Joaquin Phoenix: A Career Fizzled, Or A Career Revived?

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A fairly contrite and squeamish Joaquin Phoenix showed up on David Letterman last night, hinting at the fact that he’s not sure about what career he has left, after the whole I’m Still Here stunt.

For those who have been living under a rock, Oscar nominee Phoenix announced more than a year ago that he was retiring as an actor, and embracing instead a new calling as a hip hop artist. Then he grew out a shaggy beard, starting performing ridiculous lyrics, and went on national TV shows like The Late Show in a catatonic state.

A movie was made about these antics – showing Joaquin having mental breakdowns, drug binges and fits of vomiting. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival, then moved on to the Toronto Film Festival, as one critic after another wrote up cryptic reviews about a seriously lost soul. A handful speculated it might be fake, then eventually director Casey Affleck admitted that Phoenix was in character. The film was less documentary than performance art.

Wednesday evening’s return to Letterman was must-see TV. Letterman said he wasn’t mad about being duped; quite to the contrary, he enjoyed the experience of slamming a bearded Phoenix with one zinger after another. Phoenix said he wasn’t doing it all as a “hoax,” but as an exploration of celebrity, fame and media. I was on the verge of chuckling, until I recalled how the media savaged Phoenix, how I gleefully e-mailed around links to that original video of Phoenix blubbering on Letterman, how the Schadenfreude spread across the Internet like a computer virus.

After Wednesday’s Letterman interview, critic Roger Ebert tweeted that it took serious guts for Phoenix and Affleck to pull all this off – to remain in character for that long, to risk that degree of alienation on public television, to arrive at a film festival with a product that the world’s top moviegoers couldn’t peg solidly as reality or fiction. I think it’s telling that Letterman gave Phoenix a pass publicly, and I couldn’t help but be reminded that Letterman’s set was also a favorite stomping ground of another bewildering performance artist: Andy Kaufman.

In the way Letterman opened the floor for Phoenix last night, in the way he seemed to earnestly ask about the preparation and the execution, was I the only one who sensed a bit of admiration on Dave’s part?

Which brings me back to Phoenix’s cryptic “career” comment Wednesday night, that he’s not sure he has a career any more. Two things could happen at this point: The world will decide that they are fed up with a guy who’s hogged the headlines and played them all for saps. Or they’ll see in his experiment something Borat-ish, something that transcends a gotcha gimmick.

I, for one, can see the purpose behind the hoax – and, far more importantly, the talent behind the execution.

In the span of a couple days, a thought-to-be-washed-up train wreck of a former actor has been recast as one of the most committed method actors working today, and while it might take Hollywood a little while to fully gauge what’s happened with I’m Still Here, here’s betting that Joaquin Phoenix – the real Joaquin Phoenix – will be back in a big, big way. And soon.