Flight of the Phoenix

Inherent ViceJoaquin Phoenix has emerged from the last 15 years as one of the most talented actors of all time. Although his career has been fevered with alcoholism and drug abuse, it’s impossible not to admire the work of Phoenix, from portraying Johnny Cash, to the tortured soul Theodore Twombly in Spike Jonze’s Her.

Phoenix’s eccentricity was clear from an early age when he adopted the name “Leaf” in an attempt to gain more acting roles, inspired by the time he spent gardening with his father. However, he reverted back to Joaquin before his 16th birthday at which time he had just made his film debut in SpaceCamp, a decidedly awful film. Before this appearance he was making appearances in several television shows as an extremely young actor, including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

However, Phoenix’s early life was plagued with trauma when he had to witness his brother River die from a drug overdose in October 1993. Unfortunately for Joaquin, the media pounced at the chance to distribute his panicked 911 phone call which was then played repeatedly over several news networks. This invasion coupled with his brother’s fatality caused Phoenix to shut himself off and remain out of the public eye for almost two years. Seven years after this incident, Joaquin landed what is deemed to be his first ground breaking role in Ridley Scott’s epic Gladiator. He played the role of Commodus and we saw Phoenix demonstrate his skillset as a deeply tormented character, an ability that has come to epitomise his career thus far. Phoenix was given numerous awards for this performance and received his first Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

2006 saw Phoenix’s second Oscar nomination for his outstanding performance in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. This was released a year after Joaquin checked into rehab after a life-threatening car crash. Reportedly, Phoenix was seconds away from lighting a cigarette whilst petrol was filling the cabin of the car. Walk the Line had Phoenix produce a stunning vocal performance which was applauded by the critics. Phoenix continued his fine form in the compelling film Two Lovers in which he is both comically awkward and heartbroken. Although receiving fewer nominations for awards, Phoenix’s work was admired more by individual film critics and festivals.

One of the most unique aspects of Joaquin’s career came from the two year period between 2008 and 2010. Phoenix staged an extremely public breakdown in which he humorously claimed he was going to pursue a career in rap music and retire from acting. Unbeknownst to both the public and his peers, this was an entirely false breakdown, however he was bracketed in the cruellest manner by the media. Seeing Joaquin as a dishevelled, erratic and incredibly awkward man in this period was believable, given his history with drug abuse and alcoholism. This act reached its peak during a David Letterman interview where Phoenix presents himself as introverted and uncomfortable in order to create the most awkward nine minute interview in existence. Throughout the interview, Joaquin wears ridiculous dark sunglasses as a further means of communicating his disinterest. The purpose of this stunt was to highlight the dismantling effects of fame and to damn the media for their suffocating nature in the form of his and Casey Affleck’s 2010 film I’m Still Here. The film is essentially a mockumentary following Phoenix’s meltdown and presents Joaquin as a delusional, deeply depressed and drug abusing individual. The film itself is very gritty and at times extremely difficult to watch, particularly with the drone of Phoenix’s drug-induced voice. Of course this uncomfortableness is what Phoenix and Affleck set out to achieve and therefore is a great success, particularly with the awe-inspiring conclusion to the film.

In the wake of I’m Still Here Phoenix soon returned to his well respected position amongst the acting community with his appearance in The Master. This is arguably Phoenix’s most gritty role in which he plays an incestuous murderer and has a permanent snarl etched on his face. This film was again a magnet to awards, both for Phoenix and Amy Adams, whom he co-stars with in the recently released Her. Spike Jonze’s Her contains one of Phoenix’s best characters in the form of Theodore Twombly. Here he plays someone who is almost completely opposite to his own characterisation in I’m Still Here. Twombly is a lonely writer recovering from a divorce, who in search for friendship falls in love with an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Phoenix’s capture of loneliness through this character is what makes the story so heart-warming and in turn creates his most likeable character so far. Twombly also has a few comical aspects of his character which Phoenix delivers in an extremely effective manner.

Given the success of Phoenix’s portrayal of Twombly, it is unsurprising critics and fans alike are looking forward to his performance as Doc Sportello in J.C. Chandor’s Inherent Vice, which hits cinemas this January. Sportello is a drug-fuelled detective investigating the murder of his ex-wife. However, there is suggestion that despite this seemingly dark storyline, Phoenix exercises a more comedic role. Let’s hope Phoenix continues soaring with yet another compelling performance.