“There’s nobody really better than you are,” replied a rather perplexed and amused David Letterman during his hilarious 2009 interview with Joaquin Phoenix, an actor rendered unrecognizable by his scruffy beard, thick shades and bizarrely antisocial demeanor. During his press tour for James Gray’s masterpiece, “Two Lovers,” Phoenix made the eyebrow-raising announcement that he was planning to quit acting in order to pursue a career in rap music. Turns out all of this madness was merely an audaciously risky stab at performance art, culminating in the little-seen 2010 mockumentary, “I’m Still Here.”
Was it the smartest career move? Not really. But it was entirely in keeping with the actor’s lack of interest in the vapid pageantry of celebrity. It also set the stage for the thrilling third act in Phoenix’s career, where he lived up to Letterman’s words by becoming the greatest living American actor. His towering performance as a severely troubled war veteran in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 drama, “The Master” is screen acting of a very rare breed. When the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a cult leader loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard, orders him to answer a series of probing questions without blinking, Phoenix’s animalistic persona is stripped bare, revealing an agonized vulnerability that reaches heights of frightening intensity. Equally impressive is the actor’s work in his very next picture, Gray’s gripping period piece, “The Immigrant,” which debuted at Cannes last year but was released in theaters only a few weeks ago.
In a striking instance of role reversal, Phoenix is the pathological dominator (at least initially), with Marion Cotillard (at her finest since “La Vie en Rose”) as his reluctantly submissive object of affection. A scene where Cotillard, portraying a Polish immigrant mourning the quarantining of her sick sister, opens up to Phoenix, her employer, only to have him lash out in rage when she deflects his advances, is so brutal that it made me flinch. His possessiveness is as monstrous as his rapidly dwindling temper, yet he’s also a self-loathing creature, a fact he articulates in his galvanizing climatic monologue, as hauntingly tragic, in its own way, as Brando’s “Coulda Been a Contender” speech in “On the Waterfront.” No wonder why Spike Jonze knew he could anchor his entire sci-fi romance, “Her,” (my favorite film of last year) on a close-up of Phoenix, now a gawky string bean with limitless reservoirs of sensitivity, joy and aching despair. There are precious few movie actors currently populating the planet who I’d put in his league, and one of them is Daniel Day-Lewis.
Of course, this evolution didn’t happen overnight. “Two Lovers,” the last film of the second act in Phoenix’s career before his four-year hiatus, already hinted at the great things to come. His portrayal of a withdrawn bachelor who develops a passionate infatuation with an unstable beauty (Gwyneth Paltrow) is every bit as vividly realized as his subsequent efforts. You share in his mounting anxiety every time his cell phone vibrates, signaling the ever-present tug of an ill-advised relationship on his lonely heartstrings. Though I remember little of Ridley Scot’s massively overrated 2000 Best Picture winner, “Gladiator,” I clearly recall how Phoenix’s Oscar-nominated performance as the sniveling villain was in every way superior to Russell Crowe’s standard embodiment of heroism. His startling outbursts foreshadow the mesmerizing unpredictability of his oily pimp in “The Immigrant.” His greatest commercial triumph, of course, remains James Mangold’s flawed yet impressive 2005 biopic, in which Phoenix achieved the seemingly impossible task of playing Johnny Cash while using his own singing voice. He didn’t imitate the icon so much as he channeled him.
Many people tend to forget that Joaquin used to be credited as “Leaf.” This name change took place during the first act of his career, when the young aspiring actor aimed to emulate his older siblings, River and Rain. Since his family moved often during his early childhood, they had their surname (Bottom) changed to “Phoenix” in order to reflect the recurring theme of “new beginnings” in their lives. Turns out this name also has special meaning in Joaquin’s career, which has sustained no shortage of rebirths. Leaf’s first screen credit came at age 8 when he guest-starred on a 1982 episode of the short-lived series, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” opposite his brother, River (who was four years older and a regular cast member). During the late 80s and early 90s, it was River who garnered much of the attention and acclaim for his arrestingly authentic and uncompromising performances in films such as “Running on Empty” and “My Own Private Idaho.” His career showed all the signs of one that would be long-lasting until it was cut short by his death due to drug-induced heart failure at age 23 in 1993.
Just look at River in his unforgettable breakdown scene in Rob Reiner’s landmark 1986 coming-of-age film, “Stand by Me.” At only 16, River was able to convey a depth of feeling far beyond that of his peers. Oftentimes when a young actor performs an emotional scene that requires visible weeping, the camera will either cut away or break up the action, in order to obscure the performer’s shortcomings. Here, the camera simply lingers of River’s face as it undergoes its wrenching transformation, conveying the betrayal that led to his disillusionment and sense of hopelessness regarding his uncertain future. He performed this scene at an age when people tend to be at their most guarded, awkwardly cloaking their insecurity in hollow cockiness. Since Reiner enabled his young actors to be as foul-mouthed and anarchic as they would be in real life, it made these scenes of intimate honesty all the more potent, bringing out the best in River and solidifying his reputation in the cinema history books.
Aside from one 1991 short film, Joaquin had no screen roles between 1989 and 1995, when he made his memorable debut as “Joaquin” in the delicious dark satire, “To Die For” by Gus Van Sant (who directed River in “Idaho”). The final feature role of “Leaf”’s career was in Ron Howard’s wonderful 1989 ensemble comedy, “Parenthood.” It was Joaquin’s third film, and the first that tapped into his budding greatness. He played Garry, a brooding boy who sort of resembles a pint-sized version of the equally mumble-mouthed loner in “Two Lovers.” Riddled with confusing feelings spawned by his puberty, Garry is desperate to have a male role model in his life, and ultimately does find it in his sister’s stoner boyfriend (Keanu Reeves in his career-best performance). Yet Garry’s initial goal is to reconnect with his long-estranged father, much to the worried chagrin of his mother (the great Dianne Wiest), a harried divorcée every bit as sexually frustrated as her adolescent son.
In one of the most astonishing feats of screen acting ever delivered by a young actor, the face of 15-year-old Leaf Phoenix fills the screen as he endures an epiphany of unbearable heartache. Garry dials the number of his father, while his mother watches helplessly from across the room. The camera never cuts away to the father, and his voice is never heard, a choice that accentuates his cavernous distance from the family while also keeping the audience focused solely on Garry’s crestfallen expressions. At first he feels a pang of hope when their conversation begins, thinking that this just might be his opportunity to reconnect with the old man, and asks if he could stay with him for a while. When he’s informed that it would “not be such a good idea,” Garry dissolves into an almost catatonic state of depression, his eyes straining to hold back the tears. It’s here where we begin to see River’s genius reflected in the work of his brother, and it remains there till this day, in every transcendent display of timeless artistry unbound by vanity or convention.
“You’re such a good kid,” River tells Joaquin in the 1984 ABC Afterschool Special, “Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia”