From playing the boy who dreams of becoming Superman’s sidekick in “Superboy” to bringing the story of supervillain Joker alive on the big screen, Joaquin Phoenix has navigated his way into Hollywoods hall of fame, with a career carved with unconventional roles.
At the moment, Phoenix, known for dissolving his own identity as he disappears into his roles, is winning plaudits for transforming into the mentally unstable loner Arthur Fleck, who picks violence to find calmness in his life, even as he struggles to make a career in stand-up comedy, and becomes Joker in the comic book drama “Joker“.
The 45-year-old star is being considered as a contender of Best Actor Oscar this year for the Warner Bros. project, which has become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time and has crossed the $ 1 billion mark at the worldwide box office.
From overcoming personal tragedies, struggling with addiction to quitting acting to making a comeback, Phoenix is one of Hollywood’s most respected actors, who has proved his range of versatility time and again.
He had a tough childhood as his parents were followers of a controversial religious cult — Children of God, and it is believed that the cult promoted sex as a direct path to God. They left the group in 1978 when he was three. They moved to Los Angeles where his mother started working with a network and found a way to help her children get entry to showbiz.
His brother, the rising star River Phoenix, died of a drug overdose in 1993 after a night out at a nightclub, and Joaquin entered showbiz at the age of eight as Leaf Phoenix, and did “The Fall Guy”, “Parenthood” and “Anything for Love”.
At the age of 15, Leaf reinvented himself as Joaquin. He took a break for a while and made his comeback in 1995 with Gus Van Sant’s critically acclaimed “To Die For”, which featured Nicole Kidman. The film, in which Joaquin Phoenix featured as Jimmy, whose married girlfriend (Kidman) convinces him to kill her husband, started a new chapter in his career.
He was then seen as a poor man in love with a rich woman in romantic drama “Inventing the Abbotts” (1997), a small-town troublemaker in crime thriller “U Turn” and a young man who befriends a serial killer in “Clay Pigeons”(1998). In 1999, he explored the porn underworld in “8MM” as an employee of an adult video store.
Joaquin credits River for convincing him to try his hand at acting again.
“When I was 15 or 16, my brother River came home from work and he had a VHS copy of a movie called ‘Raging Bull’ and he sat me down and made me watch it,” Phoenix said at an event at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.
“And the next day he woke me up and he made me watch it again. And he said, ‘You’re going to start acting again, this is what you’re going to do’. River didn’t ask me, he told me. And I am indebted to him for that because acting has given me such an incredible life,” he added.
There’s a vulnerability, a sense of inquisitiveness and sensitivity in his portrayal of characters, be it of a romantic hero, action thrillers or his attempt to embody country music icon Johnny Cash in 2005 film “Walk the Line”.
He has a knack for exploring dark areas to tell complex stories.
If he was awkward, nerdy and suicidal as Leonard Kraditor in “Two Lovers” (2008), he was also lonely yet optimistic Theodore Twombly in 2013 film “Her”, who falls in love with a computer’s operating system.
He was a loner in “Inherent Vice”(2014), notorious assassin in “The Sisters Brothers” (2018) and morally ambiguous Bruno in “The Immigrant”(2013). It’s hard to forget his portrayal of amoral, power-hungry and twisted Commodus in “Gladiator” in 2000 — which brought star status as well as an Oscar nomination for him, or former Navy veteran and borderline sociopath Freddie Quell in “The Master”(2012).
In Lynne Ramsay’s 2017 film “You Were Never Really Here”, Joaquin was seen bringing the complexities of a dishevelled hitman who rescues trafficked girls and uses brutal methods against their captors. Some other big hits in his career include ‘‘Signs” (2002) and ‘‘We Own the Night” (2007).
In an interview to the Vanity Fair this year, Joaquin said that his acting career has been a “long and hard journey learning to separate himself from his characters”.
‘I’ve always had a hard time. And, I think only recently, as you get older or whatever, you’re okay. You go, ‘Maybe it is going to be a bad experience’ or ‘Maybe I’m not going to enjoy it. And maybe I won’t have any of those connections, maybe I’ll feel just hollow afterwards’. That’s okay. Because I know that I have meaning in other parts of my life. And that’s really what sustains me. I enjoy it. I love my life. I f**king love my life,’ he said.
Apart from the commercial success, he has also got associated with critically acclaimed movies like ‘‘I’m Still Here”, ‘‘The Master”, ‘‘Her”, ‘‘The Immigrant” and ‘‘Inherent Vice”.
In 2010, he surprised with mockumentary “I’m Still Here”, directed by Casey Affleck, and written by Affleck and Joaquin, which followed the life of Joaquin from the announcement of his retirement from acting, and traced his transition into a hip hop artist.
Talking to nytimes.com, Joaquin said: “I don’t really care about genre or budget size, anything like that. It’s just whether there is a filmmaker that has a unique vision, has a voice, and the ability to make the film.”
Director James Gray, who has worked with Joaquin in four projects, said that he is committed to his job, and expects the same level of commitment from all.
“If you’re not prepared, he will know it, and he will let you know it. You have to do your homework,” Gray said to nytimes.com.
“Joker” director Todd Phillips said Joaquin follows his own rhythm.
“In the middle of the scene, he’ll just walk away and walk out. And the poor other actor thinks it’s them and it was never them — it was always him, and he just wasn’t feeling it,” nytimes.com quoted Phillips as saying.
He entered the industry as a child star, took a break, reinvented his image, explored dark and flawed characters and made a place for himself. He is back in the spotlight as ‘Joker’, and has once again proved that he is here to stay.