Joaquin Phoenix and the Bane of Trying to Diagnose Acting

phoenixIf you follow entertainment news at all, you have no doubt seen and heard that Joaquin Phoenix has quit acting, grown a good Richard Manuel beard, and is starting a rap career. Phoenix was on The Late Show with David Letterman on Wednesday to plug his last movie, and it was a bit disjointed:

Letterman: You were teriffic in the film and I really enjoyed your work.

Phoenix: Thank you. [Long, awkward pause, broken by the audience tittering]

Anneli Rufus, author of the Stuckblog over at Psychology Today Blogs, wrote about the appearence, and seems to find the whole thing a bit disturbing:

He’s a major star. His new (and most likely last) film just opened. But … he’s clearly hurting. We don’t know why, and we don’t know how, and why should we, as we don’t know him personally and these things are private? He’s hurting. He’s in distress. It shows. Shouldn’t we leave him in peace to seek the help he needs — or to let his loved ones seek it for him?

Actually, he doesn’t look like he’s hurting to me. In fact, it looks like he’s playing a character. And i don’t see any reason to believe that he’s actually suffering from some kind of breakdown. None of his family has stated that Phoenix needs help. In fact, Phoenix’s brother-in-law Casey Affleck is filming the whole thing for a documentary. Another bit from Rufus’s post:

“What can you tell us about your days with the Unabomber?”

Phoenix recoils.

You might say: Well, Letterman has to do something to keep the show flowing. Caught off guard, he has to wing it. It’s a talk show, and when a guest sits there mutely a host can’t let the show completely fall apart. You might say Letterman was in a tight spot that night.

She sees a recoil. I saw him look up. And he grins. He’s in on it.

Letterman asks Phoenix about his plans. Phoenix says he wants to concentrate on making music. Letterman asks whether it will be the same kind of music the actor performed in the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. Phoenix says no: “I do more of a hip-hop music.”

Letterman repeats: “Hip-hop music.”

The audience finds this hilarious. Phoenix shifts in his chair.

“Um — that’s a joke?” Phoenix turns to Letterman: “What do you have them on?” He means the audience. “What do you gas them up with? Nitrous?” Startled, insulted, confused, he mumbles something about “this maniacal laughter.”

She didn’t really display this as it happened. Phoenix seems to chuckle when he makes the gag about nitrous. Letterman responds with a comment about the kid in the front being drunk on warm Pepsi. I don’t know what that means, but knowing Letterman, he’s recalling a bit from earlier in the show. Phoenix even chuckles at this.

The way Phoenix is behaving here is not how a polished media professional normally reacts when being grilled by a celebrated comedian on national TV. But this IS how an ordinary human being who feels at risk, downhearted, depressed and distraught reacts when asked such questions by, say, his annoying cousin in a suburban living room. During the Letterman interview, Phoenix resembles with uncanny vividity my high-school friend Chuck. With his heft and beard, Phoenix is Chuck’s double. Chuck was funny, shy, an Elton John fanatic, and depressed. Some days, Chuck could barely drag himself out of bed, much less to school. My best friend Deb and I tried mightily to cheer Chuck up. We sang to him. We cut pictures of the tennis champ Chris Evert out of magazines for him. He really like Chris Evert. He smiled — in that thankful but faint and fleeting Chuckish way. We lost touch after graduation. Deb and I suspect that Chuck is no longer in this world.

Rufus sets up a false dichotomy. She is seeing anomalous behavior, tries to explain it by a paradigm that she understands (the way media personalities act when plugging a movie), doesn’t see it fit, and goes to her second option (He’s hurting, depressed, suffering, off his nut, etc.) without thinking that there may be a third. This is the same thing that UFO hunterd do when they see lights in the sky, saying “If it’s not an airplane or a weather balloon, it must be an alien spacecraft.” Rufus doesn’t consider that he may be putting us all on, and she filters her interpretations of Phoenix’s behavior through her paradigm (in pain) without considering the alternative (acting). And she basically attacks Letterman and the media in general because of her, I believe, misrepresentation of events.

I could be wrong. He could be in pain. I hope he isn’t. But I’m not the only one who thinks this is all a gag, that Affleck’s documentary is really a mockumentary. I think for now, we should just sit back and enjoy the ride. But I recommend you read Rufus’s post and watch the video itself and see what you think.

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One Response to Joaquin Phoenix and the Bane of Trying to Diagnose Acting

  1. Joe says:

    poor Joaquin Phoenix, he seemed to trying really hard to re-invent his image and was coming across as just awkward

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