Our Joker: What We Talk About When We Talk About Joaquin Phoenix
Photograph by Gotham for GC Images via Getty.
The Faults In Our Stars rethinks the reputations we have assigned to legendary celebrities.
I am not a fan of comic books or superheroes, but I am a die-hard fan of Joaquin Phoenix—so much so that I looked up the Joker’s origin story as soon as the forthcoming prequel movie was announced. With sincere apologies to any Batman stans—please do not, as the kids say, @ me—it would seem that although there are various conflicting takes on where the Joker comes from, the consistent facts are these: His persona, simultaneously whimsical and brutal, and posed in stark opposition to the forces of tedious and clean-cut righteousness, springs from the combination of a single tragic accident and the kind of badass facial scar not typically afforded to the hero. He’s a chaos agent, almost totally inscrutable, and way more fascinating than the hot, bland Batman, whose conventional rich playboy lifestyle and array of toys seem just as suited to the characters of Entourage as to a superhero. So, yes: obviously, the Joker is Joaquin Phoenix.
Until 1993—the year that his ethereal brother, River, died from a heroin overdose at Johnny Depp’s still-extant club the Viper Room—it was the case that Joaquin came as one half of a pair: the less famous of two Phoenixes. After the overdose and the resulting media storm, it did not seem especially irrational that he did not care to reveal much of his inner self or to be interviewed. “His emergency-services call on 31 October 1993, the night his brother River died was recorded and played repeatedly over the airwaves,” a 2012 profile in The Independent points out as an explanation for his sheer reluctance to do press or discuss his personal life.
Both brothers share a transcendent quality on film. Where River was doe-eyed, a gorgeous baby with a kind of Dennis Cooper-twink fragility, Joaquin has always had an air of latent sin. If having a scarred lip made him less suited to the audience of Tiger Beat, it also looked onscreen like his most interesting feature, making even dumb lines seem sardonic and tenebrous. In the wake of River’s death, it appeared as though Joaquin had carved out his identity contra to that of the lost boy he’d loved so much: the frightening Phoenix as opposed to the seductive Phoenix, the villain Phoenix as opposed to heartthrob-hero Phoenix, the Phoenix with the less-than-perfect face, the Phoenix who would get fat, who would age, who would allow himself to look like a deadbeat civilian. Somewhere along the way, he turned into his generation’s greatest (or at least greatest male) actor, by a country mile. This is, I grant, subjective; I am also not especially willing to hear anything resembling a rebuttal. He is, too, despite his mistrust of the media, something like a master craftsman in the art form of the quietly strange, faintly psychosexual pull quote, e.g. the one about the “stunt horse that I couldn’t even look at because she was just so ferocious, her muscles constantly flexing”; or saying that John C. Reilly has “a natural ability to just make any moment very sensual. You would find him oftentimes on set just lying on the rocks in a very seductive pose, just sunning. And it was a lot. It was beautiful.”
“I think it's well known [emphasis mine] that Step Brothers is one of my favorite movies,” Phoenix continues in GQ’s Reilly profile, as if this—his deep, enduring love of a goofy buddy comedy—might even crack the top ten list of What We Talk About When We Talk About Joaquin Phoenix. Fundamentally misunderstanding how a nickname works, he called his two-time costar Amy Adams “Angry Adams” because (duh) “she never is.”
If his offbeat attitude has given him the reputation of a secretive eccentric, it has not diminished his acclaim. At 25, playing Commodus in the Roman melodrama Gladiator, Phoenix earned an Oscar nomination for his convincing performance as what I would call a petulant boy-emperor and what Will Ferrell called this year in Interview “a little bitch.” In 2005’s Walk The Line, he earned a second nomination—this time for Best Actor—for his role as Johnny Cash that finally and fully minted his reluctant status as the thinking person’s leading man. In Inherent Vice, an adaptation of my (possibly unfashionable) favorite novel directed by the god Paul Thomas Anderson, Phoenix aces slapstick comedy as a befuddled, stoned PI. In last year’s You Were Never Really Here, he is a great, colossal tank of a hit man, brawny and somehow too tender, who is rescued by a child. The former made me feel high, and the latter made me cry.
Phoenix's turn as Freddie Quell in The Master, a film that is both sheer technical perfection and my least favorite film by that aforementioned directorial god, is usually cited as a career best: the Scientology-style group at the film’s center is somehow less mind-bending, less memorable, than Phoenix’s odd cult-recruit-cum-stooge. “I play myself [as Freddie Quell] in this movie,” he insisted in an interview. “You play yourself in every movie.” As a shell-shocked veteran who drinks cocktails mixed from jet fuel, he’s less lupine than he is vulpine, freak-skittish; the nerves of a cat merged with the earthy wildness of a dog, the way a fox always appears to be a combination of the two.
To put it another way: one might say that he is hard to look at because he is so ferocious. A quality as hard to define as it is potentially subjective (writing about acting is, as the quote that’s attributed to almost every groovy músico goes, similar to “dancing about architecture”), all I know is that the best and loosest way to peg it is by saying that Phoenix is “elemental.” The best way for me to describe that quality via film is by saying that it’s why I found this scene of Freddie Quell in jail unnerving and that critically-adored scene from the Patrick Melrose series, of the lovely-seeming Benedict Cumberbatch on drugs, more like a man from an expensive school, or several of them, Doing Some Good Acting. The writer Sean Witzke put it a third, deliciously succinct way on Twitter this past spring: “Gosling catches the camera in the rearview in Drive like 40x bc it looks cool and Taxi Driver is cool movie,” he observed. “In You Were Never Really Here it happens [with Phoenix]: once. Guess which one hits.”
Not that anybody really needs to guess: if you know Phoenix, then you know. His aptitude for reinvention—for making the unreal feel almost too real, so that it “hits”—is great enough that in the four-year span between filming a middling romantic drama in 2008 with Gwyneth Paltrow and returning to the screen as Freddie Quell in 2012, he somehow managed to convince the world at large that he was not only retired, but insane. I’m Still Here, a mock-doc directed by everybody’s problematic un-fave Casey Affleck that depicts “The Actor Joaquin Phoenix” quitting acting to become a full-time dirtbag and a terrible white rapper, is less film than hoax. “The tragedy of Joaquin Phoenix’s self-destruction has been made into I'm Still Here, a sad and painful documentary that serves little useful purpose,” Roger Ebert wrote, entirely persuaded that what he saw onscreen was the real thing. “Here is a gifted actor who apparently by his own decision has brought desolation upon his head. He was serious when he said he would never act again. He was serious when he announced a career as a hip-hop artist. He wasn’t goofing when he was on the Letterman show. He was flying into pieces.”
And aren’t hoaxes, or at least stunt-like deceptions, what the Joker is best known for? One more thing that all my Googled sources seemed to come together on was that the DC villain does not have any actual superpowers other than his intellect, his sheer obsessiveness, his talent for evasion, and his cunning. So, yes: obviously, the Joker’s Joaquin Phoenix. “I'm just fucking, like, stuck in this ridiculous, like, self-imposed fucking prison of characterization, you know?” the false Phoenix says in I’m Still Here, sounding less like an actor than like someone taunting, say, a superhero nemesis by hiding in plain sight. “I don't know what came first—whether they said that I was emotional and intense and complicated, or whether I was truly complicated and intense and then they responded to it…I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore.”