In recent weeks, Joaquin Phoenix has willfully, or not, made himself a kind of multi-media punch line -- first by announcing he was retiring from acting to pursue a career as a rapper, then with his fantastically curious appearance on David Letterman's show, and finally when Ben Stiller brilliantly parodied that same oddball appearance at the Academy Awards.
Now I am as unclear as the next clueless pundit about whether or not Phoenix's retirement story is all an elaborate post-modern gag and the documentary being shot by Casey Affleck is one big Sasha Baron Cohen-styled put-on. But having had the pleasure of working with Phoenix a couple of times -- interviewing him, filming him, and writing and producing a Walk The Line TV special that he and Reese Witherspoon hosted -- I just wanted to add one man's slightly kinder, gentler perspective.
From my limited experiences with him, Joaquin Phoenix seems like one of the more sincere people in a business where that quality is in dangerously short supply. As a result, he seems to have considerable trouble with just going along on the star-studded flow. At the Walk The Line TV special, Joaquin was utterly paralyzed with fear by the idea of getting onstage as himself and speaking to an audience without a character to hide behind. Another time we met up, he seemed slightly tortured about how to accept an award he had won without being an arrogant Hollywood schmuck.
Coming from the family Joaquin did, and experiencing the loss that he has, how could he not be ambivalent about some of the more silly side effects of celebrity? And even though one sensed that he could be a lot of work to deal with me, it was clear to me that this is a man who is probably tougher on himself than on anyone else. In fact, from what I saw, he treated people around him with great warmth and generosity. And even if the guy was driving you crazy -- he did so in a charming, lovable and sweet way.
And let's not forget one significant mitigating factor - that Joaquin Phoenix is one of those rare actors capable of true onscreen greatness. For proof, see To Die For, Gladiator, Quills, Hotel Rwanda and Walk The Line. About that last role: I can think of few gigs in film history that took bigger balls to take on than playing and singing the part of Johnny Cash. Having spent some time with the real Man in Black, let me restate the obvious and remind everyone that Joaquin Phoenix pulled it all off spectacularly and that Reese Witherspoon ought to let him have custody of her Oscar part-time since they shared that triumph very much together.
So tonight, I'm going to go see Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers, and I for one am also going to hope for that our sakes that Joaquin keeps acting, and that he gets to take the stage at the Oscars stage someday soon and do a really funny parody of Ben Stiller - maybe he can even rap it too.