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

Indiewire By Diana Drumm | Indiewire October 18, 2013 at 10:0AM

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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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).

Warner Bros. Spike Jonze's "Her" with Joaquin Phoenix

Breaking through this veneer is a tormented man making his way however seedy in a city that has already damned him thanks to his Jewish heritage, which is made painfully clear in his confrontations with cops who he hasn't bribed, (side note, apparently Bruno knows Yiddish, though we never hear Phoenix speak any in the film) and who lost his first love to his blonder, more charming cousin (a James Cagney-meets-Harry Houdini type played by Jeremy Renner). In this light, Bruno doesn't know what to do when he sees Ewa beyond possessing her by the only means he knows, false hope and emotional manipulation. He never forces her to be intimate physically (with him at least) or to care for him emotionally, but settles with the fact that he's merely her means of support and survival.

It's this romantically desolate situation that makes scenes like when Ewa's waiting for him outside of the prison (after him being jailed briefly) and when Bruno overhears a snippet of Ewa's church confession in which she resigns herself to hell and damnation (a.k.a. a life with him) tug all the more at the heartstrings. For those brief shining moments, Bruno believes that Ewa might actually love him. Not as much and insanely as he loves her (tough to compete with stabbing rivals and abrupt moves to Central Park), but something in that vicinity. In those instances, there's a light in Bruno's murky eyes and an air of hope puffing up his hunched shoulders. Phoenix manages to breathe life and humanity into a villain of melodramatic proportions, enough so that we alongside Ewa aren't sure whether we want to leave him in the end, with his grave misdeeds clouded by the muddled reasons behind them.

Phoenix plays a similarly emotionally-muddled character in Spike Jonze's "Her," which made its debut as the NYFF closing night film and is now being considered an Oscar game-changer, due in no small part to Phoenix's performance as a letter ghostwriter who falls headfirst for his computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). With his ‘stache, awkward gait, and obvious insecurity, Theodore Twombly is a creepy dude, or so says his blind date (Olivia Wilde). Dealing with a relatively recent separation and wading his way through the dating mine field of a not-too-distant-future Los Angeles, Theodore sparks a connection with his O.S. (a.k.a. Samantha) that blossoms into a full-blown relationship of the minds (illustrated acutely by their "photograph" together being a song composed by Samantha), toeing the lines of metaphysics, existentialism, and what it means to be in love.

In a role that could have easily fallen to the sidelines of creeping (especially if you consider the near-alliteration in Theodore's name could denote a twisting, tongue-in-cheek take on Humbert Humbert), Phoenix gives Theodore a depth that reaches the breadth of any audience. Whether you've loved and lost or are merely grasping at love, Theodore embodies that vulnerable essence of humanity inside all of us, thanks to Phoenix being "all instinct" in his central performance (as Jonze explained to Mark Harris), and Johansson being able to portray Samantha's emotional and outer-body (or outer-non-body?) awakening solely through her voice. Merely with the thought of Samantha (as she never gains a body or an avatar of her own), Theodore goes through the entire spectrum of a romantic relationship from the giddiness of discovery to the doldrums of routine to suspicions spiraling from both ends. Theodore recognizes and accepts the absurdity of being in love with a computer operating system and we, the audience, follow him full-heartedly, suspending our natural disbelief through his travails of hope, love and heartache.

During a climactic scene, Samantha disappears from all of Theodore's electronic devices and he, not knowing what to do, instinctively runs through streets of "Los Angeles" for help, presumably to his office or the offices of Samantha's manufacturer. In the middle of his mad dash, Theodore falls to the ground, gets up, and then keeps running until Samantha finally pops back on the screen, explaining that she had merely gone down for maintenance. In this crazed run, Phoenix captures Theodore's deep, innate passion for Samantha and his great fear of ever losing her. Oddly enough (at least in the eyes of this viewer), this scene evokes Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris," in which middle-aged widower Paul (Marlon Brando) chases after young Jeanne (Maria Schneider) through the streets of Paris, fearing that he may have lost her. In most respects outside of this one moment, the two films are antithetical of each other with "Last Tango in Paris" being about a purely (or impurely) physical relationship whereas Theodore and Samantha's romance transcends physical being.

What binds them is the utter emotional desperation of the male lead in pursuit of his romantic interest, portrayed with such unequivocal, heartbreaking authenticity by Marlon Brando and Joaquin Phoenix. Eerily, both relationships come to an end after these pursuits, but in very different ways. Paul becomes too effusive and ruins what there was between him and Jeanne, leading to the demise of him and their relationship. While Theodore confronts Samantha on the status of their relationship, to which she admits not only to talking with thousands of other people, but being in love with hundreds of them (kind of puts the woman from Johnny Cash's "Cocaine Blues" in warped perspective -- "I thought I was her daddy, but she had five more"). Somehow through the mystery of life, Jonze's sentimental lens and the transformative believability of Phoenix's performance, Theodore comes to terms with this and, after Samantha leaves permanently, accepts their relationship as a cherished period of time, but not his whole life, with his memories and their song as a bittersweet souvenir.

Both as Bruno and Theodore, Joaquin Phoenix reflects on the depth of human emotion, particularly the bizarre notion of love. Bruno and Theodore tap into the core of the audience's hearts, to varying degrees and destructive tendencies, but both make it out with redeeming qualities (Bruno letting Ewa go, Theodore resolving his past issues with women). With these two magnificent performances under his belt for 2013, Phoenix may try to shy away from the press like a majestic mythical creature (with E-cigarette smoke tumbling out of nostrils, resembling something of a dragon), but these performances have touched and will continue to touch the hearts of audiences worldwide, possibly even awards voters. Whether you think he's utterly bizarre or the finest actor of his generation or a wonderful combination of both, there's no doubt that Joaquin Phoenix and his instinctive acting will continue to mesmerize onscreen.

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