The eccentric and renowned actor Joaquin Phoenix is known for immersing himself in bizarre roles and refusing to play by Hollywood’s rules. Phoenix has had a long and winding career in Hollywood since he rose to fame at first for being River’s younger brother, and later for acclaimed performances of dark and conflicted characters. Here’s a look at some of his most memorable roles.
In Spike Jonze’s futuristic love story, Phoenix plays the lonely writer Theodore, a man who falls in love with his computer’s life-like operating system voiced to perfection by Scarlett Johansson. The OS, named Samantha, knows everything about Theodore via the information stored on his computer and through watching his daily life via his smartphone. His relationship with Samantha brings up questions about the relationship between humans and technology, and how that relationship will change as artificial intelligence improves. The movie won Jonze an Oscar for best original screenplay.
2. The Immigrant
The Immigrant is an indie drama co-starring Marion Cotillard that sees Phoenix in villain mode. Cotillard plays a Polish immigrant who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister in 1921, trying to find a better life in America. Unfortunately the sister is quarantined after it’s discovered she has tuberculosis and Cotillard is only saved from deportation by Phoenix, a criminal who scours Ellis Island for vulnerable women he can turn into dancers and prostitutes at a night club. Cotillard begins working for him so that she can earn enough money to free her sister and he falls in love with her while simultaneously abusing her. Phoenix is horrific and pathetic as he tries to retain power over Cotillard while pleading for her affections. The pair’s destructive chemistry plus director James Gray’s accuracy to the period make this a must-see.
3. The Master
Phoenix’s first film with Paul Thomas Anderson sees him playing a WWII vet who copes with returning to regular society by joining a religious cult run by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The movie is loosely based on the true story of the beginning of Scientology. Phoenix’s character is a violent, sex-obsessed alcoholic who is drawn to the calm leader (Hoffman). Hoffman’s character likewise is drawn to Phoenix, in part for the moonshine he brews. Reviews praised the film most for the opposing great performances from the two actors. Hoffman and Phoenix are considered to be two of the best actors of their generation and The Master is cited as one of both of their best films. Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar for leading actor and Hoffman was nominated for best supporting actor, and their co-star Amy Adams was nominated for best supporting actress.
4. I’m Still Here
I’m Still Here is Phoenix’s infamous mockumentary film, in which he basically punked everyone by pretending that he’d given up his career as an actor to become a horrible and erratic rapper instead. The film follows Phoenix as he announces his retirement from acting and performs hip-hop gigs at clubs and gives public appearances in character as this alter ego. The most notable of those appearances is an interview on Letterman in which Phoenix refused to remove his sunglasses, wore a bedraggled beard, and was completely incoherent. It ended with Letterman saying, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.” Many were convinced that Phoenix was really having some sort of mental breakdown and it wasn’t revealed until after the movie was released that the entire thing had been faked.
5. Walk the Line
Phoenix earned raves and was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as country music legend Johnny Cash in this biopic. Walk the Line follows Cash from his early childhood in Arkansas to the beginnings of his music career to getting signed by Sun Studios in Memphis, to his struggles with drug addiction through his iconic performance at Folsom Prison. Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter, the musician who Cash would marry, and the pair would go on to have one of the most productive creative relationships in all of popular music.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s alien movie Signs, Phoenix plays a washed-up baseball player who’s living with a former priest, played by Mel Gibson, on their family farm in Pennsylvania. Gibson’s character lost his faith after his wife died in a freak car accident. Phoenix’s character was a star in minor league baseball who was thought to be destined for the major league, but he lost his chance because of his tendency to swing too hard and too often, thus striking out. This talent eventually comes in handy while dealing with an alien invasion.
Phoenix showed that he’s a master of playing the villain as the cruel Roman emperor Commodus in Gladiator, a role that earned him his first Oscar nomination. Commodus is the son of Marcus Aurelius who seizes the empire’s throne after murdering his father. During that upheaval, Russell Crowe’s character Maximus is a former general to Aurelius, who’s betrayed and reduced to slavery. He fights his way to becoming the best gladiator in Rome, which greatly angers Commodus. Phoenix is conniving, evil, and manipulative, willing to do anything to stay in power. Though Phoenix didn’t win the supporting actor Oscar, the film took home five other Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor for Crowe.
8. To Die For
This very early role sees Phoenix playing a troubled teenager alongside Nicole Kidman in Gus Van Sant’s film. Kidman plays a ruthless woman obsessively set on becoming a successful news anchor. When her husband asks her to take time away from her job as the local television station’s weather girl to start a family, she seduces Phoenix’s character, a disturbed local high school student, and persuades him and his friends to murder her husband. Phoenix’s already feeble character doesn’t handle committing murder too well and is filled with guilt after Kidman’s character uses sexual favors to bribe him into doing the deed.
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