Back in 2002, Signs was the sixth-highest-grossing thriller of the year. A rundown of the film’s major players eight years later: Mel Gibson has self-destructed, M. Night Shyamalan’s name is met with derisive titters during movie trailers, and Joaquin Phoenix, 35, is just coming out of what appeared to have been a two-year-long public bearded meltdown, but has just been revealed to be a mammoth bit of all-consuming performance art. We know that screaming about blow jobs and dropping African-American slurs will get you dropped by your agent and send you into hiding, and we’re confident that making a bomb like The Last Airbender will have dreams of a trilogy shattered, but what does a feigned slip into mumbling, cursing insanity do when under that facial hair you’re still one of the rare powerful and intense young dramatic actors working today? We talked to powerful industry figures and analyzed his work to discover Phoenix’s current, post-doc value on the Star Market.
Stock History: Back when he was known as “Leaf,” Joaquin Phoenix had a pretty typical child-actor career — one-off TV guest spots playing your “Timmy”s and your “Frankie”s. A well-received turn in the original 1989 feature-film version of Parenthood presaged the smart, serious post-name-change work that was to come, like the gormless, manipulated high schooler in To Die For (alongside his future brother-in-law and I’m Still Here director, Casey Affleck), and the effete villain of Gladiator, for which he landed his first Oscar nomination. Phoenix kept a low public profile, and the relatively long waits between one Phoenix performance and the next gave an impression of choosiness — an impression that solidified with his second Oscar nomination, for playing the lead in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Again resisting the pressure to cash in, he followed this with three small dramas, the last of which, Two Lovers, is remembered less for its plot or acting than it is for being the movie that he was promoting when he showed up, hairy, silent, and dazed, on The Late Show. It was the opening date for his “Am I Crazy?” tour, all documented for I’m Still Here. Even before it was officially confirmed that this was all an act, the movie opened last weekend to critical befuddlement: Many reviewers assumed that it was a fictional commentary on the dangerous business of celebrity, though far fewer could find a purpose to all of this unapologetically bastardlike behavior. Wrote the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr: “Parts of it are close to genius; most of it is actively torturous to watch.” For all of the millions of YouTube viewings of his Letterman appearance, the film made just over $96,000 in its opening weekend; mediocre for a limited release.
Peers: Phoenix has been ensconced for some time among a group of young (and young-ish) Oscar nominees who are respected for being choosy. When industry insiders rank them by “heat,” Phoenix falls below Christian Bale, Javier Bardem, Colin Farrell, Jeremy Renner, Thomas Hardy, and Ryan Gosling, but above Edward Norton, Casey Affleck, and TRON: Legacy’s Garrett Hedlund.
Market Value: With the exception of the aforementioned Signs (which grossed more than $408 million worldwide) and Gladiator ($457 million worldwide), Phoenix’s films haven’t been remarkable financial successes. But other than Ladder 49 and 8MM, they weren’t meant to be. Instead, he has built up a body of work characterized by collaborations with prestigious directors (Gus Van Sant on To Die For, Philip Kaufman on Quills) and films with progressive political themes (Return to Paradise, Hotel Rwanda). So whereas the weird stuntiness of I’m Still Here might be a problem for someone angling for, say, a role in a mass-appeal sequel to Old Dogs, the kind of people with whom Phoenix would want to work probably won’t be put off by it: They’ll see it as further evidence that he’s an acting genius. He’s already set to work opposite white-hot Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right) in a comedy from director Steven Shainberg, who did Secretary and Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, which seems like an apt meeting of the minds. And he remains with his powerful agents, William Morris Endeavor’s Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell. He’s also currently shortlisted to play opposite Jennifer Garner in Disney’s The Odd Life of Timothy Green; the role is currently out to Mark Wahlberg, who’s expected to pass.
What Hollywood Thinks: One top agent confidently declares that this phase was just a blip, and his Oscar-nominated career will continue apace. “He’s on the lists for several ‘go’ studio movies out in the world right now,” says the rep. “The guy is so young … and has major talent. It’ll never be over for him.” But another one isn’t convinced. “Even now that the whole thing has proven a hoax,” this agent says, “isn’t doing it in the first place a little nutty? Regardless of whether it’s a hoax, the behavior is incredibly erratic and unpredictable.” A manager says that “I don’t think it hurts him, except for the time he lost [making the documentary]. I think everyone in town thought it was a hoax. And if it wasn’t, after seeing him on Letterman that first time, they hoped it was.” The manager adds that it’s not as much of a blow as if, say, Leonardo DiCaprio had pulled this stunt, because Phoenix “doesn’t and never did get a movie made. He’s talented, sure, but he’s a guy who gets cast into great movies … It’s not that people will or won’t forgive and forget, it’s that it doesn’t matter.”
Even the agent who called him “erratic” concedes that for all the alienating behavior in the fake doc, it didn’t have anywhere near the impact of, say, Mel Gibson’s leaked phone calls: “What is it on, like nineteen screens? Please, this whole thing goes away pretty quickly.” But to wash off any lasting stigma, a publicist advises, “You wait a while, and let it peter out. Let it get out of people’s minds … people tend to forget about that stuff. But then, [when you come back] you gotta have something good to talk about. If you do, it’s so easy to overcome, because it’s not like he’s some pretty boy like Rob Pattinson, with swooning fans and fanatical followers who say ‘He screwed us, he lied to us … ’”
The Analysis: Prior to all this rap-documentary business, the odds are you didn’t have much of an opinion about Joaquin Phoenix. He rarely attracted attention for doing the sorts of Young Hollywood things young actors tend to do in their personal lives — dating starlets or promoting trendy causes or getting arrested. In other words, nobody had anything personally invested in him: He was the kind of actor whom you appreciated when you saw him, but rarely found yourself wondering, “I wonder what he’ll do next?”
So he really has nothing to lose with audiences, most of which weren’t that mesmerized by his art project. And the interesting indie directors are likely still interested in working with him. However, studios and moneymen may need more convincing. As our manager says, “He needs to re-instill people’s faith in him. Because the question is: Is he nuts?” Fortunately (and unlike Mel Gibson), he still has a high-powered team behind him: His WME agents were in on the prank, so can reassuringly say, “He was in control the whole time.”
And all he needs is one laudatory part to erase the mumbly memories. The Shainberg project could position him to attract the sort of positive attention that, for instance, Woody Harrelson received for The Messenger. And just as important as his next choice of role is that he embark upon — to borrow a phrase from the stock market — a quiet period, just as the publicist advises. When he comes back, he should be ready to talk about innocuous things, like he used to be able to. Just be himself (or the most normal variation thereof) for a while: He’s already been outmaneuvered in the “performance art” department by James Franco, so he should give that up.
The Bottom Line: An actor doesn’t get to his early 30s with two Oscar nominations on a fluke, and Phoenix’s talent as a performer is not in question. At issue is his fitness to manage his career — or, indeed, his interest in doing so. If Phoenix can prove to industry observers that he’s ready to start acting like a normal person again (in both senses of the phrase), he can regain his former position and be more directors’ first choice. Until then, it’s best for us not to see Phoenix for a while; it’s still not too late for him to cancel his return visit to The Late Show next week.
Buy/Sell/Hold: Sell. Then wait a year, and buy it back up as a bargain when good buzz builds on his next film and he consistently shows up in public speaking full sentences.