BIGGEST ASSET: No one looks, sounds or moves anything like him.
THE START: One of five children, Joaquin Phoenix started working as a child actor, joining older brother River in TV shows before getting cast in 1989’s “Parenthood,” for which he received much praise. He did not return to the big screen until 1995, when he starred in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For.” Van Sant had directed River in 1991’s “My Own Private Idado” before his death in 1993. “To Die For” kick-started Phoenix’s adult career, with a leading role in Pat O’Connor’s ‘Inventing the Abbotts” and supporting role in Oliver Stone’s “U Turn” following in 1997.
SIGNATURE QUOTE: “No, I do more hip hop music…[audience laughter]…is this a joke?” – on The Letterman Show
BODY OF WORK: After Joseph Ruben’s “Return to Paradise” and David Dobkins’ “Clay Pigeons,” both in 1998 and with Vince Vaughan, and Joel Schumacher’s “8MM” in 1999, Phoenix finally scored a massive hit playing the evil emperer’s son, Commodus, in Ridley Scott’s 2000 “Gladiator” across from Russell Crowe. For the role, Phoenix received his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Also in 2000 came Phoenix’s first collaboration with director James Gray, “The Yards,” as well as a supporting role in Philip Kaufman’s “Quills,” starring Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet. Big budget mainstream roles followed; both “Signs” (2002) and “The Village” (2004) with M. Night Shyamalan (which, along with “Gladiator” are his top grossers), as well as Jay Russell’s “Ladder 49.”
In the early 2000s he also starred in Gregor Jordan’s “Buffalo Soldiers” (2003), Thomas Vinterberg’s “It’s All About Love” (2004), Terry George’s “Hotel Rwanda” and James Mangold’s “Walk the Line” (both in 2005), for which Joaquin received his Best Actor nomination. Co-star Reese Witherspoon won the statue; he lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “Capote” (the two could go up against each other again, for “The Master”).
In 2007 he was disappointed by the poor box office for Terry George’s “Reservation Road”; Gray’s “We Own The Night”did somewhat better. Phoenix reunited with Gray on micro-budget “Two Lovers” (the pair now have “Nightingale” in post, with Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner). It was during the promotion of “Two Lovers” that Joaquin made his infamous appearance on The Letterman Show (see below); it was later included in bother-in-law Casey Affleck’s mock-documentary “I’m Still Here.” Joaquin appeared on the show again in 2010 after the doc, which portrayed him as a drug-addled, deluded, overweight hip-hopping misfit, came out. The gag was up, but the so-called-damage was done. Some appreciated the humour in the hoax, others did not. Phoenix explained to Time the motivation behind “I’m Still Here”:
Part of why I was frustrated with acting was because I took it so seriously. I want it to be so good that I get in my own way. It’s like love: when you fall in love, you’re not yourself anymore. You lose control of being natural and showing the beautiful parts of yourself, and all somebody recognizes is this total desperation. And that’s very unattractive. Once I became a total buffoon, it was so liberating. I’d see child actors and I’d get so jealous, because they’re just completely wide open. If you could convince them that something frightening was going to happen, they would actually feel terror. I wanted to feel that so badly. I’d just been acting too long, and it had kind of been ruined for me. I wanted to put myself in a situation that would feel brand-new and hopefully inspire a new way of approaching acting. It did do that for me.
CAREER ADVICE: The way Vulture sees Phoenix’s career in its Star Market, Phoenix is only a Weak Buy right now. Because he “swims in the A-list director pool” (like Spike Jonze, with whom he is making “Her”) and delivers a brilliant performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (which opened strong in limited release with rave reviews behind it) he’s regained some stature. But he’s not a safe or bankable actor in 2012 studio terms (who is?). No one wants to see Joaquin Phoenix in 3-D fighting inter-gallactic villains or winning the heart of Taylor Swift. Thank god for that. He’s liberated himself as a character actor for all seasons, and audiences who can handle an actor with edge won’t shy away.
TOP FIVE: “The Master,” “Walk The Line,” “I’m Still Here,” “Two Lovers,” “Gladiator”
Phoenix’s career in trailers (and Letterman interviews) below: