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Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Diana Drumm
October 18, 2013 10:00 AM
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Why Joaquin Phoenix is the Most Fascinating Actor Working in Film Today

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

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.


  • 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."

  • 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

    as Evelyn explained I am stunned that you able to profit $4224 in four weeks on the computer. did you read this webpage....

  • 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?