Joaquin Phoenix's Best Actor Oscar nod for Joker is compensation for all the previous snubs in his storied career

Aditya Mani Jha

Jan 20, 2020 08:13:39 IST

It is said the bigger the movie star, the higher their chances of getting a 'lifetime Oscar' — not an actual Lifetime Achievement Award, but an Oscar that tacitly acknowledges the artist’s past unrewarded works.

Legendary songwriter Randy Newman was nominated for Best Original Score and Best Original Song a dozen times through the 1990s before finally winning the latter for ‘If I Didn’t Have You’ from Monsters Inc. Not his best song, you see but a deserving win on account of his body of work.

Martin Scorsese was nominated but did not win Best Director for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull but eventually won for The Departed, clearly a much lesser film. Leonardo DiCaprio did not win for Blood Diamond or The Aviator, but for The Revenant

That is the way it is, then, for Joaquin Phoenix. The 45-year-old actor has been nominated for Best Actor for the third time (for Joker), after Walk The Line in 2005 and The Master in 2012. Strong cases could be made for Phoenix deserving the win for either of those films, especially The Master, where him and the late Philip Seymour Hoffmann were both as good as we have ever seen them.

 Joaquin Phoenixs Best Actor Oscar nod for Joker is compensation for all the previous snubs in his storied career

Joaquin Phoenix in a still from Joker

Did the Academy really have to give Daniel Day-Lewis a third Oscar, that too for Lincoln, an anodyne biopic practically crafted from the contents of a tin can marked ‘DIY Oscar bait?' And did they really have to pick Joker, a film that mistakes non-sequiturs for Edgy Writing™, copycat violence for revolution and mental illness for a license-to-kill? These are, I suppose, questions for a different piece. For now, Phoenix fans should be happy that our man is the bookies’ favorite to win the pot. 

A decade in review: Joaquin Phoenix and depictions of mental illness

Throughout the 2010s, Phoenix played men occupying various parts of the mental illness spectrum. Before Joker, there was The Master (2012), Her (2013), and You Were Never Really Here (2017). Together, the Phoenix characters in these movies cover clinical anxiety/depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, and so on.  

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, he played Freddie Quell, a 'shell-shocked' (PTSD-affected) veteran in the 1950s who falls under the spell of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffmann), a charismatic charlatan leading a cult called 'The Cause.' There are so many bravura scenes in this film, but two long ones are miniature masterpieces — the scene where Dodd subjects Freddie to a barrage of psychologically disturbing questions, and a later scene between the same men in adjacent lockup cells, where Freddie accuses Dodd of being a fraud. In both of these scenes (with minimal cuts), Phoenix has onscreen meltdowns that are harrowing to sit through — and somehow riveting at the same time. It is an impossibly delicate balance to achieve, and Phoenix did it several times in the 2010s. 

Joaquin Phoenix in a still from The Master

Joaquin Phoenix in a still from The Master

For this writer, a nearly wordless scene in the first 10 minutes of The Master takes the cake as far as Phoenix’s skills are concerned — where beach-side Freddie (not having met Dodd yet and hence a drifter) helps build a sand sculpture of a really busty woman. He then proceeds to gleefully hump the sand woman, to the amusement and catcalls of onlookers. Later in the movie, Freddie humps a wall, and then a window, in the middle of a past life remembrance session Dodd puts him through.

There are two aspects to the wanton humping — creation and destruction. Phoenix is immersed in concentration as he builds the sand sculpture, and as he is remembering happier times with Dodd. But when the reality of his life dawns upon him in both cases (the beach lady’s made of sand, he has not returned to his hometown sweetheart on purpose), the PTSD kicks in, and he feels emasculated, helpless to turn his life around — and hence, the humping. In the hands of a lesser director than Anderson or indeed a lesser actor than Phoenix, all of this could easily have been either super-vague or overblown to the point of self-parody.

There are some parallels between Freddie Quell and Joe, the protagonist of Lynn Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (2017), even though the former is from the 1950s and a latter a contemporary character. Both have been traumatised by war, and ignored by the State that sent them to war in the first place (another sign that some things never change, no matter which decade we are talking about). Both are loners who seek redemption through one individual who, in their eyes, represents moral fiber (for Joe, this is Nina, a kidnapped girl he rescues for money). Both are passive-aggressive individuals, capable of fearsome violence when the mood takes them. 

