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Phoenix rises: Ascending the A-list

He is officially on the A-list of actors, even though it’s clear he is more focused on the work itself and less on industry status.
/ Source: contributor

If you looked in the dictionary under the word “brooding,” conceivably you could be greeted by photos of a veritable cavalcade of American actors. The late Marlon Brando may have been the Baron of Brood, but many others followed in a reverent march to honor the darker edges of naturalistic acting.

Joaquin Phoenix is one of the most notable practitioners in recent film history. Known initially as the younger brother of the late River Phoenix, who died at age 23 of drug-induced heart failure, Joaquin Phoenix has gradually established a place as one of the most accomplished and sought-after talents in Hollywood.

He’s been nominated twice for Academy Awards, in 2001 for his supporting role in “Gladiator” and again last year for his lead role in the Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk The Line.” Currently he can be seen in “We Own the Night,” a crime melodrama that also stars Mark Wahlberg. And soon he will appear in the Terry George-directed family drama, “Reservation Road” opposite Mark Ruffalo.

But to narrowly describe Phoenix’s acting with the aforementioned “b” word is to unfairly pigeonhole a risk-taking thespian who grows more as an artist with each new project. Phoenix’s star may not shine as brightly as Leonardo DiCaprio’s or Johnny Depp’s, and he has some catching up to do with Sean Penn in terms of Academy recognition (Penn has been nominated four times, winning once).

Yet, he is entering that stage of his career in which the scripts that come across his desk become more interesting, and the directors who call are more influential. He is officially on the A-list of actors, even though it’s clear he is more focused on the work itself and less on industry status.

Here is a look at five films in which Joaquin Phoenix has given outstanding performances. This list illustrates not only his skill and star power, but his extensive range. He is an actor’s actor, which means that amid the brooding there very well could be true genius:

“Walk the Line”This is the role Phoenix is best known for, although with his ascending career that could change at any moment. While it seems tailor-made for him, it was also somewhat of a gamble. Johnny Cash is one of the most beloved figures in popular music, with a particularly ardent following. If the James Mangold-directed project had been manipulative in any way, Phoenix would have been tarred and feathered by association. And if Phoenix had not nailed Cash with reverence and integrity — this was a project that was years in the making and needed the blessing of Cash and his family to move forward — it would have been a disaster. Instead, Phoenix pulled off an uncanny performance, exuding Cash both musically and personally. Although the film itself did fall into a predictable pattern common to biopics, it was far better than most. And Phoenix met a difficult challenge under pressure.

“Gladiator”Certain pictures polarize audiences. “The English Patient” was a notable example, skewered famously in a “Seinfeld” episode. “Gladiator” was another. Many thought it reeked of phony prestige and was garishly executed. Others took it for what it was: a relatively intelligent action movie. But generally speaking, Phoenix received positive reaction to his turn as Commodus, an insecure weakling of a Roman ruler masquerading as a great warrior, whose life is one long Machiavellian plot and who also happens to be uncomfortably close to his own sister. As the villain opposite Russell Crowe’s Maximus, Phoenix needed to be forcefully evil without being over the top. He accomplished that with slimy scheming, direct confrontations with Maximus and creepy moments with sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). The role demanded someone who could radiate unbridled ambition, and Phoenix pulled it off admirably.

“To Die For”This forgotten little 1995 gem, adapted by Buck Henry and directed by Gus Van Sant, was a brilliant dark comedy about a ruthless woman (Nicole Kidman) who won’t let anything stand in the way of success as a TV newswoman. To reach her goals, she hires three teenagers, about whom she is filming a documentary for a local station, to bump off her boring husband (Matt Dillon). Phoenix plays the kid under her sway who is hopelessly infatuated by her beauty and sexual charms. He is wonderfully inept and naïve; Phoenix shows glimpses of the well-rounded actor he has evolved into during the intervening years. The picture, which exaggerates — but not too much — the craving for fame that is ubiquitous on today’s reality show landscape, also is worth seeing for some supporting turns by Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas and Wayne (“Helloooo, Newman”) Knight.

“Buffalo Soldiers”Set in 1989 in Germany while the Berlin Wall is coming down, this is Phoenix in another black comedy about a soldier sent to the Army as an alternative to prison. He bides his time by working as the company clerk and selling drugs and other black-market products, like missile launchers. It satirizes the military in much the same way that “Catch-22” and “M*A*S*H” did in their times. The problem here is that “Buffalo Soldiers” came out right around 9/11, so the film’s themes suffered from incredibly bad timing. But Phoenix does a commendable job of transforming a character who is otherwise unlikeable, making him fascinating by the sheer magnitude of his bad behavior. Besides working as base hustler, he also sleeps with the wife of his colonel and the daughter of a new sergeant. Phoenix played evil before, in “Gladiator.” This time he plays scoundrel, and to great effect.

“The Yards”Before “We Own the Night,” director James Gray had the occasion to pair both Phoenix and Mark Walhberg in another gritty crime melodrama called “The Yards” set in working-class Queens. Like his latest, “The Yards” also garnered a strong mixed reception. It broke along party lines of those who enjoy being beaten with a cinematic crowbar, and those who don’t. It’s sort of a Greek tragedy covered with grease and dirt. But Phoenix shines anyway in “The Yards” as Willie, the bad-seed friend with the ravishing girlfriend (Charlize Theron) who greets Wahlberg’s Leo after the latter is sprung from prison and helps him along. As Willie, Phoenix manages to bring dimension to a character that otherwise might come off as one-note lug. Although Willie is tragically flawed, Phoenix makes sure he doesn’t overplay the fact. Watching “The Yards” and then comparing Phoenix’s performance in it to the new “We Own the Night” might just serve as a lesson both in consistency and growth for an actor.