By donning the white greasepaint to play the title character of Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” the three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix has joined a surprisingly elite squad of actors to tackle the role. There’s clearly something about the character’s heady mixture of theatricality, bleak humor, and good old-fashioned psychopathy that attracts thespians of note. Phoenix’s performance has drawn praise from critics and film festivals alike, but how does he measure up to the previous Jokers of the big and small screen? Here, we offer our rankings of who laughed it best.

7 Jared Leto, ‘Suicide Squad’ (2016)

Phoenix certainly can’t do much worse than Leto. The Oscar-winning “Dallas Buyers Club” co-star’s run at the role was preceded by breathless reports of his Method-style madness throughout production — gifts of dead animals and used condoms, intimidation of crew members, only communicating in character, etc. — so the result was the wrong kind of shocking: Leto is barely present in the final cut, with only a handful of mercifully short scenes in which the actor cackles desperately, menaces frantically, preens embarrassingly and is generally about as scary as your average trick-or-treater. It’s a frustratingly shallow performance, in which the actor and his director focus on flashy surfaces (his comically on-the-nose tattoos include the words “Damaged” and “HAHAHAHA”) rather than plumbing the depths and darkness that made the Joker so memorable in the first place.

6 Cesar Romero, ‘Batman’ (TV, 1966-1968), ‘Batman’ (Film, 1966)

Then again, perhaps Leto was paying homage not to the recent Jokers of note, but the original on-screen portrayal: the film and television star Romero, who played the role throughout the three-season run of the comic book’s initial television adaptation, as well as its 1966 feature film expansion. The half-hour series was basically a live-action cartoon, with bright colors, lively music and snazzy graphics reflecting the Pop Art aesthetics of the era. Thus, the broad portrayals of Gotham’s supervillains were appropriate to the material, and 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.

5 Zach Galifianakis, ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’ (2017)

This mutation of two Warner Bros. tent poles (the DC Universe and the “LEGO Movie” franchise) is less a “real” Batman movie than a spoof of the property, with gags explicitly sending up earlier on-screen incarnations of the Caped Crusader. So Galifianakis isn’t reaching for the usual effects in his voice performance; most Jokers aim to disturb and terrify, while the primary goal here is laughs. But remarkably, the comic actor delivers not only on the character’s humor, but his pathos — the picture’s smart screenplay casts the relationship between the Dark Knight and his most frequent antagonist as one of mutual reliance and even codependence, with the Joker uproariously staging acts of villainy primarily for Batman’s attention. In a strange way, this interpretation gets at an essential truth of the character that eludes its darker variations.

4 Jack Nicholson, ‘Batman’ (1989)

Nicholson’s payday for his top-billed turn in Tim Burton’s blockbuster — which included not only a handsome cut of the profits, but a robust piece of the merchandising bearing his likeness — was a record-breaker. And one gets the sense, when watching the final product, that the picture’s producers wanted to get their money’s worth; Burton seems to use every second of footage he shot, even when it amounts to little more than his expensive actor dancing at length to Prince songs. (That happens twice.) This appears a mostly undirected performance, but Nicholson invests the role with the kind of assumed danger and to-the-balcony theatricality that producers surely had in mind when they signed his checks.

3 Cameron Monaghan, ‘Gotham’ (2015-2019)

The minds behind the Fox series, which explores the pre-Batman history of Bruce Wayne and Commissioner James Gordon, have taken great pains to insist that the twin brothers Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska (both played by Monaghan) are not the Joker — and technically, that’s true. But the show’s presentation of those characters is clearly meant to loudly echo the “Dark Knight”-era reading of the Joker, and Monaghan’s interpretation of them is undoubtedly influenced by Heath Ledger’s work. Yet the younger actor isn’t just cosplaying; the definition of the distinct characters, and the breadth of their multi-episode arcs, allow him to explore the nooks and crannies of the Joker’s psyche in ways both familiar and fresh.

2 Mark Hamill, ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ (1992-1995), ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’ (1993), ‘The New Batman Adventures’ (1997-1999), ‘Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker’ (2000), ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ (2016)

No actor has spent more time living inside the twisted mind of the Joker than the “Star Wars” headliner Hamill, who first took on the role for the four-season “Animated Series” and revisited it for several subsequent series and feature-length spinoffs. Over the course of his nearly two-decade run, Hamill mastered the character’s giggling menace and loaded, purring contempt (“Beneath this Puckish exterior lies the mind of a genius years before my time!” he gloats, in “Return of the Joker”), constructing an interpretation both entertaining and unnerving. The Joker is, above all else, a performer, and Hamill is clearly having a great time chewing the scenery (or, more accurately, chewing his microphone).

1 Heath Ledger, ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)

Ledger won a much-deserved posthumous Oscar for his chilling, haunted turn as the Joker, the clearest indication that he was up to much more than “comic book movie” slumming. Under the sure hand of director Christopher Nolan, Ledger creates one of the scariest villains in all of cinema — and one that’s frighteningly real, an honest-to-goodness sociopath whose nihilistic philosophy (as Michael Caine’s Alfred memorably puts it, “some men just want to watch the world burn”) invests the character, and the film, with a terrifying feeling that all bets are off, and that good may not prevail. Though widely acclaimed at the time, Ledger’s performance seems to only expand in our popular imagination with the passing years — and the growth of our increasingly shared sense of hopelessness and dismay. This was, truly, a Joker for our time.

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