The Madness Behind the Happy Face
SPOILERS BELOW: An in-depth psychoanalysis on the Joker as seen in the 2019 film “JOKER.” What is the true meaning behind the Joker's twisted words “Put on a happy face”? What processes did actor Joaquin Phoenix take in order to capture the madness that is this Clown?
October 11, 2019
“My mom always tells me to smile and put on a happy face.” These frightening words are some of the first spoken in the trailers for “JOKER,” the chilling voice of Joaquin Phoenix, the actor who portrays the Joker, echoing in the background. Frank Sinatra’s singing mellows out with an ominous “send in the clowns,” and suddenly a clown dances around a staircase. After first seeing this trailer for “JOKER” I was immediately hooked, but there was one thing in particular that truly enticed me to see the movie on opening weekend: the reason behind the descent into madness of the character Arthur Fleck, transforming him into the Clown Prince of Crime.
Arthur Fleck is a middle-aged man living in the grotesque Gotham City during the 1970s. It is an era of great division between the wealthy and the poor, and Arthur is at the bottom of the food chain. Arthur is definitely a damaged character: bones stick out of his skin where bruises aren’t covering it. However, what makes Arthur tick, and what is it that brings him to become the Joker that all residents of Gotham fear so much? Let’s delve into the psychology of the Joker…
While more details are revealed about his past later in the film, I’ll be explaining the Joker’s character through the order of the events in the movie as he learns more about himself.
A little background on who Arthur Fleck is: we have no idea! One of the most famous characteristics of the Joker is that “if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice,” as the Joker says in Alan Moore’s famous graphic novel The Killing Joke, a BIG influence on the movie. Everything we know about Arthur Fleck is oftentimes unclear and uncertain due to the nature of his mental health and the delusions he is known to have. The main causes for Arthur’s breakdown are his mental illness, the abuse he faces from outside forces on his life, the clown movement and his loss of identity.
The film opens with Arthur sitting in front of a mirror as he practices his smile and tries to put on his makeup for his job downtown. We see him painfully forcing himself to smile and not being satisfied with the results. He then forcefully inserts his fingers into his mouth and stretches his face to make a grotesque-looking smile, stretching his mouth beyond the normal limits (to me, his smile resembles the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland). It is then that we get the first glimpse at Arthur’s mental condition throughout the movie. He laughs uncontrollably at random times, often painfully as indicated the expressions on his face indicate. His condition is never explicitly named throughout the film, but it causes him to break out laughing whenever he is in a situation that he finds to be even slightly stressful.
This condition gets him into trouble in many incidents throughout the movie, including a scene in which Arthur starts laughing after a woman is harassed by three Wayne-Enterprises businessmen. Before he is able to give them the card which he carries that explains his mental issues, they ruthlessly beat him. In retaliation, he shoots two of them with a small handgun he receives at the beginning of the movie. He then chases the third man through the subway and executes him on the stairs as he tries to leave. This incident changes Arthur in a drastic way as he goes from being a happy character to a murderer of three men, and he suddenly realizes the weight of his actions. This transformation is the biggest trouble that his condition gets him into, but there’s another problem Arthur faces more and more as the movie progresses: his delusions.
The first 20 minutes of the film confirm that Arthur was a resident of Arkham Asylum at one point, which is likely related to his increasingly weak grasp on reality. Despite the many delusions Arthur has that hint at the reasons behind his asylum residence, the movie never states them outright. One such delusion involves Sophie, Arthur’s neighbor. He sees her physically in many scenes and later breaks into her house, but, in reality, Sophie doesn’t recognize him nor his name–to her, he is only the stranger who lives across the hall. This realization doesn’t help Arthur’s perception of reality–suddenly, everyone he had thought was close to him is gone, leaving him very lonely (which is not something you want to have with someone as delusional as Arthur).
What generally clues the audience into his delusions is that everyone around him is always blank-faced and perceive Arthur as a hero. Since much of the story is told through the perspective of Arthur, many things are left up to interpretation like Sophie’s survival. After breaking into her apartment, we never actually see her again, and Arthur never mentions her. It is heavily implied that she is dead, but since Arthur cannot distinguish reality from his delusions, any possibility may be true. Another interesting point to note is that all of the more grandiose and delusional items of the movie begin after the budget-cuts, which prevent Arthur from seeing his social worker anymore. He even asks, “Where am I supposed to get my pills from now on then?” which implies that he is running low on his supply of medication. Seeing how the movie grows more chaotic after this interaction, it is safe to say that Arthur is losing his grip on reality.
