“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. Continue reading