.

  4. An opinion piece (pre-review?) by Steve Rose in The Guardian of 9/28 notes that
    “Fleck is a man losing his grip on sanity, but the world “out there” is a powder keg of lawlessness, inequality, corruption, cuts and all-round despair. ” and that . . . “Phoenix’s character as a sad young man losing his grip on sanity (mental health problems, past trauma, failing comedy career, loneliness)”

    It’s a reminder that in the comic book superhero world the good guys – police, military, clergy (non-existent), well-meaning human beings – are not enough to take care of the bad situation. Given that perspective, the Joker as a character makes sense. The problem arises when the Joker is presented to us as a psychopath with no boundaries and no (super)natural enemy. If he is just a man as described above, he exists, when he breaks out of his shell, he does not become a supervillain. So somewhere in the movie (if not Batman, and the producer say not), in order to make him something greater than a “common” criminal, the movie will have to contain a supernemesis. I hope.

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