6:12pm PT by Scott Feinberg
"Outstanding," "Irresponsible": Oscar Voters React to 'Joker,' With Many Avoiding It
Joker, the dark and gritty origin story of one of DC Comics' most notorious villains, marks a giant departure from Warner Bros.' prior comic book fare, courting a more prestige audience with film festival debuts and an awards campaign in the works.
Directed by Hangover helmer Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the troubled, mentally ill Arthur Fleck, who eventually becomes Batman's arch-nemesis, the film set new box office records for an October release with a $96 million domestic debut over the weekend. The theatrical success came amid heightened security at cinemas across the U.S., after the movie sparked widespread headlines for its nihilistic themes and violence.
Now, many are curious to know if the film, or elements of it, will be remembered at year's end by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, some of whom caught it at the Venice, Toronto or New York film festivals; others at member screenings in New York on Thursday or Los Angeles on Saturday; and still others in cineplexes along with everyone else over the weekend.
A handful of Academy members have publicly championed the film on social media — for example, actors branch member Chris Rock hailed it on Twitter as "incredible" and a "masterpiece," while documentary branch member Michael Moore posted to Instagram that he regards it as "a cinematic masterpiece." But many hold their cards closer to the vest, especially those who have reservations about the film. On Monday morning, I reached out to several dozen whom I regularly consult with to find out how they are feeling about the pic, promising them that I would identify them only by their gender and Academy branch.
These are their thoughts:
Male member of members-at-large branch: "I saw it Saturday at the official Academy screening (there were about 500 in attendance). And while a film that dark and disturbing isn't going to get the kind of rapturous reception of a more upbeat movie, it was very well received. I think it's brilliant. Phoenix has never been better. The way he and the filmmakers handle the transformation from Arthur into Joker is nuanced and masterful. I loved the way they dealt with the 'unreliable narrator' aspect of the story, as we learn, bit by bit, what really happened versus Arthur's 'reality.' I thought that the DP, production designer and others created the look and feel of the period really well, and the fact that it has very contemporary themes of economic/class inequities felt just right. Overall, a home run."
Male member of executives branch: "My son, who is 21, liked the movie, and I'm sure at his age that might make some sense. But if you look at the beginning of that movie, [Fleck] gets his board stolen and then he gets beat up, so you feel sorry for him. Then you find out he's got mental issues, so you feel sorry for him. And then he's given a gun and uses it, so you've got this crazy guy who goes on a crime spree, and you're supposed to like him, even though he's stabbing and shooting people? And the way he acts with kids leaves a lot to be desired. To me, that kind of gratuitous violence sends a very strange message. It's going to make a lot of money, so if you're running a studio you're supposed to make that movie, but is it responsible? I was once confronted with that same question, and I decided not to make the movie — and the movie got made and made a lot of money anyway."
Female member of members-at-large branch: "I saw the film last night at the Landmark with another Academy member, and my stomach was still churning this morning. It made me uncomfortable from the very first frame to the last, but I thought the movie was extraordinary. I didn't read anything about it beforehand, so I thought I was going to be getting, sort of, Batman. It's the most outstanding performance I've seen in many years — the way he moved, everything, I mean, he's really a consummate actor, and there's not a frame he's not on camera, too. What I don't understand is what everyone's all upset about? Just pick up the morning paper and see the asshole that's running our country if you want to worry about violence. It's still early, but I can certainly see myself nominating it for best picture. And he has to get nominated, or the actors branch doesn't know what it's doing."
Male member of producers branch: "I saw this one at the Academy. I probably wouldn't have seen it at a public theater. But wow, what a movie, huh? It's hard to know where to start. Joaquin deserves an Oscar nomination — he blows the doors off the fucking place — and the cinematography was fantastic. Even so, I sure don't want to see it again. I'm not an expert on mental health, but I'm sure there are a lot of people who will see the insane dancing after the killing as a sexy thing to do, and the worshipping of him at the end could also seem pretty cool to an insane person. As someone who was once held at gunpoint, I can't get some of the images of gun violence out of my head. I'm very torn on this movie, but I am glad I saw it."
Female member of writers branch: "I was accompanied by my two nephews, both smart young men in their twenties. They admired the film, but both said they liked [2008's] The Dark Knight much more. I'm certainly not one to advocate creative censorship, but film can influence society and culture in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The focus on this film by the media as instigating violent behavior is, with that emphasis, actually encouraging — or daring — that kind of acting out. As for the quality of the film itself? It wasn't particularly unique in its telling of a loner who descends into psychopathy, even with Joaquin Phoenix being one of our finest actors in every role he plays."
