Joaquin Pheonix: It’s not a perfume. It’s not some rare bird. It’s certainly not pronounced the way it looks. It’s America’s most celebrated method actor. Yes, Joaquin Phoenix has been mesmerising us with his performances of dark, twisted, and worryingly alluring characters since he burst onto the silver screen in the late 1980s.
Since then, he’s performed in a dizzying number of iconic roles, all of which feature his characteristic odd-ball energy. He is one of the most revered actors working in Hollywood today, a reverence that he has continually shunned – preferring to immerse himself in the characters he plays, thus perpetuating an unending cycle of celebrity worship.
Born in 1974 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Pheonix is the third of five children, including River Pheonix, (who died in 1993) Rain, Liberty, and Summer – all of whom have been involved in acting at one point or another. At the time of his birth, Joaquin’s parents were missionaries in a millenarian Christian religious cult called the Children of God. At this time they began travelling South America and the Caribbean spreading the word of the sect. However, they eventually became disillusioned and decided to leave in 1977, having lost faith in the cult’s bizzare and increasingly distorted rules and practices, one of which was ‘flirty fishing’, a form of evangelism that saw the women ‘fisherwomen’ of The Children Of God use their sex appeal on ‘fish’, men from outside the cult, to proselytize for Jesus and seek donations. The family chose to adopt the surname Phoenix as a symbol of a new beginning.
Joaquin made his acting debut alongside his brother River in a Christmas episode of the television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1982. Describing that first experience of acting, he once recalled feeling “instantaneous joy. The most enjoyable thing. For some kids, it’s the first time they crack a ball or score a goal. For me, it was this. I was eight years old, and I remember the first scene on the TV set so vividly. And I knew that I loved it – the physical sensation; how powerful it was. That’s the feeling I’ve been chasing ever since.” After starring in a number of TV series with his brother, including Murder She Wrote, The Fall Guy and Hill Street Blues, Joaquin was soon on the road to the silver screen and, in 1986, made his first film. It’s here that we will begin.
Joaquin Phoenix’s six definitive films:
Spacecamp (Harry Winer, 1986)
Pheonix’s cinematic debut is famous for all the wrong reasons. It was something of a marketing nightmare because the film – which tells the story of a group of young astronauts in-training – was released less than five months after the Space Shuttle Challenger accident of January 28th, 1986.
Joaquin Phoenix, who was then going under the name Leaf, plays Max Graham, an exuberant, Star Wars-loving 12-year-old who befriends a robot that has been deemed unsuitable for space work. Recognising each other as fellow outcasts, they quickly become “friends forever”. SpaceCamp, as you can expect, didn’t do terribly well in the box office and one mixed reviews. But in 1989, Pheonix would get a second chance.
Parenthood (Ron Howard, 1989)
Ron Howard’s 1989 warm-hearted family comedy tells the stories of three parents all of whom are struggling with their children, including Gil Buckman, (Steve Martin) a perfectionist who believes his children’s bad behaviour reflects poorly on his parenting.
Pheonix stars as Garry, a troubled teenager who has just entered puberty and prefers to be alone in his room with a mysterious paper bag. While his mother, Helen, assumes that it must contain either drugs or alcohol, it turns out to contain porn. Lots and lots of porn. Already, Pheonix’s roles tend to see him star as awkward, socially inept, and confused characters.
Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000)
After the death of his brother, River, following a drug overdose in 1993, Joaquin starred alongside Nicole Kidman in the critically acclaimed To Die For (1995). But it would be for his breakthrough role as the megalomaniac Roman emperor Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator that received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.
The performance is legendary and demonstrated Pheonix’s sensitivity and understanding of character. However, the role also put him in the limelight at a time when he was still grieving. As his co-star, Russel Crowe once recalled: “There were a lot of people in that strange journalistic habit who wanted to just poke that fire and kept asking Joaquin about his brother and then about his relationship with me because we have that in the film. At one point, we were doing some press conference and he just said something along the lines of, ‘Look, Russell treated me like a brother’ and it just hit me in a really heavy way.”
Walk The Line (2005, James Mangold)
Pheonix’s performance as ‘the man in black’ in the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line was so startling because, despite being much shorter than Cash, and despite having a very different vocal range, he was able to embody Cash with such ease that the differences were practically imperceivable.
To prepare for the role, Pheonix consumed the singer’s biographies and played the guitar relentlessly during filming. Then he went full method, taking a trip to rehab just as Cash had and – during the Folsom Prison scene – made crew members treat the extras as real inmates, refusing them food and water, to create the appropriate tension. of course, everyone had to call him ‘Johnny’ on set as well. “‘I’m embarrassed about it now,” he later said. “But when I heard ‘Joaquin,’ it just didn’t feel right.” Hmm.
Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
In 2008, Pheonix made the bizzare announcement that hat he was quitting acting to pursue a hip-hop career. Pheonix’s public appearances subsequently became increasingly surreal and he soon started being known for his erratic and destructive behaviour. He re-emerged in 2013 with this touching story about a man who falls in love with a sentient operating system.
On release, Her was widely hailed as being one of the most unique, hilarious and heartbreaking films for years, with Pheonix earning critical praise for his touching portrayal of the lonely Theodore Twombly
Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)
In the years following Her, Pheonix starred in a number of critically acclaimed but not widely-known films including Inherent Vice, The Master and You Were Never Really Here – all of which are well worth a watch. But, with Joker, Pheonix once again became the toast of Hollywood, winning an Oscar for his stunning performance as the titular comic-book villain.
Pheonix bought exactly the kind of raw, unhinged energy needed for this dark origin story, which depicts the Joker less as a villain and more as a victim of a society that doesn’t accept him. The way in which Pheonix portrays the character’s gradual mental deterioration is one of the most mesmerising things you’ll ever see. No wonder the film became such a massive hit,