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He’s Still Here: On Joaquin Phoenix, Serious Actor

The ‘Joker’ star may be the perfect person to play the titular role right at this terrible second

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My favorite Joaquin Phoenix performance in the past decade is the time he refused to acknowledge a fart joke in an elevator. Performance is the wrong word, maybe; to use a highly technical Hollywood term, this incident from Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master is what’s known as a blooper. In any event, the elevator also contains the late, great Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman; eventual Oscar winner Rami Malek; six-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams; and several more very serious actors, including presumed future Oscar winner Jesse Plemons, who has the most human and inquisitive reaction after some joker lets it rip. (“That was the machine, right? Who just did that? What just happened?”)

Even the mighty PSH succumbs: Hoffman’s gently incredulous “Oh my fucking—oh my God” gives everyone else permission to lapse into silliness. Everyone but your boy on the far right, who, save for a half-second half-smile, cannot sanction this buffoonery.

Acting. Look it up. It’s called acting. And Joaquin Phoenix is not one to dishonor either the method or the madness. In a career that spans three decades, from his lovable child-star origins (as Leaf Phoenix) in ’80s cheese like Spacecamp and Russkies to his own trio of Oscar nominations (most recently for The Master), Phoenix has radiated intensity, volatility, and an almost comically aggressive dead-seriousness. He suffers no fools, breaks no characters, coddles no interviewers, betrays no chill. Not a guy you could ever imagine in a plain old superhero movie, unless he was playing not just the villain, but that villain. You know the one. The very-serious-actor one.

It is so. You are likely aware that Phoenix has the titular role in this Friday’s Joker, a DC Comics Extended Universe jam brought to you by Warner Bros. and directed by Hangover trilogy auteur Todd Phillips and inspired, as its creators have insisted, by gritty, ’70s dangerous-loner cinema classics, chiefly Taxi Driver. (Robert De Niro costars here as a slimy talk-show host to further cement this flattering comparison.) You are also likely aware that the discourse around Joker reached Gowanus Canal levels of toxicity long before its wide release. I can’t wait for this shit to be over, and it technically hasn’t even started yet.

First came the bonkers, maestoso tweets that greeted the movie’s late-August premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where, shockingly, Joker won the fest-topping Golden Lion. The film has also, inevitably, been sucked into the national gun-violence debate, or rather offers a tantalizing blame-Hollywood distraction from that debate, in that it both glorifies further gun violence onscreen and has inadvertently revived the persistent rumor that the gunman in the 2012 mass shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, was dressed as the Joker. (Family members of victims of the Aurora shooting sent a letter to Warner Bros. expressing concerns about this new film, imploring the studio to honor its “social responsibility to keep us all safe.”) A Trump tweet does indeed feel inevitable. Seriously. Consider hibernation.

And then, this week, there is the apex of the Joker press tour, an arduous process Phoenix historically treats with world-historical levels of contempt. From an aside during a tense chat with Dave Itzkoff in The New York Times:

Phillips said there were moments when Phoenix lost his composure on the set of “Joker,” sometimes to the bafflement of his costars.

“In the middle of the scene, he’ll just walk away and walk out,” Phillips said. “And the poor other actor thinks it’s them and it was never them—it was always him, and he just wasn’t feeling it.” And after taking a breather, he said, “we’ll take a walk and we’ll come back and we’ll do it.”

The piece further clarifies that Phoenix never pulled that shit on De Niro. Elsewhere, in a prickly Vanity Fair cover story, our boy razzed interviewer Joe Hagan for not knowing Phoenix’s father had recently died, declared his newfound fascination with cryotherapy, and gave quotes like “From a very young age, I had an allergy to—what’s the word?—to just frivolous, meaningless kids’ stuff.” Phillips described much on-set drama as to whether the Joker cast would do a full read-through (De Niro insisted, though Phoenix angrily resisted); the super-chill director also declared that he’d abandoned Hangover-style comedies because, well, “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture.” What a delight, all of it, up to and including the profane Joker outtake Jimmy Kimmel aired Tuesday night, to Phoenix’s visible discomfort, along with, as always, yours.

Here, we observe Phoenix-as-Joker berating his cinematographer, on camera, for disparaging Cher, or disparagingly comparing Phoenix to Cher, or both. Our boy drops a cluster of F-bombs and valiantly defends Cher and eventually storms off, as was foretold; back on Jimmy Kimmel after the clip airs, Phoenix squirms in his chair, humiliated. Poor him. Poor cinematographer. Poor Cher. Poor us.

Of course, it was all a bit. Talk-show drama is one of Phoenix’s most cherished mediums: Recall the David Letterman–based hullabaloo surrounding the 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here, in which Phoenix spent several years, both on- and off-camera, pretending that he was quitting acting to start a new career as a rapper, a thoroughly miserable experience both on- and offscreen that we will discuss, grudgingly, later.

