Back to IndieWire

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

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
), 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).

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

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

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
, 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.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox