Now that the furor over Joaquin Phoenix’s recent attempts to outdo the Unabomber in terms of sheer weirdness and facial hair has subsided, we fans are left with a few nagging questions. Should we have seen this breakdown coming? Were there context clues along the way that we missed? One day, will we look back at his stunts — and, most memorably, that awkward Letterman appearance — with the same kind of “hindsight’s-a-megabitch” pained insight we feel for “The Sixth Sense”?
Eh, who knows. It’s hard to make sense of this undeniably talented actor’s antics — best to let them run their course. Maybe they have. In the meantime, many one-time Joaquin fans are bailing on this sinking ship. And they’re not wrong. Maybe he’s an egotistical kook looking to become a Personality, someone on par with Howard Hughes. Maybe, after a relatively short career of not that many movies, he’s just not worth the trouble.
But me? I’m not giving up hope yet. The fact that Joaquin has range and enormous talent as an actor cannot be disputed. Once this phase passes, it will be a blip on the radar, a Chris Gaines fiasco that got too much press for no good reason. And we’ll all laugh heartily.
Until then, though, let’s remind ourselves of the good ole’ days, when Joaquin gave us these 10 fiery, pathetic, wickedly lovable, charming and utterly unforgettable characters:
1. Ray Elwood, “Buffalo Soldiers” — Shelving and reshelving on “Buffalo Soldiers” after 9/11 assured that almost no one could see Joaquin work his magic as Ray Elwood, the cynical, opportunistic “guy who gets things” — be it heroin or a truckload of heavy artillery — on an army base in 1989 Berlin. What a shame, for this is his defining moment as an actor. He makes Ray one hell of a sly, fast-talking antihero for the ages.
2. Commodus, “Gladiator” — Let’s agree to move past this unfortunate name? Done. Great, now let’s talk about Joaquin’s performance, which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2001. There aren’t many times we get to see the insecurities beneath a villain’s rampaging, unchecked id. Joaquin gives us a bad guy as squeamish, insecure and fearful as he is dangerous. Brilliant.
3. Johnny Cash, “Walk the Line” — Does Joaquin look like Johnny Cash? Have the same rumbling, churning voice? Maybe not, but he has what really matters: the wounded yet sure-footed presence that made the Man in Black a legend. Joaquin, always one to put his stamp on a role, creates not a copy but a tribute, and that makes this role one of this best.
4. The Abbe du Coulmier, “Quills” — That Joaquin can do damaged, conflicted and dark is obvious. But what we didn’t know is that he could make a forlorn, wimpy priest who sodomizes, well, a corpse a sympathetic character. (Believe it.) It’s the kind of thing you have to see to understand. Joaquin pulls it off somehow, giving us perhaps the most unlikely romantic in movie history.
5. Max California, “8MM” — Joaquin has a way of stealing movies that don’t belong to him. Witness his funny and inexplicably moving turn as Max California, a smartass porn shop worker who provides Nicholas Cage a way into the underground abyss of snuff films. He’s easily the best thing about this otherwise dour, grim film, and his performance leaves you shaken.
6. Lewis McBride, “Return to Paradise” — It’s been said there are no small parts, just small actors. Joaquin drives that one home, and hard, as Lewis McBride, who wastes away in a Malaysian prison while the two strangers he shared hashish with go home unscathed. Watching him unravel bit by bit is painful, but Joaquin makes Lewis’ tragedy so compelling (re: not melodramatic) that you can’t look away.
7. Merrill Hess, “Signs” — “Signs” runs a close second to “Sixth Sense” as my favorite M. Night Shyamalan film, and Joaquin’s Merrill Hess is a big reason why. Who but J.P. could take a popular high school jock who can’t quit reliving his glory days and make him broken-down, reflective and comically self-aware? This is a classic Joaquin move — give him what could be a flat part, and he’ll do beautiful things with it.
8. Ethan Learner, “Reservation Road” — Bachelors rarely pull off the concerned parent routine in movies. (Just ask John Cusack about “Martian Child.”) But Joaquin is nothing in a movie if not nakedly emotional, so his Ethan Learner, whose son is killed in a hit-and-run, is the kind of walking wound you can’t ignore. This is Joaquin at his most wounded, and his performance will haunt you for days.
9. Jimmy Emmett, “To Die For” — People have remarked that all Joaquin really does in this marvelously black comedy is play a dumb high school kid. That’s accurate — to a point. He takes it a little farther than that, making Jimmy, who falls for a blonde TV personality and agrees to off her husband, endearingly clueless and menacing in equal measure. It’s a small part, but it has sticking power.
10. Clay Bidwell, “Clay Pigeons” — To be honest, “Clay Pigeons” belongs to Vince Vaughn, who plays funny-creepy-serial killer a teensy bit too well. But Joaquin registers impressively as the ineffectual but well-meaning Clay, a doofy Everyman who gets swept up into the bizarro web of a murderer (Vaughn) and can’t wriggle his way out. That he doesn’t disappear by the scenery Vaughn chews up is a testament to Joaquin’s talent.
(Note: If ole’ Joaq had it in his head to give people just enough roles to make a top 10 list, then he succeeded. Because truth be told, by the end there I’d gotten to the algae and gunk and crystallized remains left at the bottom of a dry well.)