Arts & Entertainment

Who Is Joaquin Phoenix?

Actor Joaquin Phoenix is pictured in 2009.

Actor Joaquin Phoenix, pictured in 2009, is the subject of a new documentary titled I’m Still Here. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

So far, the most talked about aspect of the new documentary, I’m Still Here, is whether it’s a documentary at all. Joaquin Phoenix stars in the film that critics had struggled to classify as either a mockumentary or performance art ala comedian Andy Kaufman’s recurring character Tony Clifton. Like Kaufman channeled Clifton (arguably) to search out some broad truth about the folly of fame, art and celebrity, some think Phoenix is using the film as a character study of unexplored parts of himself as an artist who is unwilling to be defined by his vocation.

"I don't want to see myself as the camera sees me," he once told a reporter back in 2008.

Director Casey Affleck –who is also Phoenix’s brother-in-law—has put an end to the speculation, referring to the whole experience of I’m Still Here as “gonzo filmmaking,” not non-fiction. But now that the guessing game about the nature of the film is over, that leaves the question: who is Joaquin Phoenix?

He's A Prodigy:

Born Joaquin Bottom with that curious birthmark on his lip, he’s the middle child of five, all of whom work or have worked in film. Phoenix got the acting bug very young and accumulated a pretty good resume early in the game: made for TV movies, an After School Special, and appearances on shows such as Hill Street Blues, Murder She Wrote, and The Adventures of Superboy.  After his brother River died of an overdose outside a California nightclub in 1993, Joaquin took a break from acting but came back strong.

He's An Iconoclast

He’d always gotten good notes but it wasn’t until he stepped out of the box and took risks that he made an impression with audiences and critics alike. Phoenix chose roles that were fairly straight up the middle until he starred alongside Nick Cage in 8MM, a film about murder and the shadowy world of snuff pornography.  He would follow that up a few years later with an Oscar-nominated performance as the conniving Commodus in the epic Gladiator, the receiver of unwelcomed visitors in Signs and the reluctant diplomat to the spirit world in The Village. And of course, there was his turn as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, which earned his second Academy Award nomination. You can say a lot about Phoenix, but you can’t say he can be typecast.

He's Still Here

The “story” I’m Still Here purports to tell is Phoenix’s rise from retired actor to rap superstar. If his show in Miami and the clip of his meeting with Sean ‘P-Diddy’ Combs is any indication, he’s lucky his rap career is just part of the fiction, and he’ll be back at a theater near you soon enough. As for what’s next, Phoenix returns to Late Night with David Letterman on Sept. 22 to talk about his new film presumably to bookend the bizarre appearance that initially got our attention, an event that director Affleck now says was staged. But will the revelation of the original hoax heat up or cool down the buzz for that show? Stay tuned.

Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist for TheRoot.com, an author and a regular contributor to "Tell Me More."

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