The Curious Case of Joaquin Phoenix and the Oscar Prospects for 'Her'
by Joey Magidson
September 4, 2013
For a large amount of movie fans, Joaquin Phoenix is easily one of the best actors working in Hollywood today. In fact, after you get past Daniel Day-Lewis, he is arguably the second best currently in the business, and few would leave him out of a top ten regardless of other choices. Unlike Day-Lewis though, Phoenix's performances aren't automatically deemed worthy of Oscars and a nomination on his behalf is hardly a sure thing. In fact, sometimes (especially lately) Phoenix can have a harder road to a nod than someone else in the same role. Why is that, and what does that mean for his upcoming role this year in Spike Jonze's offbeat romance Her? Well, I have some thoughts on the matter, and they go well beyond his chances for a citation this year. Essentially, Phoenix's worst enemy when it comes to awards noms actually happens to be himself.
First of all, this discussion takes nothing away from his talents. I'm a big fan of Phoenix's work like most people and always look forward to a new project that he's attached to. Aside from that though, Phoenix suffers from the notion of not playing by the rules. He's also messed with the heads of those in high places, which only hurts his cause more. Think about the difference between Phoenix and some of the more nominated folks in the business. Do they ever play elaborate practical jokes on the community at the expense of their careers or shun awards campaigning? I think not.
For those that might not remember, the first thing that got some people's goat with Joaquin Phoenix was when he "retired" from acting to pursue a music career. He grew a shabby beard, gained weight, and made a fool of himself on "The Late Show" with David Letterman. It then came out that Casey Affleck was making a documentary about Phoenix. That's all well and good, but it turned out to be a joke he was playing with brother-in-law Affleck, and that rankled some. Part of it was the nature of not liking having a joke played on you, but also there was the fact that his antics hurt a wonderful little film he was supposed to be promoting called Two Lovers (directed by James Gray). Phoenix was nomination worthy in the role, but no one seemed to notice. Everyone was too busy wondering if he'd gone completely nuts.
Once that was revealed as a hoax, Phoenix slowly began to re-enter the business and scored the high profile lead in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. It was rumored he could be in line for an Academy Award nomination (which would be his third), and once we all saw the movie, that talked turned to if he was a forgone conclusion to win the Oscar or not. All seemed right with his image rehab, but that was short lived.
Then last October, during an interview with Elvis Mitchell, Phoenix seemed to brush off any interest in campaigning for an Oscar nomination. Here's what he said last year in the interview:
MITCHELL: So what are you going to do when they put you on the awards circuit for The Master?
PHOENIX: You're out of your mind, dude. You're out of touch with what has happened.
MITCHELL: I think we've established that you're the one who's out of his mind. [Phoenix laughs] You don't think that's going to happen?
PHOENIX: I'm just saying that I think it's bullshit. I think it's total, utter bullshit, and I don't want to be a part of it. I don't believe in it. It's a carrot, but it's the worst-tasting carrot I've ever tasted in my whole life. I don't want this carrot. It's totally subjective. Pitting people against each other... It's the stupidest thing in the whole world. It was one of the most uncomfortable periods of my life when Walk the Line was going through all the awards stuff and all that. I never want to have that experience again. I don't know how to explain it—and it's not like I'm in this place where I think I'm just above it—but I just don't ever want to get comfortable with that part of things.
Honestly, it shouldn't be a big deal that he didn't want to do the dance for voters, but Academy members
want need to be wooed, so this pretty much cost him any chance at winning. In fact, it was a minor triumph that he still managed to get a nod (full list of 2013 Academy Award nominations) over others who were more overtly playing the game. The question now is, where does that leave him this year with Spike Jonze's Her?
Well, as good as Joaquin Phoenix looks in the trailer, I think he'll likely wind up on the outside looking in when nominations come around. Like I mentioned earlier, Phoenix has a harder time than most, even though some of that in the past has just been bad luck. His first two Oscar nods came for more standard awards bait, though his chances at Best Supporting Actor for Gladiator came up short to Benecio del Toro in Traffic and his Best Actor candidacy for Walk the Line couldn't get past Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. Both times, he simply was up against the overwhelming favorite to win and had no chance at a victory. Here, his chances at a Her nomination are hurt partially because the film looks like a hard sell to voters and partially because there's no guarantee that he'll actually bother to campaign.
Here's a caveat I want to make that should make some of you feel a bit better about Phoenix and Her's awards prospects. Regardless of his choices in terms of a campaign, what it really comes down to is if the film is good or not. If you can believe filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, it's "one of the best films he's seen in some time". A really great movie builds its own buzz, be it at a film festival (Her does close out the New York Film Festival this year, after all) or just in the days and weeks leading up to its release when critics chime in. A beloved film can make its own case, so if that's the case here (which it may be), it may not matter who's doing the campaigning, since the movie itself will be doing the heavy lifting and culling support.
Going forward, I think if Phoenix decides to change course and woo voters he could stand a better chance at a surprise nomination, but more likely it'll just get him to a place where voters won't have a raised eyebrow when looking at him. There's no denying Phoenix's acting talent, it's just a matter of him learning to play nice. Once he does, it'll become likelier that one day voters will reward him with an Oscar. Essentially, the ball is very much in his court and I can't wait to see what he does this year. Thoughts on Joaquin?