Male member of producers branch: "I saw it in Venice. The trailer had just dropped and there was nothing written about the film yet. I found the craft to be stunning on every level — beautiful photography, design, costumes. All of Todd Phillips' films are impeccably made. But I deeply despise the movie. It made me feel really uncomfortable. I love [Darren] Aronofsky, [Lars] von Trier, [Michael] Haneke and most movies that really push the boundaries of darkness. But there was a nihilism and narcissism to this movie that left a bunch of us feeling really disturbed, and we had to drink away our discomfort. Warner Bros. has done an exceptional job of marketing the movie, and I respect that they took the Trojan Horse of a superhero movie to make this kind of movie within the studio system — but I don't know that there is substance at the core of what it is trying to say. It was the first movie in history that was too dark for me."
Male member of public relations/marketing branch: "I did see it — Saturday night, at a combined Academy/guild screening at the new Time Warner Center [in New York]. I thought it was very intense, but I don't know why [New York Times critic] Tony Scott hated it so much. I thought there was a lot of good artwork, [Phoenix] was amazing as the Joker and the story was compelling. I don't know if it's a best picture, but Phoenix was amazing."
Male member of writers branch: "I loved the movie. I thought the filmmaking was exceptional — certainly the most innovative superhero movie since The Dark Knight. It's gritty and real and beautiful, and I think an attempt to understand what's going on in our society right now. I haven't seen any of this season's 'Academy' movies yet, but, artistically, I think this film is stronger than many of last year's Oscar-nominated films. But forget the Academy — how many other movies in the last 10 years have successfully delivered that level of filmmaking to a mass audience?"
Male member of music branch: "I'm in New York City at the moment, and I saw it the day after the film opened, as part of the New York Film Festival. It's a powerful film, well-made — surprisingly, considering the director's history. On the positive side, it shows a lot of empathy to mentally unstable members of our society who were picked on. On the negative side, all the violence. But it is 'cartoon' violence. I think the score — particularly the source cues — lighten it up. We have problems in our society. I don't think this film is going to exacerbate those problems. Nor will the elimination of guns solve our problems. We have to work on our society, in general. My mantra these days is that it's not about diversity, it's about celebrating the commonalities of our humanity, those qualities all human beings share. That's right out of Martin Luther King's book."
Male member of producers branch: "It's a really impressive film across the board. Joaquin's performance is undeniably extraordinary. There is nothing new, in terms of the craftsmanship, like how Dunkirk was shot or the sound design of First Man — but still, if you see it in an Imax theater like I did, you can't deny how well made it is. That all being said, I don't see any reason why this movie should be out in the universe. There is nothing in it that starts a conversation — it just pours lighter fluid on a conversation that's staring us in the face every week. But I'm torn, as an Oscar voter, about what to do. The business it's doing is mind-blowing — 'Taxi Driver 2' just opened to almost $300 million worldwide! But I don't know what's responsible to do as a voter. If art is not used to start a conversation, and it's just used to exacerbate something, I'm not sure how beneficial it is. It's too fresh to know yet what I'll do with it. I don't know if it should be banned or it should be given every award!"
Male member of public relations/marketing branch: "I thought it was lacking a clear vision and overwrought. This doom-and-gloom style has become tedious. Only [Michelle] Pfeiffer and [Danny] DeVito in [1992's] Batman Returns have truly balanced dark with light. This one didn't have a point of view on politics or class, and its depiction of mental illness was irresponsible. Joaquin was so over the top it became irritating. Todd's song choices were so on-the-nose they seemed offensive and not ironic. Does he not know 'Send in the Clowns' is a romantic ballad of regret and not actually about clowns?"
Male member of directors branch: "I found the film to be a bold effort, but one that is a cynical mess: overly grim, hollow and distractingly derivative of early [Martin] Scorsese, especially [1976's] Taxi Driver and [1982's] The King of Comedy. And not nearly as good. I also found it to be more than a bit irresponsible, in terms of its depiction of both mental illness and violence. When violence is meant only to shock, I find it loathsome. It isn’t grounded in any real characterization. It also seems the film was made only to provoke. But I find it isn’t interesting enough to do that. Subtlety is not the director or lead actor's strong suit here. I found the performance fully committed, but one-note, full of bombast and, ultimately, exhausting. It's not nearly as affecting as Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here  or Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master , in which Joaquin starred. But in this town, the most acting equals the best acting, so I suspect I’m in the minority. Finally, I found the film to be a big disappointment (after having taken the Golden Lion) and one filled with self-importance. A film that strives to illuminate issues we, as a nation, are truly facing — incels, bullying, extreme violence. But one that feels all second-hand."
