Tracking Joaquin Phoenix

(Welcome to Role Call, where we examine two performances from an actor – their first defining role and their most recent/last – to get a sense of who they are.)

Joaquin Phoenix has been playing the Joker for a long time.

As the awkward romantic Leonard Kraditor in Two Lovers. As the lonely, optimistic Theodore Twombly in Her. As the morally ambiguous bruiser Bruno in The Immigrant. There’s also the scorned, disrespected monster Commodus in Gladiator, the sick puppy dog Freddie Quell in The Master, and the vacant, delusional version of “Joaquin Phoenix” who stared and stuttered his way through emerging hip-hop fame in I’m Still Here.

All of these puzzle pieces are present in his version of DC’s most infamous bad guy.

Usually in this column, we explore how Angela Lansbury went from gorgeous ingenue to globally respected murder-solver, but Phoenix’s career shifted slightly different than everyone else’s. While a lot of other stars evolve by broadening how we see the scope of their talents, Phoenix has deepened. His talent has a singular focus. In a word, “troubled.”

As in, more often than not, reviews of his movies include the phrase, “Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled…” A troubled philosophy professor. A troubled club manager. A troubled WWII veteran. A troubled hit man. A troubled performer. The best – “a troubled soul,” from one description of The Master –  sums up his career in just three words.

While Phoenix has stayed focused, the movie industry has evolved around him to take him from supporting actor to troubled leading man. Let’s look at how far he’s come from a laugh in 1995 to a signature cackle in 2019.

His Early Role: Jimmy Emmett in To Die For

In Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, Nicole Kidman plays a woman determined to become a nationally beloved news anchor who sets out to kill her husband for not believing in her. A young Phoenix plays the high school sap she seduces and tricks into doing her dirty deeds. Even at this age the control he exhibits is palpable. A smitten moron that makes watching the inevitable interesting. This and other performances made his future of Oscar nominations and serious award contention clear.

And he even has an unforgettable laugh – the goofy, Butthead-esque exposed id of a dumb boy who cannot believe that his porno fantasy is playing out in real life.

The Persona: Troubled Young Man

To Die For is absolutely Kidman’s movie. Like a lot of his roles, Phoenix is a side character meant to flavor his surroundings, which he does with a heady mix of grease and grace. He’s able to inhabit something real, making it not just believable, but sensible, that this dumb kid would follow the path from bland delinquency to gruesome murder.

A child star until taking a professional break following the death of his brother River in 1993, Phoenix’s earliest roles (from Space Camp to Parenthood ) offered what you’d expect of a precocious kid living inside a YA adventure or family dramedy. Even his puberty-stricken character in Parenthood creates more laughs than serious concern, although “troubled young pornography fan” describes the character pretty well.

To Die For allowed him a return filmmaking, but it also set a new pace. Phoenix is one of the few actors to jump immediately from swell child actor status to mature dramatic powerhouse. His star quality popped, and the process of filming changed him because Van Sant stripped away the lessons of childhood performance, giving Phoenix the freedom to play by his instincts instead of sticking to the technical routine of what’s on the page.

Phoenix did nothing to stamp out the troubled young persona – playing the hickish kid in Oliver Stone’s U Turn with TNT shaved into his head, as well as appearing briefly in Return to Paradise as an American tortured in a Malaysian jail and in 8mm as an adult store employee helping Nicolas Cage find a snuff film.

Only a year later he appeared in Gladiator and converted his weirdo aesthetic into two decades of prestige experimentation.

His Latest Role: Arthur Fleck in Joker

So now he’s the Joker. All those pieces from past performances melting together into something outrageous, feral, and isolated. There’s no element of the character we haven’t seen somewhere in Phoenix’s career, but their combination and the resulting dynamism hit like a sledge hammer. The dedication we know he’s capable of, the odd places the freedom of his talent allows, the danger he’s happy to convey. There will always be something slightly mournful to his performances, and that dash of despair is perfect for a character echoing the violent nihilism of Taxi Driver.

I can say two competing things at the same time: That Phoenix has gotten better and better, and that he was always really good. But we didn’t get here because Phoenix changed his style or opened himself up to different roles. We got here because our growing affection as an audience for anti-heroes has pushed Commodus from jealous villain to panicked protagonist. Commodus has lived long enough to become the star.

Beyond Walk the Line (where he plays another explosive-tempered obsessive), Phoenix has only been considered a leading man in the indie world where he can make bold choices, and as a flash of troubled darkness to support the leads in more mainstream movies. Now those two things clash as he brings his troubled soul to the most popular movie genre in the world.

The Persona: Troubled Clown

We can’t really talk about his performances without talking about the pall of mystery and sadness he exudes in real life. With a life lived in the spotlight, we’ve gotten unnerving access to his experience of his brother’s death and his personal struggle with alcohol abuse. It’s difficult to tell where the line is between his real personality and the creation of his despondent characters.

It’s not like he turns into a happy-go-lucky charm monster during interviews. Even counting the bizarre David Letterman interview he gave as fodder for I’m Still Here, Phoenix does little to delineate himself from the sad figures he brings to life. Naturally, his persona is wrapped up in both realities.

He’s without doubt one of the best living actors, and his skill has given us a valuable window into dozens of troubled humans – experiencing pure joy, debilitating sadness, flashes of acceptance, and vein-bursting anger. As with anyone possessing his level of talent, it’s not that hard to imagine him changing his persona completely by next year, giving us another dozen performances that exude cheerfulness and unthinking contentment.

But it’s difficult to want that. It’s far easier to want him to remain troubled.

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