Joaquin Phoenix's Joker: A Dash of Gacy & Remnants of the Past

Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker Look Pulls From TV, Comics, and Real-Life Killer

Photo: Todd Phillips (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Director Todd Phillip’s Joker, starring Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix, hits theaters on Oct. 4, 2019. The movie reveals the origin story of the popular DC Comics villain. New photos and behind-the-scenes videos have appeared online, allowing diehards their first glimpse of the new Joker’s look.

Joker, directed by Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver, centers around the iconic title character and not his arch nemesis Batman. The original, standalone story is set in Gotham in the early ’80s. Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a man disregarded by society, is rumored to be a gritty character study and broader cautionary tale.

Phoenix’s Joker brings back the green-tinged hair color that we’ve seen before, but there are a few elements that set his look apart: the blue eye makeup, the messy red makeup around his mouth, and the red arched eyebrows on his forehead. The style is both recognizable and unique, and there are some possible inspirations for this particular paint job.

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‘The Dark Knight’

Last week, Phillips posted a camera test with Phoenix revealing our first look at Phoenix’s Joker makeup to the tune of The Guess Who’s “Laughing.”


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Camera test (w/ sound). Joker.

A post shared by Todd Phillips (@toddphillips1) on

As soon as the video was released, fans began to make comparisons to a memorable mask worn by Heath Ledger‘s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. While the blue and red colors are reversed, the similarities are fairly striking. But does that mean that Phillips saw this mask and was inspired to re-imagine a similar look for Phoenix?

Photo: The Dark Knight (Warner Bros. Pictures)

It’s more likely that Ledger’s mask and Phoenix’s makeup were each inspired by the centuries-old vaudeville clown performers and the similarities are simply a coincidence. Besides the mask, Phoenix’s messy clown makeup and disheveled hair definitely reminded us of the angle Nolan and company went for with Ledger’s performance.

Photo: The Dark Knight (Warner Bros. Pictures) 

John Wayne Gacy

A more likely direct influence could stem from real life. True crime fans may have picked up on the resemblance of the Joker’s new appearance with John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer and rapist who was found guilty of killing 33 (and possibly more) boys and young men in Illinois in 1980 before he was executed by lethal injection in 1994. He was known as the “Killer Clown” because he was, after all, a clown performer at children’s parties and other events. More disturbingly, he sometimes dressed as “Pogo the Clown” during his kills. The timing would also make sense as Joker takes place in the ’80s.

John Wayne Gacy as “Pogo the Clown.” Photo: YouTube 

The similarities are even stronger in the latest behind-the-scenes photo Phillips shared on Instagram, featuring Phoenix in full clown gear. The face paint isn’t an exact match, but the huge red mouth, blue eye makeup, and solid white framing the face makes Phoenix’s Joker look like Gacy’s long-lost relative who just participated in The Purge. All we’re missing is the red nose.


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‘Detective Comics’

In the comics, it’s not common to find a Joker that resembles Phoenix’s take exactly, especially the blue around the eyes. But in Detective Comics issues #475 and #476, there is an illustrated version of the villain that shows off that brilliant blue eye makeup. Perhaps Phillips took a cue from one of the classic print forms and blended it with the way clown performers wore their makeup back in the day.

Detective Comics #475 (1978). Illustration: Marshall Rogers (DC Comics) 

‘Batman’ (TV Series)

The 1960’s Batman television series starred Cesar Romero as the Joker opposite Adam West and Burt Ward’s Batman and Robin. This Joker had that more traditional look that comic readers were familiar with during the time, and besides the usual greenish hair, white face, and red mouth makeup, we can’t say if this particular reincarnation inspired Phillips and the makeup artists on Joker. But how can you not love this laugh?

It should also be noted that Romero’s take on the Joker was inspired by the early comics, and the first Joker appearance in Batman #1 reveals the original Joker with the blue eye makeup. See? It’s all connected.

Batman #1 (1940). Illustration: Bob Kane & Jerry Robinson (DC Comics)

Did you notice any other possible references that may have inspired Phoenix’s Joker? Let us know in the comments!


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