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Why Joaquin Phoenix is the Most Fascinating Actor Working in Film Today

By Diana Drumm | Indiewire October 18, 2013 at 10:00AM

Sporting his "Inherent Vice" shoulder-length hairstyle and half-laced up boots, Joaquin Phoenix cut an intriguing figure at this year's New York Film Festival.
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Joaquin Phoenix

Sporting his "Inherent Vice" shoulder-length hairstyle and half-laced up boots, Joaquin Phoenix cut an intriguing figure at this year's New York Film Festival. During the press conference for "The Immigrant," Phoenix spoke briefly, admitting (possibly jokingly, but can you ever be sure with Phoenix?) that he did almost no research for the role of Bruno Weiss, outside of rickets, a reference that did not make it into the final film, and had nothing else he wanted to say about working on the film or with director James Gray, who was sitting right next to him and engaging wholly in the conversation. Apparently not too concerned by the press waiting with bated breath, Phoenix barely spoke into the microphone and at one point, asked Gray whether he liked his boots. The press swallowed it up, with one of our favorite headlines being Thompson on Hollywood's "NYFF: James Gray Talks ‘The Immigrant,' Joaquin Phoenix Doesn't." Only a week and a day later, Phoenix performed an almost complete turnaround at the "Her" press conference, not only answering questions and joking around with director Spike Jonze and castmates Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Olivia Wilde, but also thanking the press repeatedly, albeit facetiously, for attending.

This has become a bit of a trademark for Phoenix (bizarre behavior followed by awkward apology) since his 2010 mea culpa on "The Late Show With David Letterman" after his infamous appearance a year and a half earlier. During the 2009 spot, Phoenix sported a ridiculous beard and sunglasses while answering Letterman's questions in and out of coherence, which was revealed to have been part of "I'm Still Here," an elaborate film/performance art project on the mires of celebrity culture (currently not listed among Phoenix's acting credits on IMDb). Phoenix not-so-surprisingly has an aversion to the press and flashing light bulbs. If you pass him on the street and point a camera in his face, he will firmly yet politely say no, possibly putting his hand out. If you ask him for a photograph, he will do the same thing. Phoenix isn't angry (looking at you, Marlon Brando, Sean Penn and Alec Baldwin), just frustrated and doing his best to cope with the madness of "celebrity."

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

Unfortunately for him but fortunately for us, he's back on a hot streak of films with his "comeback" (after a put-on "retirement") in last year's "The Master," in which he maintained an entrancingly grotesque yet natural-looking snarl and hunch for the entire film. Following a long string of lonely, discomfited characters (awkward teenage assassin in "To Die For," a priest dealing with lust and de Sade in "Quills," insecure sister-loving emperor in "Gladiator," and that's just getting to 2000), Phoenix has packed an emotional wallop this year so far in James Gray's "The Immigrant" and Spike Jonze's "Her," with "Inherent Vice" on the horizon for next year. (Watch out for spoilers from here onwards.)

Receiving mixed reviews at Cannes with Eric Kohn deeming it "the most divisive film in Cannes competition" (and with backlash including Gray telling critics of the film's pace to "go fuck themselves"), "The Immigrant" has been well-received on this side of the pond (scoring an overall B+ on CriticWire) with Marion Cotillard shining as the self-sacrificing émigré-turned-prostitute wracked with Catholic guilt and Phoenix lurking as her would-be protector-turned-pimp with his own emotional demons. Taking on the role of Bruno Weiss, Phoenix plays a truly terrible man, someone who through bribery and manipulation steals the life and virtue of Ewa, the film's heroine. Not helping his character's case, Ewa is played by Cotillard, an actress who through her own talent and haunting looks inherently garners empathy, even in her coarsest role of a Corsican whore in "A Very Long Engagement."

In a film echoing with operatic themes (highlighted with an appearance by Enrico Caruso), Bruno Weiss is a Phantom-like character, so much consumed by his own insecurities and passions that he overwhelms the objection of said affection to mostly dire consequences. As an American immigrant take on "A Harlot's Progress," Bruno spots Ewa's beauty and vulnerability, plucks her out of the crowd and sets her up as a seamstress with the intent of grooming her through guilt and faux concern into a new addition to the string of whores on his payroll. Even without the other characters saying so (possibly one too many times) and before his demonstrations of primal jealousy, you know that Bruno is in love (or as much as he can be) with Ewa through the lilting, longing glances from Phoenix's brooding green eyes, an intriguing combination of puppy dog and demon. In his performance, Phoenix captures the most basic human emotion of wanting and compounds it with the complications of being a 1920s Lower East Side pimp, while still gaining some sympathy from his victim and a decent part of the audience.

The Immigrant Marion Cotillard Joaquin Phoenix

While procuring Ewa, Bruno puts on a show of caring that's hard to believe, and we aren't supposed to believe him. Phoenix uses the same false-sounding, higher-purpose tone in Bruno explaining to Ewa that he can get her to safety out of the deportation line on Ellis Island as he does introducing Bruno's line of "lovely ladies" at the ramshackle theater/prostitution front and discussing the services of said prostitutes to potential Johns, using language befitting ladies of quality (the ladies' acts include The Statue of Liberty) and nursemaids (at one point, Ewa is used to deflower an effeminate ginger teenager) rather than hookers. Since Phoenix did not disclose his research or inspiration for Bruno's showman-salesman style at the press conference, we have to rely on Gray mentioning that Bruno's lines were based off of a 1912 prostitution manual and that, combined with Phoenix's acting instinct, made for a believable early 20th century showman-salesman-pimp, the kind you would imagine introducing W.C. Fields in his lesser vaudeville hobo days before hitting the Ziegfeld Follies (which coincidentally is mentioned at least once in Bruno's onstage introduction).

This article is related to: Joaquin Phoenix, NYFF, NYFF Critics Academy , New York Film Festival, The Immigrant, The Master





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