Female member of film editors branch: "I saw Joker this weekend and thought it was beautifully made in every area, and sublime — a nearly perfect film, except for what, to me, was an excessive amount of violence. I hope Joaquin Phoenix and many others who worked on it get Oscar nominations for their extraordinary work."
Male member of writers branch: "I was entertained by Joker. At this point I'd rather watch a 'comic book movie' that's more of a character study, with no action and minimal CGI — even if it owes a huge debt to other, better movies (Taxi Driver, Network, The King of Comedy). Joaquin's performance is disturbing, yet captivating. Scott Silver is a helluva writer, among the best working today. And Mark Friedberg's production design and Hildur Guonadottir's score deserve recognition as well."
Female member of public relations/marketing branch: "I saw it and I am not a fan. I am not generally a fan of comic book movies (me and my buddy Scorsese have the same taste ha ha), but I found the character to be creepy and not in a 'oh, that's a great performance, it's so creepy' way — Jake Gyllenhaal in [2014's] Nightcrawler comes to mind. Just an unlikable character and 'world' to spend two hours in. I want to see Downton Abbey (with all its lightness and pretty people, scenery and themes) three times to get Joker out of my system."
Male member of writers branch: "Once upon a time, people lost their minds over [1971's] A Clockwork Orange and [1967's] Bonnie and Clyde. Joker is a dazzling, harrowing experience whose guts and artistry should be applauded, especially in an era of sanitized, shrink-wrapped cinema."
Female member of executives branch: "Whoaaa. Strange, depressing film. I was vaguely mesmerized but... to what end? I found it severely lacking any specific thematic point. Great performance and impressive filmmaking, but a rather unpleasant experience overall."
Male member of documentary branch: "The good: Technically the film is superb. Lawrence Sher's cinematography is appropriately bleak and leeched of color and intensified in contrast, to heighten the horror aspects of the plot. Hildur Guðnadóttir's eerie and propulsive score also underlines the shock value of the plot (although the period song score, featuring Sinatra songs among others, is occasionally too unsubtle and on point). The clown makeup is significantly careless and smeary to add realism to the demented character. And Joaquin Phoenix's commitment to his characterization is more than admirable ... actually so convincing as to be literally career-capping, despite its unredeeming evil nature. Now the bad: The nihilism of the plot, the intended intensifying of the specter of social upheaval in today's U.S., is dangerously subversive (no matter how exaggerated this tawdry picture of Gotham City circa 1980s is portrayed). Who knows what effect it will have on some deranged sociopath in today's climate of gun violence? Then again, like violent video games, there's a chance the possibly imagined dream-like unreality of the filmmaking might provide an outlet of fantasy fulfillment to lessen the dangerous impact. Hard to say. Bottom line: technically an interestingly experimental genre film that presents a socially dicey spectacle that I found personally repugnant."
Male member of producers branch: "I have seen the film — and on the big screen, which makes a big difference for this movie. I loved it and it will win best picture. I am really bored with all the superhero movies, but here I really liked it because it’s a great movie before it's a genre movie."
Male member of executives branch: "I thought it was rather brilliant — very powerful and disturbing. Excellent performance by Joaquin. Definitely raises the question of free speech and responsibility to society."
Female member of documentary branch: "I have not seen the film yet. My assistant came in this morning saying she loved it but that it was very hard to watch."
Male member of executives branch: "I think the performance is outstanding, but overall the film is highly questionable morally. As a former exhibitor, I would have serious doubts about playing the film because of the message it sends. I don't think the Academy should honor a film with such controversial elements. I found the film overall to be so unpleasant that I could not vote for it."
There were also many who haven't yet seen the film for varying reasons, including reports of security threats.
Male member of public relations/marketing branch: "I haven’t seen it yet. I intend to, for sure. I am aware that some Academy members may not see the film or, if they do, won’t be that receptive to it, despite its critical acclaim and popularity. So what else is new? By the way, in my view the controversy appears to be mainly in the press and on social media. I doubt that many Academy members are as invested in this controversy as journos and Oscar pundits are. I think there are about three Oscar voters on Twitter."
