This is probably the other way around now, but the first thing any of us knew about Joaquin Phoenix was that he was River Phoenix's little brother. We might have seen him credited as Leaf Phoenix in Russkies, SpaceCamp, or Parenthood, but he certainly didn't have the marquee status his brother enjoyed at the time, and we likely only recognized him later once he'd already found fame as an adult.
Nevertheless, some of that Joaquin edge was already present, particularly in his role as a porno watching juvenile delinquent in Ron Howard's strangely adult family comedy, Parenthood. Even as a kid, Joaquin Phoenix was up to no good.
We didn't actually meet Joaquin Phoenix until his turn in Gus Van Sant's To Die For, in which he played a mentally deficient delinquent teen whom a smoking hot Nicole Kidman somehow convinces to murder her hunky husband (psst, she uses her vagina). To Die For also marks an important milestone for pairing Phoenix with best pal and future enabler, Casey Affleck.
Even this early in his career, Phoenix displays an ability to so thoroughly embody a character that it affects the way he comes off as a real life human being. After seeing him in To Die For, I naturally assumed the real life Joaquin Phoenix also cut his own hair and struggled to put coherent sentences together.
For the next couple of years, Joaquin Phoenix would show up in a number of films, usually as a troubled delinquent, but not always. Whether playing a crazy greaser in U-Turn, a sad, sub-greaser in Inventing the Abbots, or a porn-selling neo greaser in 8MM, Jaoquin often provided films with memorable support characters thanks to his strange line delivery and ever-present scarred lip.
As Joaquin Phoenix's star rose, so did his acting opportunities. After a much heralded turn in the Marquis de Sade period piece, Quills, he finally proved able to blend in with legitimate costume dramas without weirding up the place too much with his strange punk rock anachronism. This lead to arguably his biggest role playing villainous Commodus in Ridley Scott's Gladiator.
Commodus, a patricidal, incestuous spoiled brat with a huge chip on his shoulder, needed an actor who could bring out his obnoxiously unearned power and pitiful wimpiness. Joaquin Phoenix was that actor. The role made him a hard-to-pronounce household name and even won him an Academy Award nomination.
After this, Joaquin Phoenix could do whatever he wanted, so he spent even more time as a sidekick, albeit this time in films that pretended he was just an everyday guy. Among other roles, he played Mel Gibson's little brother in Signs, a fireman next to John Travolta in Ladder 49, and a cynical but well meaning cameraman in Hotel Rwanda. It was almost like he wasn't weird at all.
These roles finally shot him to superstardom and leading man status, which he exploited to the fullest with his portrayal as Johnny Cash in 2005's Walk the Line. Phoenix didn't much physically resemble Cash, yet effortlessly embodied the country singer's legendary persona. He also matched the singer note for note on the film's soundtrack, which Joaquin sang on himself. It's unclear whether the real life Johnny Cash laughed like a mental patient while teasing future wife June Carter with peanuts, but Phoenix's version of the character sure as hell did.
The film won Phoenix another Academy Award nomination (the one thing biopics do extraordinarily well), and Phoenix would star in a couple more films afterwards. But his time as a leading man would not last long.
One day we all woke up and found the Joaquin Phoenix we'd fallen in love with missing, replaced by "Joaquin Phoenix," a drug hazed hip hop artist of mediocre talent who resembled not a human so much as a wig factory explosion with sunglasses.
Soon after, Phoenix and long time pal Casey Affleck released I'm Still Here (NOT a prequel to the strange Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There), a mockumentary made by famous people about how silly fame is. In the film, Joaquin participates in an endless parade of soul crushing debauchery and some guy poops on his chest. Affleck and Phoenix released it upon a world only interested in Phoenix's crazy David Letterman appearance, which they already saw. Thus, a film about the silliness of being popular was ultimately not popular at all. On top of that, Joaquin's fake retirement from acting and reckless public behavior charred bridges and won him a small stint in actor jail.
But you can't keep a true artist down for long, and Joaquin Phoenix appears to have suddenly found his prime, delivering a notable performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's upcoming The Master, in which Phoenix somehow manipulates his face into that of a lithe and dangerous young Charlton Heston. Few reviewers have failed to mention his performance as a highlight both for the film and Phoenix's acting career.
And it doesn't look like he's stopping there. His next film, Spike Jonze's Her, features Phoenix as a man who falls in love with a computer operating system. Now more than ever, Joaquin Phoenix's stature as a talented, irreverent artist seems assured. Whatever he does in the future, it'll likely be worth looking into for his name alone.