Heath Ledger's Parents Approve of 'Dark Knight' | Madonna Book for Shnooks | The Rap on Jill; War Room Greetings

Heath Ledger's Parents Approve of 'Dark Knight'

"The Dark Knight" premiered Monday night in New York, and Heath Ledger’s parents and family were there to see the results.

I can tell you that the Ledgers wholeheartedly approved of the film, although it was incredibly difficult for them to watch their late son on the screen.

After the screening at the IMAX theater in Lincoln Square, the Ledgers gave me this statement: "'The Dark Knight' is everything we hoped it would be and more. Heath loved the experience of creating this character and working on the film. We are so proud of our boy.”

They should be. As you’ve probably read elsewhere by now, Heath gives the performance of a lifetime in Chris Nolan’s second Batman film as the Joker. He’s a much different Joker, though, than anything you’ve seen before in the world of the Dark Knight (that’s Batman’s nickname).

Jerry Robinson, the 87-year-old creator of Robin the Boy Wonder, the Joker, the Penguin and several other Batman villains for the famed DC Comics series, told me, “Heath was closest to the vision we had for The Joker. Cesar Romero looked the part [in the TV series] and Jack Nicholson is a great actor [from the 1989 film], but this is what we imagined.”

I don’t want to inadvertently give anything away — beware here of spoilers — but in "The Dark Knight," Ledger’s Joker is so skillfully over-the-top in a variety of poses and other unexpected gender-bending twists that Ledger will certainly be nominated for an Oscar and could even win.

Where he could be campy he’s not, and in fact, Ledger’s creation is as satisfying as any in a “straight” movie — as opposed to a drama based on a comic book.

Nolan, who directed the previous “Batman Begins” and one of my favorite all-time movies, “Memento,” has made "The Dark Knight" a legitimate masterwork of the genre. With his brother Jonathan co-writing, Nolan has also tried to bring in lots and lots of classic Batman material from the more seriously regarded comics circa 1970.

The Nolans are certainly helped by their regular cinematographer, Wally Pfister, and composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. In fact I will tell you something to look for — SPOILER ALERT: There’s a climactic scene in which Batman rescues Commissioner Gordon’s young son from nearly the same fate he — as Bruce Wayne — suffered as a child. The filmmakers used the same piece of music from “Batman Begins” from the corresponding scene in that movie to drive home the point.

“I’m glad you got that,” Nolan told me Monday night at the swanky post-party at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. “Not many people do.”

“Chris is so happy when people see those things,” Zimmer said, after we discussed the unusual musical performance that preceded the screening. Zimmer, Newton Howard and two other musicians performed a portion of the movie’s score live for the premiere audience at the IMAX on keyboards, computers and percussion, along with eight French horn players from local symphonies.

“We did it for Chris,” Zimmer said. “But he was going crazy because he’s a control freak and didn’t know what we were doing. And he didn’t fall asleep either!”

It was truly the most unique and beautiful overture to a premiere I’ve ever seen.

So what of “The Dark Knight”? There have already been raves for it in the classier publications. Mostly, I agree. It’s spectacular.

It’s also long. Why can’t filmmakers excise those extra 15 minutes from their films? “Dark Knight” is a long night sometimes. There are confusing passages. But there are also such exciting sequences that it doesn’t matter.

SPOILER ALERT: You will be incredibly moved, I think, by a subplot about two ferry boats carrying passengers, wired for explosion.

There are sections of “Dark Knight” without Batman or Bruce Wayne, when you wish he — and not Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent — were featured as the male lead. Blond-streaked, square-jawed Dent often seems to be usurping Christian Bale’s time.

And of course, Ledger’s Joker must have seemed so watchable in the editing room that he just takes up more and more of the film. Bale, who’s always a mesmerizing actor, takes a backseat a lot even though he is the Dark Knight of the title.

Now, Ledger obviously died when principal photography was done, and there will be a third installment of the new Batman series. His Joker character’s fate, I must report, is left ambiguously without resolution. Let’s just say he’s left hanging.

No one at the premiere would comment, but it’s unlikely The Joker will be recast. There are plenty of villains we haven’t seen yet, Robinson pointed out. The Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman and so many more. “Dark Knight” closes the book on The Joker for this generation.

But Batman lives. Some 60 years after Robinson invented these characters with Bob Kane and Bill Finger, the characters have been preserved and re-presented beautifully and hauntingly. I rarely say this about any movie, but I can’t wait to see “The Dark Knight” again.

P.S. In attendance Monday night: Danny DeVito, “The Penguin” from the '90s, who loved the new film. Also there: Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaced Katie Holmes as Rachel from "Batman Begins," with significant other Peter Saarsgard, who sports beard for his upcoming Broadway turn in Chekhov.