It is also true that the men who portray the Joker are contractually obligated to misbehave. Recall Jared Leto in 2016’s Suicide Squad, and his poor costars’ myriad stories about how Leto would mail them anal beads and propose offensively lopsided fantasy-football trades and prance around grocery stores replacing the organic fruit with nonorganic fruit and other such hilarious/villainous shenanigans. The point is that Joker is the most tempestuous possible combination of character, actor, critical discourse, and political climate imaginable. The point is that this is the role Joaquin Phoenix was born to play at right this terrible second. You might love the movie. You will definitely, by design, squirm through it and all the spectacularly sordid bullshit that surrounds it. Because some people just want to watch the world burn. Some people have been burning all their lives.

There he is, our literal boy Leaf Phoenix, rappelling out his bedroom window (no stuntman) and hijacking a jet pack (stuntman) in 1987’s deeply absurd Russians-invade-Florida action comedy Russkies. Born with an unmissable scar on his upper lip that somehow conveys both vulnerability and the capacity for the most charismatic sort of cruelty, Phoenix was most definitely not doing lightweight child acting even in his child-actor years. He is mesmerizing in Ron Howard’s 1989 melodrama Parenthood, a teenage child of divorce who longs to live with his father and weathers his father’s rejection over the phone and summarizes that wrenching conversation to his mother as, “He didn’t think it was such a good idea.” Also, he’s lugging around a paper bag that his mother fears is drugs, though it turns out it’s just VHS porn. The ’80s, man.

Leaf was, of course, not at that time the most famous young actor in the Phoenix family, a small troupe of aspiring megatalents united by a tantalizing, cult-escaping backstory and led by Leaf’s older brother, River, a haunting presence in 1986’s Stand by Me, 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and 1991’s Gus Van Sant drama My Own Private Idaho. River died of a drug overdose, in 1993, outside Los Angeles nightclub the Viper Room. He was 23. Leaf—who would soon return professionally to his birth name, Joaquin—made the 911 call. There is no more awful and visceral way to develop some tremendously severe ideas about the intersections of tragedy and celebrity, fragile life and enduring art. The frightful intensity Joaquin has displayed onscreen for the past 30-plus years is not, in a very real sense, acting at all.

His next film after Parenthood, and his first billed as Joaquin, was Van Sant’s 1995 black comedy To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman as a fame-obsessed sexpot local-TV meteorologist named Suzanne Stone-Maretto. He greets us, as a very horny teen in full jail, with the following lines: “I never really gave a rat’s ass about the weather, until I got to know Mrs. Maretto. Now, I take it very serious. If it rains, or there’s lightning or thunder, or if it snows, I have to jack off.” His conviction is not a little terrifying. Farewell, then, to frivolous, meaningless, childish things.

Phoenix fully broke out in 2000 via Gladiator, the über-manly Ridley Scott epic starring Russell Crowe as the valiant and fearsome Roman warrior Maximus, and your boy as the sniveling and risible emperor’s son Commodus. (Shout-out to Biggus Dickus, secret weapon of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.) If you’ve lost the ability to process popular culture without evoking Succession, then, fine: Commodus is a (more) homicidal Kendall Roy. Let’s just say that if you’re in a movie called Gladiator that depicts you blubbering to (and also murdering) your emperor father, then you are not the titular gladiator, and while you may be nominated for an Oscar (Phoenix was), you will not win (Crowe did). Onscreen cruelty, however, doesn’t get more charismatic. A star who creeped out everyone at all times was born.

Notably, 2000 also brought us The Yards, Phoenix’s first of four films (and counting) with the cult-hero director James Gray, he of Ad Astra, and purveyor of a far more cerebral and probing approach to über-manliness. These movies generally don’t make much money and definitely don’t ever leave your head: The Yards has a familiar blue-collar-crime shape (Mark Wahlberg as a noble ex-con, Charlize Theron as his beautiful cousin, Phoenix as an oily young foot soldier flush with cash and utterly doomed) but a lyrical unease even when it’s treating us to, say, a rowdy street brawl.

Phoenix excels as a cocky wannabe-playboy: My dream role for him, which will resonate with exactly 3 percent of you, is Greg Dulli in an Afghan Whigs biopic. He reunited with Gray for 2007’s We Own the Night, which runs the grimy outer-borough Yards vibe back (including Wahlberg) with lots more firepower (in terms of both guns and Robert Duvall). But by then he was lots more famous, having starred in both good M. Night Shyamalan (2002’s blockbuster Signs) and bad M. Night Shyamalan (2004’s ultra-goofy The Village). There was also the matter of his second Oscar nomination—this time as lead actor, not supporting—for his role as Johnny Cash in James Mangold’s loving and only slightly ridiculous 2005 Cash biopic Walk the Line.

However outraged you got over the Queen-disrespecting historical inaccuracies in 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, it is bracing to return now to Walk the Line, which includes an early scene in which a timid Cash auditions at Sun Records with “Folsom Prison Blues.” Which is not how it went. Oh, well. The scene’s still worth it for the mortified look Phoenix-as-Cash gives his guitarist, Luther Perkins, when the solo kicks in. The excellent lowercase acting nicely balances out all the bombastic all-caps ACTING!

