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by Diana Drumm
October 18, 2013 10:00 AM
21 Comments
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Why Joaquin Phoenix is the Most Fascinating Actor Working in Film Today

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."

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.

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).

21 Comments

  • Zaira | October 28, 2013 3:51 AMReply

    Awesome article. Joaquin is brilliant!

  • Laurie Glode | October 22, 2013 10:47 AMReply

    Good job, Diana.

  • parsyeb | October 20, 2013 6:59 PMReply

    This guy is a complete fraud, and the movies he's in are made by people as phony as he is. All of his tortured yearning must reflect the utter lack of soul in his life and work.

    Jon Jost says it better than me:
    "Joaquin Phoenix has been cited for his bravura performance, one which in my contrarian eye is a perfect example of actors acting and looking very much like they are acting. Here Mr Phoenix adopts a kind of left-tilted mouth sneer which oscillates wildly, sometimes clearly a consciously forced matter, and sometimes evaporating away. Likewise he sports an absurd body gesture, with his hands on his hips, arms akimbo, elbows leaning forward. A bundle of transparent acting mannerisms which our critics seem to think is good “acting.” I’d suggest they look at some Japanese films to see some good acting – say Kurasawa’s High and Low, or Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Cafe Lumiere: in the former, done in extreme wide-screen, Kurasawa has tableaux of 10 actors or more on screen, each inwardly using their entire being to embody their character; in the latter, the father, without seeming to do anything (unlike a flailing American “method” trained actor would), silently contains his character’s explosive anger but makes it readable to the spectator through real acting. Phoenix instead takes his bundle of mannerisms, and, in several terrible scenes, wildly flails about in one of the worst examples of the damage inflicted by Lee Strasberg’s famed acting studio."
    http://cinemaelectronica.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/cinema-musings-amour-and-the-master-and-other-things/

  • C Olson | November 20, 2013 4:35 AM

    Oh, I think I get it. He must be in a film that is so indie that it's only played at very few regional indie theaters and he has to be an actor that only other actors maybe know about if they're REAL actors. Or, he has to be in theater. Maybe you're one of those people that are like "yeah I've heard of that band. I liked them a little bit before they released their first album. But now they're just so predictable.". Yeah. He and the people he's worked with are so phony.... Boy, there's an intellectual observation. Well said.

  • C Olson | November 20, 2013 4:25 AM

    If his greatness, Sir Jon Jost (who clearly is the authority on how to act and what is and isn't acting) can't help us out here maybe you would be so kind as to enlighten us, as to who you consider to be a great actor in 'film'?
    Just throw a few names along with notable performances, so we can all see just what 'not acting-acting' looks like. I get the critique on posturing and emoting and such, while I do disagree with you applying that to his performance. But, what should he do? Be strictly himself and just follow the emotional line of the play? Not create the character, a person who himself will have manorisms and quirks that make him who he is? So he should be like... Mark Walberg? Nicolas Cage? Will Smith?
    Point is, it's an art form. And in art... Well, you probably already know.

  • TRUTH | October 21, 2013 2:10 PM

    Well, you and Jom Jost (whoever the f*ck that is) are both in the minority. Kbye.

  • Sam | October 20, 2013 6:43 AMReply

    A lot of his old movies have been playing on telly over this year and watching them I am shocked to see that it's the same person in each movie. He's so compelling in Return to Paradise, I watched it in fear and fascination. Then at the credits I was shocked to see that it was the person who played Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Same with Inventing the Abbotts. This man has been robbed of an Oscar and I hope he is nominated for Her and wins next year. And it doesn't hurt that he's always been gorgeous.

  • Stacey | October 19, 2013 4:37 PMReply

    I think Mr. Phoenix is very interesting, no one says you all have to agree (all the haters). I believe that he is a tortured soul and the only people who will find him interesting are also tortured souls. I think his talent cannot be measured, his onscreen roles captivating and haunting, and I am one of his biggest fans. He is inspiring, beautiful and I hope he continues to be interesting for many many years to come.

  • Snowangelsweden | October 20, 2013 5:34 AM

    "I believe that he is a tortured soul and the only people who will find him interesting are also tortured souls. " Well put!

  • angrydroid | October 18, 2013 11:30 PMReply

    You're welcome, Diana.

  • Dan | October 18, 2013 9:50 PMReply

    Great article!

  • IVANA | October 18, 2013 8:27 PMReply

    he is more than just most fascinating actor.he is an artist that is above acting.his acting is unique because of his edgy creative personality that is strange,he is from other world,and he is funny because he is not aware of it :)

  • Moisés da Silveira | October 18, 2013 3:15 PMReply

    Why Joaquin Phoenix is the most fascinating.... what? ... actor... what?? ... working... what??? ... in film... what???? ... today... what?????

    Are you crazy?

  • marcia | October 18, 2013 1:54 PMReply

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  • Snowangelsweden | October 18, 2013 12:57 PMReply

    Hear,hear! One of the best article I´ve read on Phoenix. He is number one in acting - He owns every second he is on screen. He truly is fascinating both as an actor and as a human being.

  • prince | October 18, 2013 10:56 AMReply

    His healed hairlip is the only thing that interests me. He was good in The Gladiator.

  • angrydroid | October 18, 2013 10:52 AMReply

    I think you must have meant his film/performance art piece "I'm Still Here" as opposed to "I'm Not There" which was the film about Bob Dylan. This would explain why the latter wasn't listed in his IMDB listing. That is, because he wasn't in it.

  • Brandon | October 18, 2013 3:47 PM

    I was going to comment the same thing. And if the writer had scrolled a bit further and done a tiny bit more research before posting the article, she would know that "I'm Still Here" IS listed under SELF: MOVIE. Which would have then given her the correct title.

  • thedudeabides | October 18, 2013 10:19 AMReply

    I always tell people the same thing. Joaquin is consistenly doing interesting and different work. No studio/big budget films, works with intersting directors, chooses good scripts and creates fascinating characters.

    Even PT Anderson said although I'm Not Here wasn't a hit, it was a really great performance from JP. Ever since then with The Master he's on a whole other level.

  • Selma | October 18, 2013 10:11 AMReply

    I really don't care if Phoenix is "bizarre" or a crack-head or what not, in my humble opinion he is one of the best living actor we have and I find it insulting that when mentioning the greatest actors, people tend not to list him.

    Meryl, Cate, Joaquin and Daniel are the four actors that are on their own level. It's insulting that DiCaprio is mentioned above Phoenix. Phoenix's performance in The Master was beyond acting. It deserved the Oscar, even though I love Day-Lewis. It was one of my top 5 performances, EVER. Every single movie he does, every single performances touches me.

  • Adam Orton | October 22, 2013 11:58 AM

    When is DiCaprio mentioned above Phoenix?