To dust off a tried-and-true turn of phrase that’s been employed since the early days of Hollywood: goddamnit, there’s just something special about Joaquin Phoenix. Since the beginning of his career, Phoenix has graduated from playing scumbags, bad guys, and memorable bit players to veritable leading-man status. He’s also been nominated three times for an Oscar (for “Gladiator,” “Walk the Line,” and “The Master”) and, somehow, never won.
As an actor who’s as prone to explosions of fury as well as enchanting displays of sensitivity, one never quite knows what to expect from a Joaquin Phoenix performance. He’s played awestruck, “Star Wars”-obsessed twelve-year-olds (“SpaceCamp”), small-town losers (“Clay Pigeons,” “To Die For”), drug-cooking military grunts (“Buffalo Soldiers”), assassins with traumatic pasts (“You Were Never Really Here”), stoned sleuths (“Inherent Vice”), and, in a memorably weird turn, a dangerously distorted version of his celebrity self (“I’m Still Here”).
What Phoenix brings to all of these roles is his one-of-a-kind screen presence. There’s never been an actor quite like him in the history of movies, and we venture there won’t ever be again: even if he, like Marlon Brando, ends up setting an influential precedent that many future thespians may choose to follow.
In honor of the release of the grim-looking, Phoenix-starring “Joker” movie – which could stand to be the first superhero film since “Black Panther” to make a splash at next year’s Oscars – here is a look at a few of Joaquin Phoenix’s finest performances.
“To Die For”
In our opinion, one of Gus Van Sant’s most slept-on movies is 1995’s deliciously wicked black comedy “To Die For.” It’s a bouillabaisse of small-town malfeasance, jarring moments of violence, and outsized displays of lust, greed, amorality, and stupidity. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the likes of “I, Tonya” without it. The great Nicole Kidman plays a delusional, celebrity-obsessed woman dreaming of a career in television, despite the fact that she’s married to an adequate, but unimpressive, chump (early Van Sant muse Matt Dillon) who just wants to start a family. Phoenix appears in a supporting role that teems with the malice and mischief he eventually built a career off of, playing the most recognizably human member of a gang of surly young deviants (one of whom just happens to be played by Casey Affleck). Joaquin’s scenes with Kidman’s damaged striver are among the film’s most memorable moments: they pulse with a kind of deranged, spiky sexual energy. We would argue that Van Sant has not made a film this playful since, which is particularly notable when you consider the director’s lo-fi phase that gave us nigh-unclassifiable works like “Elephant,” “Gerry,” and “Last Days.” In that regard, Phoenix – who would go on to reunite with Van Sant in last year’s underrated recovery melodrama “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” – matches his director’s wild experimental spirit. Here, Phoenix commits to a sordid character that most of us would turn away from in real life and makes him strangely human, even when the character is going on at length about his propensity for vigorous masturbation.
Boy, things were different in 2000. Director James Gray only had one film under his belt, the grave Brighton Beach gangster drama “Little Odessa”. Mark Wahlberg was doing interesting, risky, non-Peter Berg-related work in masterful movies like “Three Kings” and “Boogie Nights.” And Joaquin Phoenix was on the come-up, making memorably scuzzy impressions playing lowlifes and creeps in “8MM,” “U-Turn” and “To Die For,” and having only broken through to the big leagues earlier that year with his towering performance in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.” “The Yards” – a slow-burning, coolly mesmerizing, uncommonly intimate crime film directed by Gray, and starring Wahlberg and Phoenix as Queens toughs who buckle under the weight of a thoughtless instance of delinquency – is the film that would kickstart one of the most fascinating actor-director partnerships of our time. As born mover and shaker Willie Gutierrez, Phoenix is an utter force of nature. From the first time he appears onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off of him. As Wahlberg’s taciturn ex-con struggles to find work in the commuter rail yards that line the outer boroughs of New York City, Willie finds himself punch-drunk in love with the metropolis’s intoxicating nightlife. He’s a mercurial, hot-headed club kid with a dream: the Johnny Boy to Wahlberg’s Charlie, if we’re going to stick with the “Mean Streets” comparisons. Phoenix’s turn here is rich and complex, and he dives into the part with infectious abandon. The actor would reprise a variation on this role in Gray’s more traditional, William Friedkin-influenced cops and robbers thriller “We Own the Night,” but there’s something special about seeing him do it for essentially the first time here.
When most of us think of Ridley Scott’s colossal swords-and-sandals epic “Gladiator,” we usually think of its star, Russell Crowe. This is less a slight against Crowe’s co-star Joaquin Phoenix than a simple admission of fact. After all, Crowe is the one who famously bellows the movie’s iconic catchphrase (“Are you not entertained!?”) and enjoys the juicy arc of a Roman military general-turned-slave who is forced to fight for his freedom. And yet, unsurprisingly, it’s Phoenix who all but walks away with the movie. If Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius represents dignity in the face of unthinkable hardship, than Phoenix’s sniveling, power-drunk despot is the film’s personification of pure, undisguised evil. Phoenix plays Lucius Aurelius Commodus: the son of Marcus Aurelius, who strangles his father in an early scene and proceeds to skate swiftly downhill from there. Phoenix acclimates himself to the film’s period milieu with grace – he’s utterly at home in this larger-than-life world, playing a character whose tyranny knows no bounds. This is also perhaps Phoenix’s first Big Bad role, unless you count his relatively small, admittedly wild-ass turns in the likes of “Clay Pigeons,” or Oliver Stone’s utterly insane “U-Turn.” Phoenix is nothing short of mesmeric here, and we would argue that he was unfairly snubbed at that year’s Academy Awards ceremony for his work here (Crowe is very good, but I mean, come on). It’s a titanic, unapologetically unlikeable turn in a movie more concerned with heroism than villainy, and one of the high-water marks of the actor’s career to date.
