On Oct. 27, 2008 Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was retiring from acting in order to pursue a career in music. It was a shocking proclamation from the 34-year-old, two-time Oscar nominee, but that was only the beginning. It soon came out that Phoenix, whose musical background included a Grammy Award for his portrayal of Johnny Cash in the 2005 film “Walk the Line,” had his sights set on making it as a rapper.
In mid-January, Phoenix debuted some of his material at a performance in Las Vegas. The show was a total disaster from the start and it ended when Phoenix fell off of the stage. He blamed the incident on the fact that his assistant was sick, leaving Phoenix to set up the whole show by himself.
Following this incident, rumors began to circulate that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by both Phoenix and his friend and brother-in-law: Casey Affleck, who was directing a documentary chronicling Phoenix’s transition from movie star to hip-hop icon.
Everything came to a head on Feb. 11 when Phoenix made an appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” to promote his next and allegedly last film: “Two Lovers.”
Phoenix came onstage, looking less like a Hollywood leading man and more like a mountain man, with a full beard and long messy hair.
He also wore a pair of dark sunglasses and chewed gum throughout the ten minute plus interview with Letterman.
Phoenix seemed detached, often giving only one word answers to Letterman’s questions, staring off into space and smiling awkwardly to himself.
He announced that he hadn’t seen “Two Lovers” (a film that Letterman heaped praise upon). He has since announced that he has also not seen “Gladiator,” the film for which he earned his first Oscar nomination.
He even criticized the audience during the interview, accusing them of being on drugs after several chuckles were heard when he spoke about his future in hip hop.
At one point Letterman asked Phoenix what clip from the film they were about to see, causing band leader Paul Shaeffer to laugh loudly, which angered Phoenix, who went on to say he had no idea what the clip was. Letterman then poked fun at the fact that Phoenix had spent most of the interview sitting quietly, chewing gum. This comment also angered Phoenix, who proceeded to spit out the gum and stick it under Letterman’s desk.
The two went back and forth for several more minutes before Letterman ended the interview with a line that will surely go down in TV history, saying “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”
The interview has created an internet sensation, garnering more then two million views on youtube.com since it was posted.
The debate has raged since the Letterman appearance over whether Phoenix is on drugs, suffering from some sort of mental illness or simply pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes a la the legendary Andy Kauffman, or more recently Sacha Baron Cohen’s turn as “Borat.”
Kauffman, best known for his portrayal of Latka on the hit sitcom “Taxi,” was infamous for his performance art comedic pranks. One of Kauffman’s favorite things to do was to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” to audiences who demanded him to perform on stage as Latka. He would continue reading, even as audience members shouted at him and got up and left.
Often times he would ask whether or not the audience wanted him to continue reading or if they would prefer to hear a record.
If they chose the record, Kauffman would then play them a recording of himself reading “The Great Gatsby” from the point where he had just left off.
Cohen, on the other hand, used his “Borat” character to trick people into displaying their prejudices without fear of repercussion.
Even Borat, however, is simply just a take on Kauffman’s “Foreign man” character, which eventually morphed into Latka.
Whether or not Phoenix’s recent behavior is just another example of performance art remains to be seen, though evidence seems to be mounting in favor of this theory.
There are two moments during the infamous Letterman interview where Phoenix seems to drop character, albeit momentarily.
The first occurs after he sticks his gum under Letterman’s desk.
Right as Letterman throws to a clip of “Two Lovers,” Phoenix reaches back under the desk and pulls the gum off, holding it in his hand. It’s a brief moment but if Phoenix really were on drugs or delusional, it would seem unlikely that he would take the time to remedy his bad behavior from moments earlier.
Later, just after Letterman ends the interview, Phoenix stands up and turns to walk off stage.
Before he does, however, he turns back to Letterman, removes his sunglasses and shakes hands with the host. This seems important because Phoenix kept the glasses on the whole time, and has rarely been seen without them in recent months.
Another tell seems to be the involvement of Affleck, who has been interviewing reporters after they have gotten a chance to interview Phoenix.
According to a recent report on msn.com, one reporter was asked if they thought that any publicity counted as good publicity. When the reporter responded that they didn’t, Affleck seemed noticeably disappointed.
Whether or not Phoenix and Affleck are setting us all up for a “Borat” inspired “mock-umentary,” with the media taking the place of drunken college students, remains to be seen.
Hopefully that is the case because the alternative is too depressing to even think about. Especially so close to the untimely passing of another supremely talented young actor (“The Dark Knight” star Heath Ledger) due to a drug overdose.
Let’s just cross our fingers that in six months or so, Phoenix shows up at the premiere of his documentary, puts his arms around Affleck and Letterman, and the three laugh heartily at how they managed to put one over on us all. And we can laugh too, because it really was a good gag, even though the joke turned out to be on us all along.
Colin McGlinchey is a fourth-year student majoring in English with a minor in Journalism. He can be reached at CM646588@wcupa.edu.