Something very curious happened during the career of American actor Joaquin Phoenix. Suddenly he decided to retire from acting and become a hip hop artist, and with this, came also a change in his lifestyle: he seemed rather absent minded (stoned for many). In a televised interview with David Letterman in the Tonight Show we felt we had lost a great actor, and even a human being, for he seemed completely “out”. Months later, his friend Casey Affleck released a film about Phoenix’s transformation that he called ‘I’m Still Here’ and presented it in diverse festivals. Only after did we know it was all staged, a huge campaign to shock our sense of reality, of how we react to this kind of change in celebrity and, at the same time, an advertisement campaign for the movie itself. In the end, the immersive quality of Phoenix’s work lent itself perfectly to this experiment.
Younger brother to River Phoenix, a promising actor who died tragically at 23, Joaquin had started his acting career as a child, and made the transition with no dent in his talent, most notably in Gus Van Sant’s ‘To Die For’ with Nicole Kidman.
Soon it was known around Hollywood about this young new actor who could become the next Brando, and he began to be offered superlative supporting roles in films like ‘Quills’, his Oscar nominated turn in ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Signs’.
Once he was ready, Joaquin jumped to leading roles and it took him almost no time to find himself in all the Best Actors lists with films like ‘Walk The Line’, ‘Two Lovers’ and ‘The Master’.
His latest work for Spike Jonze in ‘Her’ is no less impressive, even if it got kicked out of the Oscar nominations (2013 proved a crowded year for acting), specially because it shows a lighter and happier, yet lonely side to his endless capacity as an actor.
Here’s a list of some of the performances you should not miss from one of the best actors of his generation.
Walk The Line
(2005) Directed by James Mangold
Joaquin pulled his most method-like work in a project he felt dear to his heart before it even started. He learned to sing and play the guitar and his surrender to the character of music legend Johnny Cash is so complete, some scenes were not even scripted but enacted in the heat of the moment (there’s a scene in which Joaquin pulls a sink off the wall that was not in the script, as well as the scene in which he is performing “I Got Stripes” and stares at Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter for a long period to make her uncomfortable). Not only did Phoenix get Cash’s approval for his performance, but he was nominated to all the awards for best actor that year and won the Golden Globe. It is known that the many similarities between his life and Cash’s lead him to get hospitalized after filming ended.
(2012) Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
One of his most haunting performances, Phoenix embodied the after war depression due to a growing existentialism that gave a path to new philosophies/religions, like Scientology. His work goes from a total lack of direction to enlightenment to a new fall from grace with no false move whatsoever.
Anderson knew Phoenix’s immersive technique, so he was ready for the actor’s requests, which did not come in words but in actions. As he noticed that Phoenix was not following the marks and moved freely in each location, Anderson told his crew to have the whole space ready to follow Phoenix with the camera.
(2013) Directed by Spike Jonze
To play Theodore, a man who falls in love with an advanced operating system with the voice of Scarlet Johansson, Phoenix became the loneliest man on Earth, even surrounded by other characters. Amy Adams plays a very nice friend to him but he hardly notices her, completely isolated. As he embraces this fantastic feeling of love, he becomes happier and even loony, which ends up underlining his immense solitude.
I'm Still Here
(2010) Directed by Casey Affleck
Other actors have played a version of their film persona in movies, but this might be the first time an actor creates a character of himself in real life, then makes a movie about it, and then confesses it was all an experiment. The Joaquin Phoenix you see on the screen is himself being another person, living a parallel life and making people believe it’s real. The experiment seemed to have worked, since it got many headlines.
(2000) Directed by Ridley Scott
Maybe one of his most popular performances, Commodus is a depraved character, the perfect nemesis to hero Maximus. One of Phoenix’s contributions to this “evil” entity is a sense of weakness and betrayal that ignites his anger, supported by the powers that surround him. This was Joaquin’s first Oscar nomination.
(2000) Directed by Philip Kaufman
As the Abbe du Coulmier, Phoenix had a very controversial character to develop: a priest who falls for a woman under the manipulations of imprisoned Marquise De Sade. It is a full dimensional character that changes drastically from his submissive beginning to a sexual freedom that causes him his life. This was one of his most accomplished characters as an adult and it was only eclipsed by the release of his other strong supporting role in Gladiator, the same year.
To Die For
(1995) Directed by Gus Van Sant
Van Sant had already worked with River Phoenix in ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ and his brother Joaquin proved perfect as one of the two frenetic teenagers who awaken their sexual angst and agree to murder. The film is based on a real-life case and marks the first time Joaquin Casey Affleck worked together.
(2002) Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Here, Joaquin plays the younger brother to Mel Gibson’s priest in profound doubt, so his work is to be completely alienated by him and the events. Even if Phoenix as a last minute replace for Mark Ruffalo, his performance is flawless.
(2007) Directed by Terry George
Starring as a grieving father who just can’t let go and is submissive to his feelings, Phoenix creates the ambivalent character of Ethan Learner, planning revenge and looking for justice in the face of a tragedy that occurred by terrible chance.
(2008) Directed by James Gray
Phoenix doesn’t usually engage in romantic dramas, but he starred in this story of a man torn between two lovers and confronting betrayal and passion. Even if it was filmed 2 years before, the film was released as Phoenix started his “faux” “I’m quitting acting” campaign, so it became his “faux” swan song.