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Sunday 11 December 2016

Phoenix finished -- Or is Joaquin just joking?

Paul Whitington

Published 18/09/2010 | 05:00

Last week the good people at the Venice Film Festival were treated to a first viewing of I'm Still Here, a supposed documentary in which Casey Affleck follows his friend and brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix through a turbulent, extraordinary year. I say 'supposed' because from the moment word first spread about this project Affleck and Phoenix were accused of perpetrating an elaborate hoax.

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I'm Still Here begins in January of 2009, when an apparently disillusioned Phoenix announces that he is retiring from film acting at the height of his fame in order to reinvent himself as a hip hop musician. And in Affleck's film we see him attempt just that, from an excruciating encounter with Sean 'Diddy' Combs -- who listens to Phoenix mumble some of his incoherent rhymes and comments "are you, like, doing this as a joke" -- to a catastrophic appearance on David Letterman's Late Show.

Sporting a frightful ZZ-Top beard and dark glasses and looking as though he'd just been dragged through a hedge, Phoenix muttered monosyllabically and seemed so distracted that at the end of the interview Letterman said, "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight."

Was he putting it on? Who knows? In I'm Still Here it's only the tip of an iceberg that includes the Oscar-nominated actor vomiting into a toilet bowl, snorting cocaine off a groupie's breasts and being defecated on while he sleeps by a clearly disgruntled personal assistant. The film was released in America yesterday and appear here next month.

Even if Phoenix and Affleck did dream the whole thing up as an elaborate satirical hoax, there is ample evidence in I'm Still Here to suggest that Phoenix is an unstable chap whose fame and fortune have not brought happiness. And if he is a bit messed up it would hardly be astonishing, given his background and early experiences. Although he was not born until 1974, Phoenix could fairly describe himself as a casualty of the 1960s. Joaquin Rafael Bottom was the third child of John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz, a pair of incorrigibly daft hippies who met while hitchhiking from New York to California in 1969.

After Joaquin's elder brother River was born in 1970, the Bottoms became involved in a dubious pseudo-Christian cult called The Children of God, and by the time Joaquin came along they were wandering around Puerto Rico spreading the 'good word' to a nation whose profoundly Catholic inhabitants can hardly have been very interested.

By 1978 the Bottoms had become disenchanted with The Children of God, and after returning to California John Lee and Arlyn decided to change their family name to Phoenix, in order to symbolise a new beginning. Joaquin, now four, decided to change his first name as well, to 'Leaf', which chimed better with the nature-inspired monikers of his elder brother and sister, River and Rain.

Two more girls arrived -- Liberty and Summer -- but John Lee and Arlyn don't seem to have been very good at supporting their numerous offspring, because there are various reports of the Phoenix children busking on the streets and entering talent shows in order to buy food. At any rate, they were a handsome, talented bunch and by the age of eight, 'Leaf' had followed his elder brother into acting.

After a series of roles in children's films, he had a minor breakthrough in 1990 in Ron Howard's hit comedy Parenthood, in which he played a disturbed teenage boy who cannot understand why his divorced father has lost interest in him. He did disturbed well, and a career in films seemed to beckon. His brother River was flying even higher, but on October 31, 1993, tragedy struck, as River collapsed outside Johnny Depp's Viper Room club on Sunset Boulevard after overdosing on a heroin/cocaine speedball. Joaquin was with him, and it was he who placed a frantic call to the emergency services. River died at the age of only 23, and an understandably traumatised Joaquin retreated from the world.

In 1994, the 20-year-old was persuaded by friends to return to acting. After wisely reverting from Leaf to Joaquin, he impressed critics with character roles in Gus Van Zant's media satire, To Die For (1995) and Oliver Stone's crime thriller, U-Turn (1997). He had a kind of wounded onscreen intensity that reminded one of a young Marlon Brando, and soon people stopped referring to him as River Phoenix's little brother.

His breakthrough to A-list stardom came courtesy of Ridley Scott's historical epic Gladiator (2000), which starred Russell Crowe as a betrayed general-turned-gladiator and Phoenix as the mad and scheming Emperor Commodus. He was wonderful as the twisted, sneering emperor, and an Oscar nomination ensued. But Phoenix's very particular screen presence has not always been easy to cast, and it would be a few years before he'd find another role that suited him as well.

He appeared in two M Night Shyamalan films in the early 2000s -- Signs and The Village -- and had a nice turn as a disillusioned news cameraman in Terry George's Hotel Rwanda. Then James Mangold cast him as Johnny Cash in an ambitious biopic called Walk the Line. Mangold did so with Cash's approval, and Phoenix responded by learning to play the guitar and training himself to sing in Cash's low drawl so he'd be more convincing in the role.

The part had the right mixture of darkness and anguish to suit Phoenix's style, and he was outstanding as the man in black. He was nominated for best actor at the 2006 Academy Awards, but was unlucky enough to be up in the same year as Capote, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Still, the film established him as one of the leading actors of his time, and he continued to impress in subsequent films.

He has also continued to flirt with disaster, however, and in 2006 he was involved in a potentially serious accident, when his car flipped over on a Hollywood canyon road.

It was veteran German director Werner Herzog -- who happened to live nearby -- who emerged from the night to save Phoenix, calming him down and dissuading him from lighting a cigarette while still trapped in the petrol-soaked car.

If we exclude I'm Still Here, Phoenix has not acted in a film since last year's Two Lovers, which was shot in 2008. He insists he has no plans to resume acting, but my hope is it's all a joke and he'll shortly change his mind. When he's at his best there's no one to touch Joaquin Phoenix for sheer onscreen intensity.

I'm Still There opens on October 1 at the IFI, Temple Bar pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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