Criminal masterminds. Ubermensches who think they don’t respond to society and double Oscar awards. On Monday, when Joaquin Phoenix picked up the gong for Best Actor for Joker, he breached a unique club. Till today, Vito Corleone was the only motion picture character – whose portrayal by two separate actors – had bagged Oscars.
First, Marlon Brando’s immortal portrayal of Vito Corleone got the Best Actor award (his second). Such was his performance that the Godfather actually became a template for real mafia leaders. A few years later, a young chap named Robert De Niro picked up the Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of a young Vito Corleone in Godfather II. Interestingly, many years before a Korean movie became the first foreign language film to win Best Picture, Robert De Niro became the first actor to pick up an Oscar (Best Male Supporting Actor) without speaking a single line of English.
According to IMDB: “Robert De Niro spent four months learning to speak the Sicilian dialect in order to play Vito Corleone. Nearly all of the dialogue that his character speaks in the film was in Sicilian.”
Interestingly, Robert De Niro would also play part in Joker where he is a supporting character playing the talk show host who finds out the deadly consequences of mocking a comedian’s punchline.
Fascinatingly, long-time De Niro collaborator and Eminem hater Martin Scorsese was actually considered to direct, but the studio didn’t want him and convinced Francis Ford Copolla to stay on.
Many moons later, Heath Ledger would pick up the Best Supporting Actor for his haunting, deranged portrayal of the Joker as Batman’s arch-nemesis in The Dark Knight. This was the first time a major Oscar category (Producing, Directing, Acting or Writing) was awarded to a superhero movie. In many ways it was the equivalent of giving Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature.
2008 was a watershed year for superheroes. Not only did The Dark Knight blow everyone’s mind, Marvel would release Iron Man – with a half-forgotten Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark – who spawned the greatest movie franchise in superhero history.
Now 12 years later, Joaquin Phoenix’s award for Joker – a movie which has deeply divided critics and fans – is an admission that comic book movies aren’t just popcorn summer masala.
In many ways it is an admission of the collapse of an Ivory Tower where pop culture finally conquered the hearts and minds of those who claim to have more discerning taste.
They are the real deal. As things stand, the Joker and Vito Corleone are the only two cinematic characters with that unique honour.