Michael Caine came with his wife of a million years, Shakira, who remains a stunning beauty. “I still haven’t had plastic surgery!” she told me. She hasn’t, but she is really a Wonder of the World.

Also on hand: Gary Oldman, who’s wonderful as Commission Gordon, as well as Morgan Freeman; plus brothers Bobby and Danny Zarem, Bonnie Timmerman, Ryan Kavanaugh, super agent Boaty Boatwright.

Director Nolan wanted the IMAX Theater for the premiere, which meant many fewer seats than usual. I’m told both uber-PR gal Peggy Siegal and Vanity Fair’s Jane Sarkin each gave up theirs to accommodate the filmmakers’ guests. Nice!

Madonna Book for Shnooks

So much for the “controversial” book Christopher Ciccone has written about his sister, Madonna.

I’m starting to think that the book, like Madonna’s A-Rod affair, is all part of the outrageous performer’s publicity scheme to sell tickets to her fall tour.

The book, I’m afraid, is a lot of nothing.

Now that it’s out, Ciccone’s tell-all is bare of most facts. It’s more like a running diary of an assistant who didn’t get to hear most of his boss’ conversations.

Christopher was present during Madonna’s entire Ingrid Casares-Chris Paciello phase, but reveals nary a word about it.

He says that if Madonna and Casares were intimate, he has no idea.

He writes that Paciello was Casares’ business partner.

If this were really a book intended to reveal and shock, Ciccone might have observed a tad bit more about the fact that Paciello was convicted of murder, worked with the mob and is now in the federal Witness Protection program.

I mean, that’s a story! But there’s nothing, and that’s because, I’m sad to speculate, this whole thing is a scam of some kind.

Equally missing from Ciccone’s memoir is the story of his famous restaurant/nightspot Oriont. After a two-month run on West 14th Street in New York City it burned to the ground. I mean, it literally went up in flames.

Ciccone may not remember Oriont, but I do. This is what I wrote on Nov. 29, 2000. It’s more than he’s written in his own book by 100 percent:

“New York City Fire Department officials tell me the case is still open on Madonna’s brother’s short-lived restaurant. Madonna's brother's restaurant — once home to the hip and happening — burned down a year ago, and the case is still unsolved.

"One year ago this week, Oriont, which was designed by Christopher Ciccone, Madonna’s brother, and owned by Michelle Jean, burned down to the ground. The much ballyhooed bar/restaurant had become the overnight hot-spot stomping grounds of the rich and vacuous. Velvet ropes were de rigueur at the front door of Oriont. Puff Daddy had his 29th birthday there. Lenny Kravitz was thrown an album-release party by Virgin Records. But a three-alarm fire on the morning of Nov. 24, 1999 — two months after Oriont opened — gutted the place.

"The fire, according to reports, began in an art gallery above the restaurant. In all, the fire spread through several buildings and destroyed a lot of art. In the end, Oriont — whose chef was cookbook writer/Asian cuisine expert Rosa Ross ("New Wok Cooking") — lasted all of two months. Among the art galleries it took out was that of Patrick Callery, who had just opened up next door.

"Even though no art was damaged, Callery says smoke and water destroyed the space. Callery's name may be known to us as the official art dealer for Leonardo DiCaprio. Leo, following in his father George's footsteps, was attracted to cartoon art. Some places rebuild, but Oriont promptly disappeared, never to be heard from again. 'It was a wildly tacky place, a real disaster,' one neighbor said. 'Even though it was packed, it was a total throwback to the '80s.'

"A spokesman for the New York City Fire Department says that the case is still open. 'It’s under investigation, that’s all we can say,' is the official statement. No insurance has been paid. In the meantime, Lotus — a new club — opened a couple of doors down the street and has turned into the next hot place. So far the heat has extended just to celebrities, however.”

The Rap on Jill; War Room Greetings

Despite reports you might read elsewhere, the sensational Jill Rappaport remains very much a full-time correspondent on the "Today" show. She has even expanded her purview to insightful stories on animals.

Jill, a horse lover, is getting kudos everywhere for this additional work. And yes, Christie Brinkley’s BFF is loyal: She accompanied her pal to court a few times for moral support and even testified. …

Legendary documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker turns 83 years young on Tuesday. What’s he doing? Spending the day in Washington with filmmaker wife Chris Hegedus finishing up interviews for their 15th anniversary update on their Oscar-nominated film “The War Room.”

The new edition will air on the Sundance Channel this fall and includes new material from the men it made famous: James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. Yes, it’s the same D.A. Pennebaker whose “Monterey Pop” and “Don’t Look Back” are considered the very best music docs of all time. Not bad! ...