“Walk the Line”
It takes a brave performer to step into the weathered cowboy boots once worn by Johnny Cash. While Phoenix’s interpretation of the eponymous “Man in Black” is ultimately one of his more conventional performances, it still offers a riveting reading of a controversial musician with an irrefutable pedigree. Above all else, Johnny Cash was a rebel: he was a man who hated all authority but God, indulged in narcotic binges that would kill weaker men, spent some time in jail (and no, we’re not talking about his famous gig at Folsom Prison), and befriended Ozzy Osbourne during his time at the Betty Ford Clinic. This characterization of Cash as a shit-kicking iconoclast makes Phoenix the perfect actor to play him, even if the “Gladiator” star softens his signature edges to play the man fondly remembered as J.R. (save for one terrifying meltdown scene where he literally rips a bathroom sink off its hinges). The direction in “Walk the Line,” courtesy of James Mangold (“Girl, Interrupted,” “Logan,” “Ford V. Ferrari”) is as stone-faced and classically-minded as one of Cash’s songs. The supporting performances – by Robert Patrick, Ginnifer Goodwin, and particularly a luminous Reese Witherspoon as Cash’s lover and muse, June Carter – are terrific across the board. We’d be hard-pressed to deny, however, that this is Phoenix’s show through and through. While most musician biopics follow a musty, played-out blueprint (see: the dreadful and inexplicable Oscar-winner “Bohemian Rhapsody”), “Walk the Line” is an example of what it means to play a simple song with conviction. And to be sure, Phoenix’s performance is a huge part of why the movie is as successful as it is.
We tend to talk a lot about certain actor-director pairings – Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson, Wes Anderson and Bill Murray, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis – but do we talk enough about the creative symbiosis that exists between James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix? Phoenix’s collaborations with the great New York filmmaker have resulted in some of the finest work from either of their careers (Gray, of course, has gone on to work with the likes of Charlie Hunnam and Brad Pitt in his last few films, but one can only hope that a reunion is brewing somewhere on the horizon). Phoenix played a pair of volatile hustlers in the likes of “The Yards” and “We Own the Night”: stylish city boys who blew money at Manhattan nightspots and were unmistakably molded by the grimy urban environments that produced them. Phoenix was so excellent at playing flashy, extravagant losers in these aforementioned movies that his mostly tranquil, remarkably subtle turn as heartsick loner Leonard Kraditor in the Gray-directed “Two Lovers” is all the more surprising as a result of the duo’s previous collaborations. This is one of Phoenix’s most suggestive, inward-gazing performances: Leonard is a man who is practically disappearing in real-time, yearning for a connection that will make him feel whole again. The actor is supported by a marvelous ensemble that includes Vinessa Shaw, a never-better Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini, and Elias Koteas, but it’s tough to dispute that Phoenix’s silently smoldering lead performance is the beating heart of this movie (the low-key nature of Phoenix’s work here is certainly puzzling when you consider what his next “performance” would turn out to be…).
“I’m Still Here”
No one really knew what Joaquin Phoenix was doing in the late 2000s. There were a string of bizarre and unsettling appearances on David Letterman, plus a baffling announcement that the acclaimed actor was retiring from his trade to pursue a career in… rap music? At the time, Phoenix resembled a mumbling, unkempt, bearded Sunset Strip prophet, at least more so than the respected if reclusive, Oscar-nominated thespian that the world had previously known him as. At the time, it appeared that we were witnessing a very public bottoming out – which is part of what originally made “I’m Still Here” such an exceptionally upsetting viewing experience. Of course, now we know the film is a hoax: an elaborate arthouse prank orchestrated by Phoenix’s pal and co-conspirator Casey Affleck, who was accused of some rather egregious misconduct during the actual making of the movie. Still, learning this some short time later didn’t make the initial process of sitting down to watch “I’m Still Here” any less fascinating. The film charts Phoenix’s gradual descent into inanity and self-loathing as he moves away from the Hollywood spotlight and follows his dreams of being an MC (the music we do hear is horrible, but I digress). The film almost plays like a train-wreck in slow-motion, and scenes like the one where Phoenix plays his unlistenable demo tape for a visibly offended Sean Combs almost play like a crueler riff on something like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (the scene where Phoenix rejects a supporting role offer from Ben Stiller over the actor’s treatment of dogs in “There’s Something About Mary” is truly one of the most uncomfortable things you’ll ever see). Ultimately, “I’m Still Here” is about the funhouse mirror playground that is modern celebrity worship, with Phoenix as the ill-fated Kamikaze pilot dive-bombing his public image into oblivion.