Joaquin Phoenix in a still from You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix in a still from You Were Never Really Here

It is to Phoenix’s credit despite these parallels, nobody would ever confuse the two. And it is not just because of the obvious physical differences (Joe is a heavyset man with haunted eyes and a scraggly beard while Freddie follows the fit, clean-cut American GI look for much of The Master). It is also that Phoenix is a master at tailoring his acting to radically different kinds of cinema. You Were Never Really Here is taut, minimalist, zero-padding drama of the highest order. And hence, the expansive, flamboyant, window-humping Phoenix of The Master is replaced by a wounded but lethal animal — the light is going out of his eyes, but he has a good couple of pounces left in him. God help the f*ckers who cross his path.  

Joe, significantly, uses a ball-peen hammer, a weapon with which he has a childhood history, hinting at the often cyclical nature of trauma and PTSD. In the dying moments of the film, we see Joe crack a genuine smile at something Nina says, a rare occurrence. Once again, Phoenix makes the moment worth waiting for. After just 80-odd minutes, we feel like we have been with Joe through the ups and downs in his life, especially the ones that happen off-screen. Phoenix was given the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance.

Joaquin Phoenix in a still from Her

Joaquin Phoenix in a still from Her

If The Master and You Were Never Really Here gave us men whose troubles spilled over into the realm of actual bloodshed, Spike Jonze’s Her was about a troubled introvert. In some ways, Her represented a kind of global mental health epidemic — the increasingly clear truth that screen time is eating away at our capacity for (or inclination towards) actual human connection. Who can forget the moment where Theodore (Phoenix) panics because his beloved Artificial Intelligence (AI) Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) goes offline briefly? Who can say that was not true love, even if the object of his affection was an AI? And yet, for all the emotional nakedness, Her was not interested in Small Wonder-like schmaltzy questions of what is human and what is not. Instead, it ruthlessly investigates the ways in which we are willfully isolating ourselves — and what that means for the future of humanity. 

Joker: Was he that good or was he just so much better than the screenplay?

Any one of The Master, Her, and You Were Never Really Here would have made for a worthier victory for Phoenix, in my opinion. In fact, the problematic depictions of mental illness (and mental health professionals) in Joker often contradict these reasonable, even-handed depictions (and let us not even begin with the largely forced connection with the Batman canon). 

For instance, both Joker and You Were Never Really Here have protagonists living with their ailing mothers. The former, however, fetishises the love-hate relationship between Arthur (Phoenix) and his mother to such a ridiculous extent it is barely a surprise when he kills her in a hospital bed. The way Arthur desperately wants to be acknowledged by his father, the anger he feels when he is told his father might not actually be his father — all of this has a subtext. Namely, ‘this is what happens to kids raised in bad neighbourhoods by single moms.'

Joaquin Phoenix in a still from Joker

Joaquin Phoenix in a still from Joker

Then there is the contortionism. To be sure, all of the past Phoenix performances I praise here have elements of extreme physicality. A little bit of the Joker’s staircase dance can be seen in Freddie Quell’s restless tics in The Master. The Jokers’s super-gory skull cave-in scene can be compared to a similar mis-en-scene of stylised violence in You Were Never Really Here

The difference is Joker does not understand the concept of moderation. After Arthur commits his first murder, he does not so much dance so much as do an interpretive, freestyle Tai Chi routine. It is creepy, it is effective, and you cannot take your eyes off it. 

To repeat the same vibe not once but twice, however (including the staircase dance), was definitely overkill — that is on the director, not Phoenix, of course. But it does speak to why some Phoenix fans are not thrilled with him being nominated for Joker — because of the one-note way in which the film has been written and shot. Even Phoenix cannot help looking like a parody of himself at times.

On the brighter side, there is no telling what Phoenix might say on a given day, so his acceptance speech is sure to be entertaining.

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Updated Date: Jan 20, 2020 08:13:39 IST