“Because he is such an unreliable narrator, it’s hard to know what’s real, and what isn’t.” That’s what Joaquin Phoenix said when he was asked on a Venice Film Festival red carpet about his new character, the Joker. But the truth is, he could just as easily have been talking about himself.
After the movie first screened, it received an eight-minute standing ovation. Come the end of the festival, Joker had won the prestigious Golden Lion for Best Film and cemented itself as an early Oscar favourite, largely down to the transformative performance of its leading man, who ate just an apple and a few lettuce leaves a day for two months to shed 23 kilograms to play the emaciated anarchist.
Should Phoenix win the Oscar – and there’s a chance that conversation could prove moot given accusations from certain quarters that Joker might itself have the potential to inspire the kind of violence it aims to condemn – it would mark something of a pinnacle for a career that the man has occasionally seemed dangerously close to just sacking off anyway. Whether that was when he walked away from acting as a child in the early 1990s or, in his piece de resistance in 2008, hoodwinking the world into thinking he’d packed it all in to focus on rap music.
Many, in fact, including some very big names still inside the A-list acting community, genuinely believe to this day that Phoenix had some sort of epiphany or nervous breakdown around that time. In actuality, it was all a big, bizarro piece of performance art for the movie I’m Still Here. It’s little wonder, then, why people are often confused as to whether Phoenix is being sincere or laughing his head off at them.
Who better, presumably thought Joker director Todd Phillips, to play the Crown Prince of Crime? Best-known until this point for his trilogy of Hangover movies, Phillips had long harboured a desire to unleash on to the world an anti-hero origin story that took inspiration from the Martin Scorsese movies of the late 1970s and early ’80s – Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, specifically – and only ever had one man in mind. And so it was, that every day when he was working on the screenplay (with screenwriter and director Scott Silver), Phillips did so with a picture of Phoenix pinned up above his computer.
The Joker is quite possibly the role Phoenix was born to play. It’s certainly the one DC needed, after Jared Leto’s forehead-spankingly literal take on the character (and we mean literally: Leto’s lurid iteration had the word “damaged” tattooed across his forehead) in 2016’s deservedly maligned Suicide Squad. Now, with the comics titan seemingly having ditched both Leto and former caped crusader Ben Affleck from their largely lambasted movie universe, Joker is resetting the bar. Or, maybe more accurately, it’s setting the bar on fire and swinging it firmly into the face of conformity.
This is a low-budget, stand-alone, unapologetically adult and 1970s-laced story on whose mean streets we observe Phoenix’s wannabe stand-up, Arthur Fleck, metamorphosise slowly and uncontrollably into a psychotic loner agitating for chaos and blood to spill. Joker is the perfect tonal palate cleanser between a series of safe but dreary blockbusters and a brave new dawn for what the DC universe is about to become.
Case in point: next February sees Margot Robbie headline the deliriously lunatic-looking Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (yes, that really is the whole title). Meanwhile, summer 2021 will deliver both James Gunn’s no-holds-barred The Suicide Squad reboot, and The Batman, starring a resurgent Robert Pattinson in latex and Jonah Hill, who is in talks at the time of writing to play either the Riddler or the Penguin, depending on who you ask.
But it’s the Joker, of course, that has always been the one. And landing Phoenix to play him is a masterstroke. Both are anarchic, untameable, unknowable – outsiders. Heath Ledger understood that inherently about the character when he played him so beautifully in 2008’s The Dark Knight, but he never lived it. Ledger’s last-ever performance was a majestic, Oscar-winning swansong to a life and career cut tragically short. Phoenix’s, though, is one born of a life lived on the outskirts. Hollywood’s ultimate outsider playing the comic world’s ultimate outsider. And the alchemy is electric.
Phoenix turns 45 on Monday, October 28, having been born to American missionaries working in Puerto Rico in 1974. The middle child of five, when he was four years old, Phoenix changed his name to Leaf – a replacement moniker that he came up with when his father, who was sweeping some up at the time, asked him what he wanted to call himself – so he felt more aligned with his siblings, called River and Rain (older), and Liberty and Summer (younger). All of them went by their original surname, Bottom, until the family returned to Los Angeles – via South then Central America – and marked their new beginnings with a fresh last name synonymous with rebirth.
Somehow, Phoenix (he changed his name back to Joaquin after Parenthood in 1989) has never won an Oscar. The more you think about that, the more ridiculous it gets. He was brilliant as Gladiator’s unforgettable baddie, Commodus, magnetic in The Master, and hand-picked by Johnny Cash to be Johnny Cash in Walk The Line. He was rightly Oscar-nominated for all three, and should also have been for his Cannes-winning turn two years ago as traumatised war vet Joe in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.
Just like Arthur Fleck, his time will surely come.
For years, Hollywood has tried to make Phoenix fit into a mould. Marvel, for instance, tried to woo him to play Doctor Strange in 2014, before eventually giving up and offering the role to Benedict Cumberbatch. But, ironically, just at the point that it has fashioned a comic-book movie entirely around him, so has Phoenix appeared to open up a little in return, reflecting on how he’s got here, and talking about things he never has before. “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,” he told the audience this month at the Toronto International Film Festival. “And he sat down and he made me watch it …”
This Halloween, three days after the actor’s birthday, will mark the 26th anniversary of the day his brother, River, collapsed on the street outside The Viper Room, Johnny Depp’s nightclub on Sunset Strip, and Joaquin called the ambulance that would never arrive in time.
“… And the next day, [River] woke me up and he made me watch it again,” Phoenix continued in his speech. “And he said: ‘You’re going to start acting again. This is what you’re going to do.’ He didn’t ask me; he just told me. And I am indebted to him for that because acting has given me such an incredible life.”