Female member of documentary branch: "Last Thursday we had a marital spat about going to the AMPAS screening of the Joker versus a Netflix screening of Marriage Story. Marriage Story won. I *will* see it, though."
Male member of short films/feature animation branch: "I was unable to see Joker at the AMPAS screening on Saturday night. But I look forward to seeing a film that is so controversial and divisive. I don't have any preconceptions about it except that it may be uncomfortable. I understand that Joaquin Phoenix's performance and Todd Phillips' direction must be seen."
Female member of actors branch: "I haven’t seen Joker. I’ve had two opportunities and passed. I know that at some point I have to see Phoenix's performance, but what little I've read about the film makes me think this is a movie I'm not going to like — and I've seen a couple of reviews that said that people are focusing on the violence when in fact, the film is not that great. I'm going to wait for the DVD as I feel the small screen will have less of an impact on me. You know what they say — 'the unconscious can't tell the difference between a movie and real life' — so I limit what I subject myself to."
Male member of directors branch: "I haven’t seen it. Based upon my feelings about ultra violence, I really don’t want to. I was disgusted by earlier iterations of the series, watching heads being crushed on spikes! I might see it to see how a corporate entity like AT&T Warner sells sick violence and darkness. As one who made some tough action films, I now want to do films based on great family material in the genre of Holes or serious reality-based thrillers with a moral or political center."
Male member of public relations/marketing branch: "I am that rare Academy member who likes to see a lot of my films in theaters with a paying crowd. I am incredibly anxious to see the film, but I wasn’t anxious to see it in its first weekend, mainly because of all the coverage of whether there might be some threat against theaters. Obviously, it had no impact, thankfully. Theaters were on high alert — I went to the mall and saw a stronger police presence than I normally notice. I will catch it later this week or next weekend for sure."
Male member of executives branch: "I haven’t seen the film. I know at some point I will need to see it for award consideration, but I have no particular interest in it otherwise."
Female member of film editors branch: "Unfortunately I have not seen Joker yet, but I do look forward to seeing it! I've heard amazing things, despite the mixed reactions about the political and violent aspect of it. Honestly, I'm a bit nervous to go into a theater to see it, but I do plan on seeing it sometime in the near future."
Female member of documentary branch: "I haven't seen it ... it's not my kind of film."
Male member of documentary branch: "I haven’t seen it yet. Very curious."
Male member of public relations/marketing branch: "I have not seen the film yet. To be honest, I’m not sure I plan to."
Female member of actors branch: "I haven't seen it yet, and neither have my close friends in the Academy. They are putting it off for now. I know it did great at the box office."
Female member of public relations/marketing branch: "I must confess, I haven't seen Joker, but I likely will at some point."
Female member of actors branch: "I have not yet seen the film. I will see it, but I got sick and missed my screenings. I plan to go next weekend. I have heard wonderful comments about the film and JP. I'm actually looking forward to seeing his performance."
Male member of writers branch: "I'm reluctant to see the film at all."
Male member of documentary branch: "I have not seen it, but you can say I’m with Marty [Scorsese, who recently said he is not a fan of comic book movies]!"
Male member of directors branch: "I haven't seen the picture yet, but I have some thoughts. Everybody who has seen it says Joaquin is brilliant. They always say that violent pictures will cause violence in the real world — it's probably true, but I don't know what you do about it. We live in a very dark time, and the movie is just reflective of that. This is modern horror."
Female member of producers branch: "I’m shooting and haven’t seen it yet, but I’m dying to. Hopefully this weekend!"
Male membrer of actors branch: "I haven't seen Joker, nor do I plan to. I know it's out of fashion to say, but comic book movies hold zero interest for me."
Male member of public relations/marketing branch: "I haven't yet seen Joker, and the LA Times story today doesn't impel me to put at the top of my screener viewing."
Male member of documentary branch: "I have not yet seen the film. I am torn. I want to see a good performance, but who needs to be bummed out by depressing violence? My wife will definitely not go, so I probably won't rush out to see it."
Female member of documentary branch: "I didn’t see it — but I can’t wait to."
Female member of music branch: "I haven't seen it yet, but when I do see it I will be sitting right next to the exit! So crazy to have to think like this, but we have to."