That look is, indeed, a relatively subtle note in a reliably bombastic and overwrought rock-star biopic full of Pills and Booze and Trashed Dressing Rooms and General Sweatiness and various Histrionic Breakdowns. Reese Witherspoon, as June Carter, won the Oscar Phoenix once again did not, in large part because she managed to deliver the line “You can’t walk no line” without bursting into flames. But your boy got his point across, the point being that he’s still a magnificent creep even at his most theoretically heroic. Walk the Line’s climax, in which Johnny goads June into finally accepting his marriage proposal by emotionally blackmailing her onstage, is theoretically supposed to be romantic but is in fact not at all romantic, especially nowadays with this woke culture. It’s a huge victory for Phoenix that you walk away from a movie this conventional feeling that gross.

Time to talk about the thing nobody wants to talk about anymore.

So in 2008, while ostensibly promoting James Gray’s Two Lovers—a romantic melodrama, costarring Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw, that radiates a remarkably elegant unease, and most definitely deserved better in terms of promotion—Phoenix staggered onto the set of Late Show With David Letterman, slurring and disheveled, having threatened to quit acting for good to get into rap. The result was a viral sensation with an all-time-classic Letterman kicker (“Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight”) undiminished, somehow, by the fact that the whole thing was staged, and the movie this stunt was painstakingly setting up, Casey Affleck’s 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here, was, to repeat, a miserable experience for everybody, you especially.

As a clueless, slovenly movie-star narcissist unaware that he’s a terrible rapper—well, geez, there’s the Kendall Roy parallel again—Phoenix is, let’s say, a little too believable, and the squalid and sour film built around him was mystifying at the time and nigh-intolerable now. (What I’m Still Here theoretically had going for it in 2010 was even the slightest chance Phoenix’s no-acting-all-rapping conceit was sincere, which is a tough sell now that he’s gone on to star in two Paul Thomas Anderson movies.)

Add its subplot about the Spacehog guitarist subject to several instances of full-frontal nudity before he poops on a sleeping Phoenix’s head. Add the countless shrill scenes of Phoenix screaming at underlings, or cavorting with escorts, or tumbling off of nightclub stages, or terrorizing Diddy with his unlistenable demos. (Diddy is the saving grace of an unsaveable movie.) Two crew members, meanwhile, accused Affleck of sexual harassment, settling out of court in 2010, though the controversy hounded Affleck throughout his own (successful, to much chagrin) 2017 Oscar campaign. In conclusion: Throw this movie into the sea, even as you acknowledge, grudgingly, that no one Joaquin Phoenix film better explains why he’s so catastrophically perfect to play you-know-who.

The Master, which is not not about Scientology and has only one fart scene for real, is inarguably pretty close to our boy’s best movie, both as a film and as a full-contact Joaquin Phoenix experience. He squints, he grunts, he contorts, he mumbles, he stammers, he choke-laughs concussively, he humps a life-size sand lady, he passes a young woman a note that reads “DO YOU WANT TO FUCK :),” and on and on and on. He is ghastly and hypnotizing, staring down the Great Philip Seymour Hoffman under the direction of the Great Paul Thomas Anderson while the Great Jonny Greenwood’s eerie score hammers away, and it’s all exquisite and nigh-intolerable in the good way this time. No blinking. You blinked. Go back to the start.

Shout-out to the jail-cell toilet that never stood a chance. You can view Phoenix’s work with PTA as an undeserved career-laundering scheme after the fiasco, intentional and otherwise, of I’m Still Here. But it’s sure hard to stay mad at the guy even in Anderson’s superlong and shaggy and absurdly languid 2014 adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice, a zero-sense-making ’70s private-eye sendup that skates by on Phoenix’s suddenly easy and uncomplicated charisma. He’s got giant mutton chops and a blissfully stupefied facial expression at all times, whether he’s watching Josh Brolin eat a frozen banana or screaming at a photo of a heroin-addicted baby. I laughed very hard at the sight of him sitting very casually at his kitchen table stacked with 20 kilos of heroin, the sort of serene and joyously easy laugh he is ordinarily so loathe to inspire.

It’s not that Phoenix can’t survive without channeling pure menace: He is achingly tender and naive and unguarded in Spike Jonze’s 2013 sci-fi romance Her, playing opposite Scarlett Johansson as, yes, a sentient operating system, a perilously ridiculous premise that retains its sweetness up to and including the virtual sex scene. It’s Joker-style painful loneliness drained of the malice and the machismo, though of course malice and machismo are the whole point of the Joker.

I am blissfully unaware, as I type this, of exactly how sordid and upsetting Joker really is, and my future self is already jealous of my present self. Let it be known, however, that Phillips and Co. will have to work awfully hard to top 2018’s harrowing You Were Never Really Here, directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Phoenix as a hammer-wielding avenger of child-sex-trafficking victims. Which is an observation, not a challenge. More grunting, more bedraggled slovenliness, more suicidal ideation (a Two Lovers plot point turned exponentially bloodier), more wanton perversion in the name of Serious Acting, all of it suitably unnerving enough to take the edge off the pretentiousness. It would be very funny if Joker, for all its rumored shocking awfulness, falls short of the mark set by a much tinier movie way fewer people saw. Not funny, like, fart-machine funny. But a joke worthy of the man who still doesn’t find any of this amusing in the slightest.

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