However, his delusions are not the only cause for his transformation into the Joker. Arthur is constantly abused both mentally and physically by those around him. It’s revealed that, at an early age, Arthur was left tied to a radiator after suffering excessive head trauma. This incident, which his mother did nothing to stop, is implied to have resulted in his condition. In the first five minutes, we see Arthur get attacked by a group of teenagers. Physical attacks like these continue throughout the movie, including those from the train members, cops and Thomas Wayne, (who Arthur believes to be his father at the time). Because of physical abuse, Arthur begins to imagine the world around him as a nasty and vicious place.
He is also emotionally abused by almost every character he interacts with throughout the story. In particular, Arthur’s mother and his comedian hero, Murray Franklin, take Arthur’s dream of becoming a stand-up comedian and crush it relentlessly.
One of the most important parts of Arthur’s spiral into madness comes from the Clown Movement. Inspired by the killings on the train, many of Gotham’s lower-class citizens revolt against the city’s wealthy elite as they wear clown masks (after reports reveal that a clown committed the crimes). Arthur sees this movement as something he had started directly and believes himself to be the leader. Thus, he gains a sense of belonging and purpose–something he severely lacks up to this point in his life. It is from here that all hope for redemption is seemingly lost as Arthur supports the poor and ill-treated “Clowns” as Thomas Wayne refers to them.
When we first started the movie, Arthur Fleck has an identity. He has a family (his mother Penny Fleck–more on her later), he has a job working as a clown to promote businesses around Gotham and he has friends from work. This is an important part of Arthur’s psychology: he starts off as a person, someone with a clear identity–he is Arthur Fleck. By the end of the movie, however, he is nothing except for the Joker. Many realizations cause this transformation, the first being that Arthur is adopted! Penny Fleck originally claims that Arthur’s father is Thomas Wayne, a fact that Mr. Wayne rebuts. Arthur later steals the adoption forms from Arkham to prove Wayne wrong. The forms don’t have a name listed for the child who Penny adopted, causing Arthur to lose everything he had known about himself. He is not a Fleck, and nor is he a Wayne. For all he knows, his name isn’t even Arthur. All he is left with is the name Joker, originally an insult from Murray Franklin that mocked the performance that Arthur poured his soul into.
The loss of his identity is the final step into the madness that the Joker is known for. He has killed his friends and those who were close to him, including his mother. No longer Arthur, the Joker heads to the Murray Franklin show as a guest. Seeing himself as nothing except the Joker, he asks that he be introduced as such. The Joker’s plan is to kill himself in a knock-knock joke, hoping that his death will be more valuable than his life was; however, Murray mocks him after the Joker confesses to the subway killings. The Joker turns and kills the man who had been his hero and inspiration for everything. Now the two main figures of his identity–his mother and inspiration–are gone, and all that is left is a damaged man in makeup, a Joker.
The Joker is taken into custody but is freed by a group of clowns. They carry him almost like a Christ-figure into the middle of their circle where the Joker creates a smile on his face by streaking blood from his mouth, literally smiling and “putting on a happy face.” Now, he is surrounded by a group of people who look up to him and revere him.
Many actors have attempted and succeeded to bring out the madness of the Joker onto the silver screen, Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger immediately coming to mind. However, the lengths to which Joaquin Phoenix went to to get Arthur Fleck to be as believable as possible are simply outstanding. Phoenix starved himself, losing over 70 pounds to show Arthur’s deteriorating physical state. The actor would oftentimes lock himself in rooms alone and in the dark to help him reach the mindset of this character. Phoenix aimed to portray the idea that any regular person can be transformed into a monster depending on his circumstances. As Alan Moore’s Joker famously said, “It only takes one bad day” to create the Joker.
The Joker is designed to be a character that audiences can recognize yet also understand and even sympathize with. It’s not one inciting incident that causes the Joker to break down and become the monster that he is. Instead, it is a life of mistreatment, mental illness and a loss of identity that leaves Arthur Fleck with nothing left except for the Joker.