When the 2020 Oscar nominations were announced on Monday morning (by the way Dear and Constant Readers – Hit up our buddies over at The Hollywood Reporter for the full list of all of the wonderful nominees), few were surprised to see Joaquin Phoenix on the list of nominees for Best Actor for his breakout work in director Todd Phillips’ Joker. This nomination marks the fourth one for Phoenix from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and many consider the forty-five year old actor the one to beat when those nifty golden statues are handed out at the Dolby Theatre in downtown Los Angeles on February 9, 2020.
I’m from a generation that was first introduced to Phoenix and his peculiar style of acting during the 1980s in such film and television work that ran the gamut from The New Leave It to Beaver to SpaceCamp and Parenthood. Back then, Joaquin went by the moniker of “Leaf” and was best known early on as the kid brother to the actor of the Generation X set, River Phoenix. As a young teenager, I cringed through the copious Randy Newman soundtrack of Parenthood just so I could get to the scene in the Ron Howard directed flick where Leaf Phoenix melts down in front of his movie mother Dianne Wiest when confronted by an estranged father who wants nothing to do with him. It was one of the few truly powerful moments in the film that elicited from me a genuine emotional response. In fact, I melted right along with Phoenix as he made me feel what his character must have been experiencing. ‘Boy,’ I thought without the slightest twinge of irony, ‘River’s younger brother might be an actor to watch for in the future.’ Over thirty years later, this older, slightly more cynical film aficionado is still watching the Artist Formerly Known as Leaf Phoenix. So are a lot of other people.
Joaquin Phoenix is a chameleon who doesn’t inhabit the roles in the films he painstakingly chooses so much as he blends into and becomes the characters themselves; a misguided young lothario in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For; an imprisoned American abroad facing a death sentence in Joseph Ruben’s very underrated Return to Paradise; a wicked and sly turn as a small-town bully who terrorizes a hapless Sean Penn in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn; a tortured rockabilly singer turned country music star in James Mangold’s Walk the Line. These are just a few of Phoenix’s impressive early turns in a career that has run the gamut from the sublime to the surreal. The one constant? A solid and capable journeyman of a character actor trapped in the body of a movie star. His work rings true and he is one of those rare craftsmen whose consummate acting can even transcend the most clichéd of movie projects (Looking at you, Ladder 49).
Unlike most of his generation, Phoenix has not fully succumbed to the super hero movie and franchise sci-fi and fantasy craze that has swept the world over the last decade or so. Only his fellow actor and contemporary Leonardo DiCaprio can boast such a feat. Joker is ostensibly of the genre that has spawned such recent features as Wonder Woman, Iron Man and The Avengers, yet the performance by Phoenix in the titular role flirts closer to such filmatic tragedies as usually essayed by the likes of other great and noted actors over the years such as Montgomery Clift, James Dean and, yes, River Phoenix. Joaquin Phoenix can still proudly proclaim he’s never succumbed to the four colored world of comics (not that there’s anything wrong with that genre: Witness Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Donner’s original Superman and a couple of other standouts) because his immense talents have elevated what could have been strictly popcorn fare into something more, something with real substance and depth. Joaquin Phoenix has successfully raised the bar and changed the possibilities of what a so-called super hero flick can be when entrusted to the right creative team.
And now that very renegade spirit which he so imbued every frame of celluloid with in Joker has earned Phoenix a much deserved Oscar nomination which many people, including ye olde blushing writer, feels he richly deserves. After all, it’s not every actor that can make us empathize and feel for an irredeemable villain such as Arthur Fleck. Joaquin Phoenix, through his own mystical vessel which is one of his true gifts, helps us see the damaged soul underneath the bluster and insanity of the arch-villain known as the Joker. It’s something this uber-talented thespian has been doing for decades in a variety of roles; finding the redemptive in the irredeemable and allowing us to empathize with the previously non-empathetic. For that, in my humble opinion, he should have won the Oscar years ago. Here’s to many more Oscar nominations – and wins – for one of our finest actors.